02/08/2006 1:00AM

Playing the fool just may outwit smart money


Any time you sit down and join an ongoing poker game, live or online, all eyes are upon you. You are The New Guy, an unknown quantity to be observed and assessed as quickly as possible. As the old saying goes, just because you're paranoid doesn't mean that they're not all out to get you.

They are, at least the good players are. Maybe you're the guy they've been praying for all night, the inebriated tourist with an endless bankroll who raises almost every hand with nothing. Maybe you're the next-tastiest fish on the menu, the loose caller who always chases for a while but caves in the face of a strong bet unless he has the nuts. Or perhaps you're a different creature entirely, the rock who is willing to sit there for hours and play only the one time every 110.5 hands he is dealt AA or KK.

You can do one of two things as The New Guy. You could let your true self shine through and let the other players judge you on your normal play. Alternately, you could make a strategic choice as to which kind of player you would like your opponents to believe that you are, and act accordingly. Who would you like the table to think you are: the drunk maniac, the loose caller, or the rock?

It's cumbersome and risky to impersonate the maniac. Assuming you're not actually drunk, you would have to pretend that you are and stage a whole elaborate theatrical production. You would have to play badly and put all your chips at risk, and the table has been waiting all night to skin someone like that. Nor does it do you a lot of good to be tabbed as a rock. You can steal a few antes, but you're not going to get any action or play for many big pots.

It is completely within the spirit of the game to play differently early in the session with small bets than you will later on for a big pot, which is all that is required to establish yourself as a loose player. For example, you might routinely pay to see the flop with marginal cards early in your session if there's no serious pre-flop raising. You'll be tabbed as someone who plays too many hands. You could do worse than to get to the showdown and reveal a weak starting hand like Q-9 or K-2. The good players at the table will make a mental note for future reference that you're a moron who calls and chases with K-2.

Now why would you want your opponents to hold this low opinion of you? Two good reasons: You will now get more action in front of you and more calls behind you when you subsequently tighten up and play your strong hands aggressively. The good players who miss their flops will bet at you, assuming there's a good chance you played with garbage like K-2 and can be bluffed out. (A raise in this spot will usually buy you the pot.) People will be likelier to call you, but by now, when you bet on the end it's because you have the best hand and want to be called by the second-best hand.

This might seem effective only in live games where the players are scrutinizing new players and their faces for tells and clues. It's just as important online, though, where regulars may well be taking extensive written notes on you, something they can't do in a live game. There is actually a small black market in buying databases of notes on online players.

There also is software that does the same thing, programs such as Texas Calculatem and Poker Sherlock. An advertisement for Poker Sherlock asks, "Ever wished you could keep track of all your opponent's playing habits and known hands while you play online poker? Well now you can. Poker Sherlock is your online poker room detective. . . . He displays all this information in simple, easy-to-read charts and graphs. He even alerts you to 'fish' or 'sharks' at the tables!"

I would rather be underestimated as a fish than avoided like a shark, and sometimes all that takes is leaving a small trail of red herrings.