Identifying Player Image

In poker, information is power.  The more information you have, the more you can adjust your strategy to combat your opponents’ moves.  Information is collected at both the micro level (within the hand) and the macro level (across a history of hands).  In this article, we’ll explore the concept of player image or table image, which is essentially how you view a player’s tendencies on the macro level given all the information you have collected on them over the long-term.  We’ll also explore how you create and modify your own table image.

Poker Players are Animals

In his book Play Poker Like the Pros from 2003, Phil Hellmuth uses various animals to classify players and their table image.  The mouse is someone that plays and bets with only the most premium of hands, otherwise folds, and never bluffs.  The elephant is a calling station, essentially playing with a wide range of opening hands and then calling down whenever they connect with a flop.  The jackal is a maniac, who bets aggressively with any two cards, playing many more hands than would be mathematically profitable.  The lion is Hellmuth’s recommended style, playing a relatively narrow range of premium hands, while mixing in the occasional bluff or speculative hand.  And lastly, the eagle is an experienced poker pro with all the tools and skills that will swoop in and take all your money, who you therefore need to play carefully against.

The nice thing about using animal images to describe players is that to many people, these images are easy to remember and picture while sitting at the table.  But another way to think about player image is to use a four-box grid to describe the various player types.  One axis considers “tight” players versus “loose” players, while the other axis of the grid considers “aggressive” bettors versus “passive” bettors.  The matrix looks like this:

The two types of players that are most likely to be winning players are TAG and LAG style players.  You will also encounter the passive players, and when you identify them, you will want to take full advantage of them by exploiting their passiveness.

TAG You’re It

Tight aggressive players are among the most common players.  This is likely because it is a winning strategy, and these players have managed to survive and profit at the game long enough to want  to keep playing.  TAG players essentially play only premium hands, and rarely deviate to weaker hands.  One nuance is that strong TAG players will tighten their range in early position and open their range a bit in later position.  Generally speaking, you’ll be able to identify these players because they almost always have a top pair or better hand by showdown, and their hole cards are often two high cards, pocket pairs, or suited connectors.

So how do you counter this strategy?  Generally a TAG player does not bluff enough hands.  Sometimes they will bluff based on their position advantage, or as a semi-bluff when they have an open-ended straight draw or flush draw.  But often if a TAG is betting, they are betting with a good hand that they want to get called with.  Additionally, if a TAG is not betting, they are generally not strong.  You can often put pressure on a TAG player by raising or check-raising to make them think you have a very strong hand that can beat their top-pair hand.  However, some TAGs are sticky (will call down big bets) and you need to be careful.  Take note of how sticky a TAG is in other hands, and consider if your bluffs will work or will be called down.

Bottom Line: When you see a TAG, counter with your own TAG strategy, and counter with well-timed big size bluffs on connected boards with straight and flush possibilities.

Getting Crazy with LAGs

Loose aggressive players are a little less common than TAGs, but you’ll still encounter them often.  This is because it is a winning strategy when it is done right, and these players have learned through trial and error how loose they can be and how to size their aggression for it to work.  LAG players will play a wide variety of hands regardless of position, and they will often bet bottom/middle pair hands, all draws, and possibly even high card hands depending on the board.  You’ll be able to identify these players because they play almost every hand and win a large number of the pots they play because they induce folds.  You’ll also often see them muck their losing cards at showdown to hide how broad their range of starting hands is.

To counter this strategy, you will want to tighten up your starting hands to be only the top ~10% of hands based on strength – think A-K thru A-J, and maybe suited A-T, along with the best pocket pairs of 8s or better. Post-flop, you should be willing to call down a little lighter than normal, as long as you hit top pair or middle pair.  It is hard to put betting pressure on a LAG via a raise, because they will either call you down or increase the pressure with a raise of their own.  But when you catch them being too aggressive by betting with a very weak hand, they will have to fold.  Therefore, use whatever tells or player reads you have in your toolkit to see if you can detect a LAG betting very weak, then make them pay with a well-timed raise.

Bottom Line: When you see a LAG, counter with tight play, call down a little looser after the flop, and occasionally see if you can spring a trap on a weak hand that they bet too strongly.

Passive Players – Always Go for the Kill

We will lump passive players together and talk about how to exploit them.  You will sometimes encounter calling stations (tight-passive) because for short periods of time, they can get lucky and build a bankroll.  However, this is not a winning strategy over the long-term, so they should eventually stop playing if they can’t change.  You can exploit calling stations by tightening your range and waiting for a strong hand.  Since they always call, you can make more money off them by betting bigger when you hit your strong hand.  These types of players usually won’t pick up on the fact that you are betting bigger when you play against them.  You will also want to eliminate bluffs from your play when facing a calling station – because they will always call you down and win the pot.

You will rarely come across loose-passive players at your table.  This is because players that play this way lose just about every hand they play.  They play weak hands and they have no idea how to time their bluffs so that they’re profitable.  If you do find a loose-passive player, pray to get a strong hand quickly, because they won’t be sitting at the table long.  You will want to get as much of their stack as possible before they give it away to someone else at the table.  But keep in mind, everyone else at the table will see this player too, and will be going after them hard.  Therefore you can’t loosen your range too wide, or else you will be losing your stack to the other players in the process.

Bottom Line: When you encounter a calling station, tighten your range, increase your betting sizes, and never bluff.  When you find a loose-passive player, slightly open your range and hope to hit strong hands quickly, before the player loses all their chips to someone else.

Be a Chameleon

Up to this point, we’ve talked about how to identify and exploit other players based on their table image.  But keep in mind, other players are also observing you and forming their own opinion of your table image.  Once they identify what type of player you are, they will begin to target your playing style using the same exploits discussed above.

In order to counter this issue, you ideally want to be able to change your playing style so that others cannot identify which type of player you are.  Mostly you will need to adjust your playing style within a single poker session to keep your opponents on their toes.  But if you play with a group of regulars who get to know your style of play, it also works to modify your playing style each session.  For example, one night you may come in and play TAG, then the next night you may come in and play LAG.  You’ll need to spend some time away from the table thinking about what style you will adopt for your upcoming session so that while at the table, you can execute your planned strategy.

If you are changing your playing style during the same session, you will need to identify signals that can tell you when to make the switch.  If you are playing a TAG style, and you find yourself getting folded to almost every time you bet a good hand, then your opponents have identified your table image and are beginning to exploit you.  When you see this happen enough times, this is a great moment to change your strategy.  Conversely, if you are playing LAG and start getting called down too often, your opponents are on to you – time to make the switch.

Changing your playing style to something different than your perceived table image is not easy.  Most players have a preferred way they play the game based on their personality, and thus they have a player image that is identifiable by their opponents.  These playing tendencies are difficult to deviate from, so the best way to modify your playing style is through practice.  If you generally find yourself playing tight, try playing loose for a session and see how it goes.  You will likely lose chips at first.  But the more you practice, you will start to time your aggression to make the strategy more profitable.  If you generally play passive – first of all, stop doing that altogether!  But if you tend toward passiveness, try being more aggressive with your betting strategy to play different than your table image.

A Winning Strategy

Many pros will tell you that a winning strategy is to start your sessions with an extreme LAG approach, and then switch to TAG.  This strategy assumes that you are sitting at a table with players you have never played with before, and therefore they have no player image already built for you.  Extreme LAG is the most noticeable play style because players are generally tight.  When you play the first few rings of your session with a LAG approach, players immediately notice you’re a maniac and engrain this image in their mind.  When you switch to TAG, they hold onto this idea that you are wild, and will therefore call you down and pay off your strong hands before they realize you switched strategies.  The next time you are playing away from a game full of regulars, give this strategy a try and see if it works for you.

Closing Thoughts

Identifying table image is an easy concept that can wind up being very tricky to implement.  You want to adopt a comfortable playing style, because it will be your natural winning strategy.  But once your table image is discovered, you have to be willing to change it.  Meanwhile, you want to be identifying your opponents’ table images, and you hope that they keep their playing style static so that you can begin to exploit them.  Poker is often a game of constant deception mixed with truth, so tread carefully.  Using table image can help you sidestep the pitfalls while giving you the weapons you need to exploit your opponents and make more of your sessions profitable.

See you on the felt!