A lot of players get so comfortable with their A-B-C games that they assume such a simple understanding of poker will allow them to keep winning as they move to higher and higher stakes. Unfortunately for them, as players get better, A-B-C makes less money. Unfortunately for us, A-B-C doesn’t lose much money either. I can recall a famous story of a guy who’s been grinding 200nl forever. He plays as straight-laced as possible—pure A-B-C. He makes a little bit of money from fish. He loses a little bit of money to regular players. In the long run he breaks even. His hypothesis? Luck is all that matters in poker, and the only ones who win are the ones who are consistently luckier. Meanwhile, all around him, people are flying up limits and strong players are winning huge amounts of money over large sample sizes of hands!
We don’t want to be that guy. So, obviously, in order to make money at higher stakes, A-B-C isn’t going to cut it. So what’s the answer? It’s called image.
Image is the manipulation of game environment to make our opponents make mistakes.
When someone is playing a tight, A-B-C game, the only way to make them make mistakes is put them in uncomfortable situations. Make them feel like they can’t play ABC any longer. It’s one thing if you 3- bet a player once every three orbits. But what if you start 3-betting him once every orbit? What if you show him Q5s after he folds? What if he calls you and you stack his JJ with your T4s? At a certain point, he’s going to leave his comfort zone and put himself in situations that confuse him. And that’s when we’ve got him.
Most people who play poker can recall times when a good run of cards has led our opponents into doing ridiculous, down-right stupid things. I can recall one particular time when I picked up KK, 3-bet a guy, and he folded. The very next hand, I picked up AK, so I 3-bet him again, and he folded. The very next hand, I picked up AA! I 3-bet him once more, and he shoved all in with K6s. I remember thinking to myself, “My image was so crazy, I made that happen!” Then I realized—the first two times, he folded. I could’ve had A6o or K5s! It didn’t matter whether I had two great hands or two lousy ones, the effect would’ve been the same—an agitated opponent who’s ready to make mistakes. My image this time was incidental; could I make it intentional in the future? I realized then that we can start building our image the moment we sit down at a table.
Once we realize the importance of image in more aggressive games, we need to further classify exactly how to create and manipulate image in order to avoid making mistakes. A common mistake would be to 3-bet T9s on the button; while 3-betting is certainly okay with any two cards for image, it is a shame to waste the strong post-flop value of playing T9s in position. Another misconception is that preflop is the only time we can really focus on image building.
In fact, there are two kinds of image:
- 1) Preflop Image: This refers to our ability to appear out of line before the flop. This may mean 3- betting loosely, 4-betting loosely, or simply open-raising loosely from time to time. Preflop image is the easiest to construct, as it occurs before the flop adds countless variables. People often respond poorly to preflop image by associating our loose preflop play with out-of-line postflop play. Another poor response would be assuming that, because our 3-bet range is wide, our 4-bet and 5-bet ranges are equally wide.
- 2) Postflop Image: This refers to our ability to play out of line after the flop. This may mean flop raising, check-raising, floating, and turn and river raising. Postflop image is more difficult to create, as board texture has a massive effect on our ability to bluff.* For example, an AAK board is very difficult to bluff, but an 876 board is very easy to bluff. People respond poorly to postflop image in a number of ways, including paying off check-raises too lightly, folding too often to flop raises, or reraising incorrectly against a polarized range.
In essence, image will be the backdrop of our strategy for beating difficult games. Our ability to show up with a wider range of hands in any given spot makes us more difficult to read. For example, when most players raise a Q♠7♠6♣ board, their range is limited to 77, 66, 76s, and some combo draws like 9♠8♠. When I raise that board, my range also includes those same sets, two pairs, and combo draws. However, it also includes AQ, KQ, KK+, the nut flush draw, and all kinds of pure bluffs like AJ, JT or 33. The fact that my range is so much wider than the average player’s makes me far more difficult to play against and causes many of my opponents to make mistakes against me. It’s going to be important to understand image in this context as we move on forward with the theory pieces that make up successful advanced poker.
*The biggest reason why postflop image is difficult to create is because we don’t get to showdown very often when we’re making a crazy bluff—he either folds and we muck (though I’d recommend showing somewhat often), or he doesn’t fold and we end up folding to later aggression. In this sense, running a river bluff (as discussed in previous chapters) and getting called isn’t so bad—our opponents are really likely to pay us off constantly from here on out.