Table Image, Presence and Awareness
Your table image, presence, and awareness are going to be some of the less obvious factors that help to determine your ability to win. A lot of players tend to discount the "intangible" elements of skill in poker, and each of these three areas would fall into that category. Your goal as a poker player should always be as deceptive as possible. If you play exceptionally tight, you should want everyone to think that you are as loose as it gets. Likewise, a loose player should give off the perception of tight play. Poker isn't a game where the actual truth matters if no one knows what it is. You need to cater your actual playing style to the way that everyone else thinks you can play.
How you play at the table isn't everything. You should also be working to pick up an accurate feel for the way that your opponents are playing as well. Just like you, a lot of smart players are going to be trying to throw you off their track. They want to confuse you and pull you into a mistake for your stack. In most cases, provided enough hands are played, however, you'll be able to figure out how someone actually plays. In live poker especially, most players really aren't going to do that good of a job in hiding their true colors. If you can get past a thin layer of acting, the odds are that you will hold the key to picking apart their strategy.
Table image is how everyone else thinks of you. If you sat down at a table and have played 50 hands with 20 open raises, you'll know that the table thinks you are very loose. Does this mean you are actually loose? No. Can it mean that you are actually loose? Yes. You see, table image isn't something that's going to remain static over time. If you are a tight player and happen to catch a hot run of cards, you'll be able to effectively give off the image that you are actually very loose. The key to a ploy like this working is that you aren't showing down too many hands, and, in fact, this could actually backfire on you.
If you are showing down a lot of hands but almost always having the winner, players are going to think you are tighter than ever. Your opponents will usually be very results oriented. If you play 30/50 hands and don't showdown any of them, they are going to assume you are loose. If you play that same amount of hands and showdown 15, but always have a big hand, they will peg you as super tight but running hot. Your goal is to determine not how you are actually playing, but instead how your opponents think that you are actually playing.
Table presence will determine what you can and can't get away with in a game. Table presence and table image aren't quite the same thing, but they do work in conjunction with one another. Table presence is going to play off of your table image. Once you know how other players perceive you, it's going to be easier to determine what types of moves you are able to get away with.
Using the scenario above where you are playing a lot of hands but always showing down strength, you'll be able to widen your open ranges. Since everyone thinks that you have a big hand each time that you are involved in a pot, you'll be able to make raises and fire continuation bets with a high rate of success. The risky element to this is that you will be outed once you are caught.
To help keep other players in the dark, a good game plan in this situation would be to agonize over that first decision where you get caught making a move. If you fire a continuation bet with nothing on the flop and get raised, think for a second and communicate what a tough decision you have. Providing you have even moderate acting skills, a lot of players will assume that you are even more of a nit and that you really folded a strong hand.
Table presence is going to allow you to take advantage of your opponents in many different ways. It could mean going for massive value with made hands, picking off pots with nothing, or a combination of the two. The most vital thing to remember is that table image is useless if you aren't going to pair it with your ability to create a presence.
Table awareness is how much of a beat you have on how your opponents are playing. Picking up on how someone really plays can be one of the biggest challenges that you face at a new table, be it online or offline. If you have only seen a small sample of hands, it will be very easy to get the wrong idea. In fact, this is what you'll most benefit from in the examples above under table image and table presence. There are, however, some things that you can do to pick apart someone's true playing style without too much effort.
If you are in a live game where players seem to be somewhat acquainted with each other, you should be able to use context clues. Table talk can be very beneficial in this situation. If players are discussing previous hands, do your best to take note. Is this going to be the most reliable information? No, but that doesn't mean it won't be useful. If you are playing online poker, you should be using your HUD stats to get an early read on how someone plays. You should be more dependent upon this information once you have a more significant amount of hands, but some information is better than none.
As you get familiar with a table and get a solid amount of hands in with the same general group of players, it's up to your natural poker skills to analyze playing styles. Eventually you'll have most of the information that you can reasonably hope to obtain, and it will be up to you to put the pieces of the puzzle together for your own use.
Author: Jonathan Wanchalk
Updated: March 2015
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