Dara O’Kearney: Image Is Everything in Poker

  • George McKeever joined two other Irishmen on the final table of the WSOP Main Event in 1999
  • He flies under the radar, surviving with young players through his “friendly grandad” persona
  • McKeever even bested VSO News’ David Lappin by convincing him he had a bet sizing tell
  • The best players profit from stereotypes, winning by doing the opposite of what’s expected
Masked man holding playing cards
Irish poker pro Dara O’Kearney explains why image is important when playing professional poker. [Image: Shutterstock.com]

An Irish-filled final

In 1999, Irishman Noel Furlong became the first non-American to win the World Series of Poker (WSOP) Main Event. The final table was remarkable for the fact that it also featured two other Irishmen. One was Ireland’s most famous player, Padraig Parkinson. Parky may not have won the battle that day but he did win the war, as his hilarious table talk and presence transformed him into an instant media superstar at the dawn of the TV poker era.

At the dinner break at the Irish Open a few years ago, I asked my friend and fellow VegasSlotsOnline News writer David Lappin how he was getting on. He looked grumpy so I wasn’t expecting a cheerful report. He pointed despondently at a table behind us and said:

“That old lad George something just pwned me.”

A quick glance over my shoulder indicated that he was talking about George McKeever. Back in 1999, George was the third member of the Irish triad on that WSOP final table. It was also George’s third WSOP Main Event cash, so in some ways, he was the most experienced of the trio, even if he flew largely under the radar.

Playing blind

George is very good at flying under the radar. One of the first times I met him was at a side event at the first UK and Ireland Poker Tour Galway (an event won by the legend that is Parky). I idly asked George how he had gone in the Main Event. He explained he had made it through the bubble short and busted shortly after. I steeled myself for the inevitable “some young lad cracked my Aces with Six Two off” bad beat story. Instead, George told me how right on the bubble he got moved to the TV table. Clinging on with a short stack at a table full of aggressive online players with stacks,  it might have seemed that George’s prospects of survival were bleak. But as he told me with a twinkle in his eye, after assessing the table, he came up with a plan:

“So this aggressive young lad raises my big blind again, and another aggressive young buck reraises. I call in the big blind and they both look a bit suspicious. The flop comes down with three low cards, I check, the first lad bets, the second lad calls, and I shove all in.”

As he told me this, I thought how much I’d hate to have the bottom or middle set in one of their seats. They both folded looking disgusted. I asked George what his hand was. Aces? Top set?

“Oh, I have no idea. I had no reason to look at my cards so I never did.”

When I told Parky this story later he laughed and confirmed:

“That’s George. Everyone thinks of him as the friendly Grandad at the table but he’s been mugging us all for 30 years.”

A bet sizing tell

The hand that tilted David in the Irish Open started with George 2.5xing from late position. David is astute enough to watch how people play rather than just working from how they look like they should play. He had observed George mixing his raises between 3.5x and 2.5x. Every time he showed down a 3.5x it was a premium, AK or JJ plus. All the 2.5xs that got to showdown were A4s and J10s type holdings.

Convinced he had a bet sizing tell, David pounced on the open, three betting light on the button. Folded back to George, he quickly four-bet. After David folded under protest, George showed a hand he wasn’t supposed to have, AK.

As he raked in the chips, he looked at David with a twinkle in his eyes and asked:

“Thought you had a bet sizing tell, did you sonny?”

Live poker players are used to working from generalizations based on appearance. The old guy always has it, but the kid in the hoodie never does. The lady doesn’t know what a light cold four-bet is, while the guy with the Beats never has a hand when he cold fours. For the most part, these cliches are accurate, but many of the best players profit from playing off the stereotypes. Whether it’s the old guy like George capable of exploiting his image in a situation irrespective of his cards or the young guy who sits there patiently nut peddling, they make money by working out what opponents expect them to do, and then doing the opposite.

A leveling war

My own starting table that year was a bit of a disaster, as I recognized most of the others as young online beasts. There was also an old online beast, a man known only to me as Phil Peters because he refuses to tell me his online name even though he knows mine. Phil looks like he might be in his 80s, but plays a game that would scare most 18-year-olds as overly laggy. The young bucks at the table clearly assumed he (and possibly me) was the value, but after they came off worse in the first few click wars with Phil, they were forced to reassess.

Phil had immediate position on me so I decided to nit it up early on until a good situation arose. After a young Scandi opened for the minimum under the gun and most of the table called, I went for a squeeze on the button. The Scandi thought and clicked it. After everyone else got out of the way, I clicked back, still not convinced he had a hand. Eventually, after much pained thought, he folded, drawing the following comment from Phil:

“Back in my day, we called that…..a leveling war.