Making money in a poker game isn’t necessarily about being better than every opponent in every situation. The dynamics just don’t work that way. You can beat a player who beats a player who beats you. The complexity of the game, and different styles and skill sets, allows for a losing player to sometimes have an advantage over a big winner.
The way to make money is to be a step ahead. You don’t even need to be a step ahead of your opponent, you just need to be a step ahead of where they think you are. I know this can get complicated, so let me give you an example.
I was playing $2/5 no-limit holdem at The Wynn a few years ago, running over the table, running good, and generally terrifying my opponents. I felt good, perhaps overconfident, but it was working. The table was soft, and I was a step ahead of everybody. At least I thought I was.
The German kid
A young German kid sat down a few seats to my right and I could tell right away that he was a fairly educated player, probably an online grinder. He made some money from the rest of the table for an hour and refused to play a big pot with me, even directly telling me that he didn’t want to play a big pot with the only other big stack at the table who was a good player.
I bluffed him out of the few pots we played, and he looked nervous about playing big pots, like the $1,300 in his stack was a lot of money for him. I had about $2,000 in my stack when he raised to $20 pre-flop from middle position and I re-raised to $65 from the button with a pair of fours. He called and we saw a flop, where I figured I could knock him off the hand if he didn’t hit the flop hard.
The flop was #3h#5s#7d, a pretty good flop for my hand. With a pair and an inside straight draw, and no big cards on the board, I felt really good about my hand even if I hadn’t known that the German kid was worried about playing big pots with me. He was first to act and bet $75, which surprised me a little bit. I assumed that it meant 88, 99, TT or JJ and he was trying to figure out where he stood.
I raised to $235, hoping he would just throw his hand away because he couldn’t beat any real hand and I was indicating that I had a real hand. The pot was also about to be big enough that his whole stack would be at risk by the river. If I had a real hand, it had to be a set or a bigger over pair and he was drawing thin against that entire range, so I expected him to fold.
I know he’s folding…
He looked very unhappy doing it, but he called. I could see that he didn’t like the spot he was in and that he was uncomfortable with how big the pot was getting. A shot on the turn should be enough to convince him that I really had it and get him to muck his hand and cut his losses. The turn paired the trey, a perfect card for me to continue to represent my monster hand. The pot was around $600, so I bet $450 to put enough force behind my bet that he had to fold. He again looked very unhappy, thought for a long time, and called.
Now I had to wonder what he was doing. I knew I wasn’t putting any more money in the pot, because a strong player is not putting that much money in the pot and then folding the river very often. The river was a meaningless jack, and when checked to me I checked it right back.
“I thought you might have a bigger set,” he said, looking sheepish as he rolled over pocket fives for a full house. And I knew I had been outplayed. This kid wasn’t making as much money as I was from the rest of the table, but he had won a nice pot from me by taking advantage of the table image he had built.
His table image, along with the way he played the hand and how well he faked his trepidation about the size of the pot, made him $700. If I had seen him as a typical solid and aggressive player, which he turned out to be, I would have called his raise pre-flop and maybe given him $100 after the flop at the most. I made more money than he did that day, but he definitely made money from me. I was miles ahead of the rest of the table, but he was a step ahead of where I thought he was. Well-played kid, well-played.
It applies everywhere
This concept also applies to playing against players who are much weaker than you are. In many games where the standard play is to lead out with a turned or rivered flush, you can lead out and steal the pot when a flush comes in, but only if your opponent believes that you are a typical player who will only make that play if you have the flush.
Letting your opponents believe something that is not accurate about you can put you a step ahead of them, though it can be tough to keep encouraging people to believe that you are a weak player. Even the most cold-hearted among us still craves respect on occasion, and convincing a whole table of your peers that you are a fish can be tough to keep up from a psychological perspective. I say it can be tough, but remember that it is also very profitable because if they think you are a fish, you are always a step ahead.