I know this discussion will be controversial. But there’s undoubtedly information you can get by observing how a player looks. When I’ve seen discourse on this topic, it usually comes with a raft of racial, gender, and age-based stereotypes. According to my personal experience, there’s some truth to some of those stereotypes. But as poker has evolved over the past decade, these stereotypes are less and less true. So I’ll spare you the stereotypes.
Nevertheless, I do factor a player’s appearance into my decision-making sometimes, so I would be remiss to avoid the topic entirely.
Generally, I consider a player’s appearance to answer a specific question. The most common situation is when an opponent 3- bets pre-flop. Many 2-5 players still use an antiquated reraising strategy pre-flop, where they tend to 3-bet only premium hands, or with the occasional and random bluff. Typically against this player type, I never want to 4-bet as a bluff, since they have a premium hand the vast majority of the time.
Other 2-5 players use a more modern approach to 3-betting. This approach was developed in online play and as a result, many of the players who use this strategy have a significant history playing online. The modern approach to 3-betting involves 3- betting premium hands, along with a set of “light” hands as bluffs (what some call “3-betting light”). How many hands to 3-bet light depends on the position of players in the hand. Against this player type, it’s critical to have a 4-betting strategy (including a 4- bet bluffing strategy) to correctly counter their 3-betting strategy.
Not many players are in between. Either they’re old school or not. Either I never want to 4-bet bluff them, or I want to use a fairly complete 4-bet strategy against them.
Let’s say I get 3-bet in a 2-5 game by someone I don’t know. I quickly need to answer the question, “Is this player old or new school?”
The first piece of information I use isn’t how they look, but rather the context of the play. What are the positions the initial raiser and the 3-bettor hold? An old-school player who only 3- bets premium hands tends to ignore position. After all, you’re equally likely to get J-J and A-K or better from any seat at the table.
Modern 3-bettors, however, will drastically widen their 3- betting frequency in certain scenarios. When the button opens with a blind steal, the modern 3-better will reraise frequently from either blind position. When the cutoff opens, the modern 3- bettor will often reraise from the button and also from the blinds.
Therefore, if you took a survey of every hand a modern 3- bettor reraised pre-flop, you’d see that most of these hands came from the blinds or the button.
For an old-school 3-bettor, this pattern would be less pronounced. They would still 3-bet from the button some of the time, but they’d be less likely to 3-bet from the blinds, and they’d also be less sensitive to position overall since more of their 3-bets would be with premium hands.
How does this help you arrive at a solid 4-betting strategy? Well, if the 3-bet is in a “bread-and-butter” situation for a modern 3-bettor (the player is raising from the cutoff, button, or blinds), I’m more inclined to treat the player as new school. If the 3-bet is in a situation less common relative to the habits of the modern 3- bettor (a raise from almost any position), I’m more likely to think it’s an old-school player.
That’s when appearance comes in. In general—and I am of course generalizing—players with a modern strategy tend to be younger. Sometimes middle-aged men will play this modern strategy, but these men tend to be nerdy looking (for lack of a better term). There are always exceptions. Stay alert. Beware of sharp older players, especially women, who are well aware of these stereotypes and expectations and turn them on their head.
It’s also not fair to assume because someone is young they’ll play modern. I’m looking for evidence the player has significant experience in online cash games. A telltale sign is when a young player dresses down and has lots of money.
In Las Vegas, there’s a player around 25. He wears a hooded sweatshirt, ragged jeans, and flip-flops nearly every day. He carries a Jansport backpack (the kind I used for books in elementary school). And his game is 5-10 and higher, pulling fistfuls of $1,000 and $5,000 denomination chips for his buy-ins out of the front pouch of his ratty backpack.
This is not something you’d ever see outside a poker room. Young men usually don’t have thousands of dollars to their names, let alone casino chips in their backpacks. Wealthy (not from poker) young men tend to dress better, especially when they go to a casino. This peculiar appearance is a huge tell that the player played significant online poker.
Say I play the following hands. In each case, the opponent is a stranger at a 2-5 game. I know they’re in Las Vegas. And I know what they look like. That’s it.
Hand 1: I open for $15 from five off the button. The next player raises to $50. Everyone folds back to me.
This is not a bread-and-butter 3-betting situation. Both the reraiser and I are far out of position relative to the rest of the table. No matter what my opponent looks like, if this is my first encounter with the player, I would not 4-bet bluff.
Hand 2: I open for $15 from the cutoff. The button folds, and the small blind raises to $50. The big blind folds.
This is a situation (cutoff raise, small-blind reraise) where modern 3-bettors will make the play significantly more often than old-school players. This by itself doesn’t mean my opponent is a modern 3-bettor. But it’s a hint. I’ll look at the player’s physical appearance to figure it out.
If the player is an Asian woman in her 50s, I’ll likely assume (for now) she’s an old-school 3-bettor.
If the player is the 25-year-old with the big chips in his backpack, I’ll likely assume (for now) he’s a modern 3-bettor.
If the player is a 35-year-old male wearing a suit and a lanyard for a convention of peanut farmers currently in town, I’ll likely assume he’s old school.
If the player is a 35-year-old male in sweats with a beard and glasses, I’ll probably start out assuming that he’s a modern 3- bettor, but I’ll be willing to revise that read. If I play the hand and get shown A-A, and I don’t see him 3-bet for another six hours, it will swing me toward considering this player more an old-school 3-bettor next time around.
In the simplest terms, this is how I use physical appearance to inform my decisions. I’m not trading very often on racial or gender stereotypes. And remember, this is just me. You’re welcome to develop your own visual strategies. More typically, I’m trying to gauge the type of experience the player may have had (i.e., online, live card room, home games, small stakes, higher stakes, etc.). I use this to inform my read as to how a given player will approach certain situations.
Most importantly, as I gain more information, I change my assumptions constantly since table and betting behaviors are more important that looks.