This article first appeared in Card Player magazine.
Recently I was playing a shorthanded hold ’em game at the Commerce Casino. I flopped an ace-high flush. My conversation as my opponent started to bet and then hesitated was playful and went something like this: “Don’t go betting that hand into me. What if I have a flush? Oh, you are betting? I might be trying for the biggest flush in the history of poker. I might already have it. I might have a pair of sixes. Nope, it’s a pair of jacks. Anyway, I call.”
Sounds like babble, right? But it isn’t. Every word, my inflection, my tone of voice, my brief pauses for reaction — everything — were carefully gauged to elicit a tell and to put me in a position to manipulate the action. No, I don’t expect everyone to be able to duplicate what I do. I’m the best there’s ever been at manipulating opponents. I wish I hadn’t written that last sentence, but there’s no way to take it back now. I don’t like to boast about my poker skills, and I feel bad because it happens so often.
Where was I? Oh, yeah. You don’t need to completely master the psychology of poker conversation to be rewarded. You just need to understand the basic truth. That’s what we’re talking about today — not the specifics of what to say, but why it’s important to say the right things.
Don’t Annoy Your Foes
Many people hear about my reputation for using hard-core psychology and manipulation in poker, and assume that I talk a lot at the table. They’re wrong
Some players are annoying to play against because they’re always babbling, whether they’re in a hand or not. Many opponents resent this incessant chatter. The unwelcome talk demands their attention and makes it difficult to ponder things that are not poker. You see, your opponents often wish to evaporate within their own thoughts. Then, time passes for them. They sometimes wish to brood over bad losses. Time passes. They sometimes wish to escape poker hell when the cards are making everyone else happy. So, they daydream. And time passes.
What you shouldn’t do — what you must never do — is deny your opponents the chance to escape into their own minds. You want happy opponents who are willing to lose their money to you without feeling the same pain they feel when losing to more strident opponents. The less it hurts them to lose money to you, the more money they will lose to you. That is something I constantly keep in mind when I’m playing poker. It’s so important that I’m going to repeat it. The less it bothers your opponents to lose money specifically to you, the more money they will give you.
They Don’t Mind
Now let’s talk about constant babbling at the table. There are times when everyone is friendly and engaged in conversation. That’s fine. I often join in. But there are other times when most players are withdrawn and absorbed in their thoughts. When they’re not in a hand, I try not to bother them. What’s important is to talk to them when they are involved in a hand. That’s when they’re not daydreaming and I have their full attention. It’s also when they don’t mind being talked to. In fact, they welcome it, because they subconsciously think they’re gaining information. They are, but it’s the information you want to provide — which usually is false — that will coax them toward choosing the action you desire.
In the first paragraph, I gave you some actual language that I used at the poker table. I suggested that I might have had all kinds of different hands. But as I suggested each one, I watched my opponent’s reaction. Since I’d flopped the nut flush, this wasn’t an attempt to determine if I had my opponent beat; it was an attempt to determine how I should play the hand. Let’s say my opponent held a pair of tens. Some opponents would have given me a clue to the approximate strength of their hand by showing false concern when I suggested I might have a pair of sixes, but not looking at all worried when I said I had a pair of jacks. This is instinctively how many players behave — look concerned when they have you beat, look unconcerned when they’re worried. It is the essence of what I discuss in Caro’s Book of Tells — The Body Language of Poker: Most opponents go out of their way to act weak when they’re strong and strong when they’re weak.
But nothing happened as I rambled. The equality of reactions, no matter what I said, indicated to me that my opponent didn’t have much of anything, and therefore didn’t care about exactly what I held. He just wanted me to throw my hand away and hoped that any mention of any strength was a lie on my part. He actually had J-8 offsuit, and neither card paired the flop. He paired eights on the turn (fourth boardcard) and could use his jack for a flush after the river card (a fourth heart on the board), checking and calling on both streets. In this case, the information was worthwhile. By determining that he was weak or bluffing, I just called — rather than raised — on the flop. Had I raised, he most likely would have folded immediately and I would not have made an additional $400. But although the value of this type of babbling is significant if used correctly, this example exaggerates the profit. Sometimes the knowledge you gain is worth nothing, and sometimes it works against you, because you lose a hand that you wouldn’t have played or would have played differently. In this case, sometimes I would have just called with the nut flush on the flop, even without a tell.
Always a Reason
Very often, by simply talking and saying the right things, I’ll see something that will provide a clue as to the strength of an opponent’s hand. But I don’t speak for no reason at all. I very often see players trying to work this verbal magic on their own, and they say the wrong things at the wrong times. It’s pure luck that they talk someone into a call they’re seeking or out of it. Of course, in general, they’re more likely to talk them into it, because players are looking for rationalizations for calling, and anything you say usually raises suspicions and is better than nothing if you want to be called. However, some words are much better than others, and I always try to say the things that are most likely to get the result I’m seeking.
But I don’t talk just for the fun of it. When I’m not in a hand, I’m usually quiet. I’m confident that when I leave the poker table to cash out, nobody ever says, “Doesn’t he ever shut up?” as they do with undisciplined blabbermouths. And nobody says, “I’m sure glad he left, now we can play poker in peace.” The reason nobody feels that way about me, despite my sometimes animated and vocal behavior while playing, is that I’m always sensitive to what fits the situation and what doesn’t.
As we’ve discussed before, it matters a great deal how you conduct yourself at the table. There seems to be a lot of players who believe that psychology doesn’t matter much, because opponents are almost always going to make decisions based on their cards. That’s wrong. Most players are going to make decisions based on you! I know that’s controversial, but it’s the truth. Very few hands “play themselves.” Most involve borderline decisions that make it unclear to an opponent what he should do. Because most of these decisions are precariously balanced, it doesn’t take much to push those decisions in the direction you desire. It’s just a matter of knowing what you want to accomplish and saying the right thing.
Used car salesmen know that what they say and how they say it influences people. Advertising people know it. Everyone knows it as they try to persuade others around them. Saying the right words at the right time in the right way makes all the difference in the world. So, why don’t poker players know it?
How much is saying the right stuff worth? It’s hard to say. If you’re a slight winning player making $1 an hour, and could move to $21 an hour by saying the right thing, that would increase your earnings 20 times. But that’s a silly way to look at it. To me, talking is so important to the game style I play that I believe it triples my earnings compared to playing the same way in silence. However, if I couldn’t talk, I wouldn’t play the same way — it just wouldn’t be profitable. I’d have to abandon a lot of my “exploratory” hands, where I see the flop in order to manipulate my way out of trouble. So, who knows exactly how much my mastery of this phase of poker psychology is worth? It’s worth a lot, though.
A Powerful Tip
Although I’m going to leave the specific discussion of what you should and should not say to a future column, I want to give you one powerful tip today. There exists a magic word that will get opponents to bet weak hands into you or to outright bluff. Use it often when you are strong and would rather have your opponent bet than check.
The magic word is “might.” Warn them, “I might call you.” The reason this works so well is that nobody can see through to the con. If you say, “Go ahead and bet,” an opponent might be suspicious and lose his nerve. If you say nothing, an opponent might decide not to risk a bet. But if you say you “might” call, the natural response is to finish the statement with “or might not call.” With pots in limit poker many times as large as the bet at risk, most players will jump at this opportunity to take a chance if they only “might” get called. Your subsequent raise will be wholly unexpected.
In some poker games in England, they have a rule that you’re not allowed to talk about your hand during play. That’s sick. Poker is a game based on the concept of talking your opponents into and out of pots. As I’ve said many times, there’s nothing wrong with a wagering game involving pairs, straights, flushes, and full houses that is played in silence. Just don’t call it “poker.” That name is already taken.