Although I’ve been primarily an online player throughout my poker life, I’ve recently been getting my feet wet in the live game, and it’s really quite remarkable how different it the two can be. Of course, I’d done my homework, so I knew more or less what to expect going in, for instance that play was going to be more passive overall, with lots of multi-way limped pots, people calling with draws rather than semi-bluffing, and so forth. That said, each time I play a live tournament, I pick up something new, and the lesson learned from my most recent foray is just how important your table image can be.

The tournament

I’m fortunate to live in Montreal, home since 2010 to Playground Poker Club, one of the biggest card rooms you’re likely to find outside of traditional gambling destinations like Las Vegas. It’s actually located off the island of Montreal, in the Kahnawake Mohawk Territory, but it’s easy enough to get to that for practical purposes you can consider it part of the city. I get down there whenever I can for WPT side events and the like. This past weekend was one of their “Power Weekends,” essentially a mini tournament series; on Friday, they had a $330 Bounty tournament with what turned out to be a very deep structure for a one-day event. I ended up busting in 52nd of 202 and just getting that far took over seven hours; the tournament was expected to take at least twice that long to finish.

My table was all the way at the bottom of the breaking order, so although new faces kept appearing as players busted out, by the time I hit the rail there were still four of us left who’d been playing together ever since the first hand. Even with the slow pace of live poker, that means we’d played something like 200 hands together. It’s inevitable that we’d have reads on each other by that point, but the nature and strength of those reads was very different from what I’m used to online.

Online play is faceless, live play is personal

Online, very few players are really paying attention to you on an individual level, unless you’ve recently been involved in a large pot with them specifically. The pros are all multi-tabling, while the recreational players are likely doing other things while playing; people may be adjusting to your play somewhat, but if they’re doing so, it’s largely based on your HUD stats. When you play online, you’re just a chip stack to most people, or at most a screen name. When you play live, your opponents can’t help but see you as a person, and that means that even the least attentive opponent will have some sort of impression of you even before you’ve played a hand.

This particular tournament started 500 big blinds deep, which meant that I was really playing a long-ball game early on; there was little cause to go after small pots, so I was mostly playing speculative hands in position and hoping to cooler someone. Unfortunately, although I did smash a few flops in the early levels, those hands came at times when no one else had much, and then later on the deck grew cold on me. This meant that my stack ended up hovering around its initial size, and even four hours in I think I’d only shown down one hand – Ace-King with top pair. Additionally, between my opponents’ loose-passive preflop play and my desire to play in position, I hadn’t had many opportunities to open pots, as there were almost always people in before me when I decided to play a hand.

All of this meant that I appeared very tight, even nitty to the people who were paying attention. I knew that, of course, and took advantage of it whenever the opportunity presented itself, particularly against a sharp player to my immediate right, who I targeted with light 3-bets when he opened in late position, and later made a successful Ace-high hero call against. But it was a hand played against the next guy to his right which made me realize just how extreme my table image was, and that I had probably not been taking quite as much advantage of it as I could have.

A tale of two nits

It was about three hours in, with the blinds at 200/400 and most of us sitting at around 30,000 chips from a starting 25,000 – it was, as I said, a very deep structure. I was UTG+1 so the player in question was in the big blind, and I found myself holding pocket Tens, my best starting hand to that point. I opened for 1000 and it folded around up until the small blind, who called. The big blind thought for a moment and called as well. The flop came J84 with two clubs. The small blind checked and the big blind surprised me by leading out for a pot-sized bet.

I was perplexed, because based on my read, I strongly suspected that he would have check-called with a Jack. I also didn’t think he would bet out with a flush draw, however, so I really wasn’t sure what he could have. It didn’t smell like a bluff, but I couldn’t think of any likely value hands for him either. After tanking for a while, I decided to fold, mainly because I had no idea what my plan would be for the turn if I called. The small blind quickly folded as well, and the big blind asked me what I had.

I don’t normally respond to questions about my holdings, but in this case, I felt like I had more to gain than he did, because his line was so unusual and my hand was pretty typical for my position. I therefore asked if he’d show if I told him and he agreed. I told the truth, that I’d had Tens, and he showed me pocket Queens. He then explained that he thought my range was so strong that he was scared to 3-bet his Queens against me, but that he’d then regretted it on the flop, because he had no idea where he was at. His lead out was therefore “for information,” another thing that live players do a lot more than online players.

Lesson learned

This hand may not seem like anything special to someone used to the live game, but coming from an online background, the fact that I’d just managed to lose only two and a half big blinds with Tens versus Queens kind of blew me away. People might sometimes slowplay Queens online, but even if you’ve folded for five straight orbits, no one is ever going to just call one bet with them because they think they’re behind your range. Of course, here I was too, folding Tens to one bet on the flop with only a single overcard, so to some extent I really was playing tight. In any case, having shared that information only further solidified my image in his mind, and for the others at our end of the table who were listening. Needless to say, I ramped up my aggression after that point.

There were plenty of other learning opportunities in that tournament, but this was my biggest takeaway: that being aware of your image is of the utmost importance in live play. Online, assuming that people are paying attention to what you’re doing is often only going to get you in trouble, but live, people aren’t just adjusting; many of them are in fact over-adjusting. The potential to level your opponents is therefore huge, especially when they’re willing to tell you what they think of you.

Alex Weldon (@benefactumgames) is a freelance writer, game designer and semipro poker player from Montreal, Quebec, Canada.