The beauty of playing poker is that the outcome of a poker game isn’t dictated solely by chance. Although probability does play a part, the fascination of poker surrounds the importance of psychology and strategy, which cements it as a skill-based card game.
On the psychology side, consistency is key at the poker tables. A default table image is needed to ensure you’re not easy for opponents to read, both in terms of your plays at the table and your body language. A ‘poker face’ is exactly that, a consistent, default expression which gives zero information to your opponents about the strength or weakness of your hands.
Some of the world’s best poker pros today, like Stephen Chidwick and Phil Ivey, are famed for their ice-cold demeanour, with a rock-solid poker face that never wanes as they’re able to keep their emotions in check.
The role of emotion in poker
The best poker players have sound psychological habits. They are emotionally stable. They’re of the mindset that losses will happen and are part and parcel of playing the game. There is nothing worse than going on tilt. Being tilted by an opponent hitting that two-outer is one of the fastest ways to lose more money during a session.
You must play the long game. Take the bad beats on the chin and continue making the best possible decisions with probability and pot odds on your side. Acceptance of bad beats comes down to embracing the maths of poker. There are very few scenarios on a flop or turn where you can have an opponent drawing completely dead. Sometimes those 5% underdogs have their day.
Ultimately, when it comes to cultivating a table image, if you’re mentally durable, your poker face should be the same whether you win or lose a big pot.
The importance of a poker face
When you strip it back, poker is a game played using partial information. Your hole cards and those of your opponents are rarely shown to the table.
Consequently, to win pots with or without a showdown, we need to make rational decisions about the strength or weakness of opponents’ poker hands. Body language and facial expressions are some of the most subtle pieces of information a poker player can glean from an opponent. Having a stock poker face is an important weapon in your poker arsenal to prevent opponents from piecing together information and joining the dots.
We’ve already mentioned Phil Ivey, but this poker legend is a prime example of someone whose poker face has been at the heart of his playing style. His infamous glare is one of the most iconic poker faces the game has ever seen. It’s also made Ivey an incredibly hard player to read. His unbreakable poker face has helped him to ten World Series of Poker (WSOP) bracelets and a WSOP Main Event final table.
How to maintain a good poker face
One of the biggest keys to maintaining your poker face for long, gruelling sessions of cash games or tournaments is understanding and controlling it.
If you’re mindful that you’re more animated when you have strong hole cards, do your best to display the same poker face that you would with weak hole cards. It stops you from becoming easy to read and creates an air of uncertainty which you can take advantage of when you have the nuts.
There’s a saying that “the eyes have it”, and it’s very relevant when it comes to maintaining your poker face. Think about where you look with your eyes. Do you stare down your opponents when you’re desperate for them to fold? Do you avoid eye contact when you have the nuts? Be consistent with where you look, regardless of your hand strength, to keep players guessing.
The limitations and risks of a poker face
There are limitations to what a poker face can do for you, though. Unless you have obvious, uncontrollable tells, most of the time, your opponents won’t be able to read your weakness or strength just by looking at you. This means there’s much more to winning at the poker tables than just having a rock-solid poker face.
The danger of focusing too heavily on how you’re perceived is that you overlook how your opponents appear. You could be so focused on your own demeanour that you miss an opponent’s tell for strength or weakness.
Ultimately, being a successful poker player requires a balanced poker strategy. Although you need to focus on your appearance, you also need to be hot on everything else. Whether it’s defending your blinds, pushing opponents to decisions from the button, calling light in early position or mastering your check-raises.
On balance, the poker face meaning covers your appearance and general persona at the tables. Whether it’s where you look, what you do with your hands or legs or even what you say, these facets all combine to create a consistent table image.
Honing your optimal poker face doesn’t just happen overnight, especially if you’re inexperienced playing live poker. It comes with experience as you grow in confidence in your strategy at the limits you play.
What are your experiences with physical tells at the poker tables? Have you found it hard to maintain a poker face when you’re in good shape? Or perhaps you’ve found it harder when you’re in bad shape and attempting to bluff an opponent off their hand? Let us know your thoughts on the value of using a poker face at the tables. If you’re keen to explore various ways of improving your long-term profitability at the poker tables, check out our strategy guides on bankroll management and mastering pot odds