PN Blog: Poker is Theatre
Question: In what popular game does the appearance of strength rival actual strength in affecting the outcome of competition?
Before I respond, I can state confidently from personal experience and observation that the illusion of strength quickly dissolves over a chess or scrabble board. Nor does swagger get you many free points on a tennis court. In most individual competitions, unless the rivals are evenly matched, the result can be anticipated with near certainty.
"Presenting an image is a way of staking out territory and defining pecking order."
You can understand a lot about tournament poker by familiarizing yourself with mathematical probabilities. That information can be enhanced with awareness of reads, relative stack size, table texture, etc. etc. The combined value of all the non-quantifiables produces the gap between people who play poker and people who PLAY poker.
Among the intangibles that might be undervalued by some players is table presence. For many, this may include meaningless commentary such as “I knew he had two overs” or some obvious and counterproductive remark about someone else’s decision. The majority of chatter shared in this fashion is either obvious or inaccurate, so it is easy to ignore.
Ten people who sit down together for the first time govern their behavior like any group of primates. Players are sized up according to their age, sex, size, voice, and other even less meaningful stuff. Presenting an image is a way of staking out territory and defining pecking order.
My personal techniques vary according to the group I’m sharing a table with. I can be talkative and playful if that seems appropriate, but a performance like that founders without the responsive intelligent feedback that encourages one to persist.
Poker is theatre, after all, and if I feel I can gain traction by seeming silent and cerebral, I can counterfeit that. My litmus question requires me to get more information than I give, which is easy for me since my conscious mind is a flitting papillon of random impulses.
One piece of advice relative to perceived strength that I shared with my girlfriend Danielle is to "dial it back". Learn to suppress the momentary elation of victory as thoroughly as you smother the pain of a disappointing loss. When I rise from a tournament table after a bad beat, I don’t criticize an opponent with a suck-out remark. Nor do I say "nice hand", which for me would be a snarky, redundant way of pretending to be gracious. I just leave.
The real satisfaction comes from my Oscar-worthy performance of indifference as I require a 50-to-1 shot to win a huge pot. Pulling a big pile of undeserved chips in while you chat with a neighbor about a sports team will inevitably vex some folks and infuriate others. If someone has the temerity to call me on such ingratitude, a snappy response almost always comes to me. (This is not intended to anger or further engage with an antagonist. It should confuse him while the other witnesses lower their heads in a private snicker).
"Poker is improv. What better arena to compete than one where your opposition is vexed or infuriated?"
Poker is improv. What better arena to compete than one where your opposition is vexed or infuriated? If people are less likely to call your bets, bet into you, bluff, bully your blinds or trap you, even by a small percentage, your table strength has added a couple of percentage points to your chances of ultimate success. You are similarly enriched by an opponent with a personal vendetta.
A last remark about the awesome quality of indifference; the range of emotions at a typical poker table may include such counterproductive functions as anxiety, bluster, and even outright hostility. Permitting such habits to contaminate one’s personality reduces the overall effectiveness of an otherwise nimble mind. Consider how much energy it requires to cultivate even a passive quality like contempt. Compared to the mildest expression of even the façade of negativity, indifference is the best bargain at the table.
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