The Benefits of an Aggressive Image by Scott Montgomery

One of the most important aspects of poker is establishing an individual image and using it to your advantage. By playing an extremely aggressive game, you’re likely to get paid off when you make a big hand because your opponents assume you have nothing; by consistently playing tight, you’ll get away with bluffs because they assume you’re strong. Either approach is fine, but it’s tremendously important to be aware of your table image so you can profit by playing against it.

Most of the time, players fall between these two extremes and that’s not a formula for success. One of the keys to succeeding in poker is consistently playing a different game than everyone else at the table. Developing a unique style and then varying your game allows you take advantage of opponents who don’t adjust their game.

Personally, I feel the style that works best is all-out aggression. One important reason for this is that it gives me a shot at becoming the chip leader and running away with the tournament. On the other hand, it can also lead to busting out early. For me, this is a risk worth taking; in the long run, I’m more interested in finishing tournaments in 1st place once in a while than just making the money most of the time.

Keep in mind that this type of aggression isn’t just a matter of bluffing to steal pots; my ultimate goal is to get paid off when I have a big hand. By getting involved in a lot of pots with mediocre hands while still keeping my stack close to even, I put myself in a position to profit from opponents who are convinced that I’m completely loose and taking shots with any two cards. I don’t have to be successful every time I bluff, just enough to stay alive and reinforce that wild image so that when I catch that hand, I’ll be sure to win a big pot.

Here’s a perfect illustration from Day Seven of the World Series of Poker Main Event – the day that determined who would reach the final table. I came into the day with about 4.5 million in chips, which was a little below the average. I knew that to make it to the final table and have a real shot at taking it down, I’d need about 15 million in chips. I had no intention of sneaking in short-stacked, so I knew I’d have to triple up over the course of the day.

I stayed pretty even throughout the whole day, except for two massive pots that were directly related. The first pot came early in the day, when I tried to bluff a player off a pot on the flop with nothing but Ace-high. I made this all-in move because I thought I could get the guy to fold. He ended up calling with top pair, but I spiked the Ace on the river to double up through him. I certainly got lucky there, but one other very important thing came out of it: I made the table aware that I wasn’t afraid to make a move for most or all of my stack.

Later in the day I was involved in a hand where I had the nuts – there were four spades on the board and I had the Ace of spades. My opponent had a smaller flush – with the nine of spades, I believe – but my image was so crazy that he called because he put me on another bluff. The earlier hand, when I pushed with the Ace-high, had to have been in the back of his mind. Poker players always want to call. They think: what hands can I possibly beat? This is magnified when you’re at a TV table, because no one wants to be that guy who laid down a good hand and lost a huge pot to a stone-cold bluff, especially when the whole nation is watching. Because of my loose image, I ended up winning an 18 million chip pot.

In a sense, it isn’t easy to play poker this aggressively. You have to be equipped to handle the emotional swings; you have to understand, deep down, that sometimes you’re going to lose huge pots – maybe even your whole stack – on a bluff. When it happens, you can’t collapse. You have to walk into the next tournament willing to make that same play again, because most of the time it will work. You can never be afraid at the table or preoccupied with the past. To play this aggressively, you have to believe that it’s the right way. If you can manage this, you’re going to be successful in the long run.

Scott Montgomery