Note: Not at the old Poker1 site. A version of this entry was first published in Card Player. This entry in the "Aunt Sophie" series covers poker.
Aunt Sophie gets personal
“Nu, tsatskeleh,” Aunt Sophie remarked, “about personal tells you said you would tell me.”
“Indeed I did,” I assented.
We sat in our favorite haunt, a table of the Anaheim Club’s coffee shop. This table was adjacent to the one-way mirror that overlooked the cardroom floor. Most players knew they were being observed, but allayed by a view of their own reflections, tended to ignore us behind the glass.
“Universal tells,” I had said, “are those exhibited by many players in many situations. They are the rules, if you will. Personal tells are the exceptions to the rules. Universal tells are described in great detail in Caro’s new Book of Tells, aptly subtitled The Body Language of Poker. A tell, according to The Official Dictionary of Poker, is ‘a mannerism that gives away your holdings. Smiling when you have a very good hand is an obvious tell. More subtle tells include iris dilation, a throbbing pulse, or acting in a certain manner in a given situation.’ The Book of Tells details many of these situational tells. A player looks away from the flop in hold’em when the flop has helped him, or stares intently at you when he is bluffing. That’s a universal tell.”
“Yes, those I understand, how players are either acting or not, and you just have to decide which. If they’re acting, you respond in the opposite way of what they’re trying convey. But how about,” Aunt Sophie inquired, “personal tells?”
“Those,” I continued, “are unique to a particular player. That is, a particular player may do something in a particular situation that no one else does, and you can use your knowledge of that tell to figure out what the player has, and act on that information.”
The waitress appeared. “A glazl varmss please,” Aunt Sophie ordered.
“A glass of hot water and a teabag,” I translated, “for my aunt, please, and a quadruple latte for me.”
“Quadruple?” she pretended to scold; “isn’t that a bit excessive even for you?”
“Nah,” I returned, “this may take a while.”
The two libations arrived. “I’ll give you two good examples,” I began. “Look at Corky there at the 20-40 lowball game. I’m choosing lowball because that’s what you play the most, and where the tells will help the most.”
“Oh yes, Corky,” she agreed. “Very aggressive player. I always try to make on my left sure not to have him, because so often he raises and I can’t predict when. You’ve said best is to control the aggressive plays myself.”
“Interestingly,” I offered, “if you know Corky’s tells, the best place for him is immediately on your left. You can combine your knowledge into an optimal strategy that includes beating him and the rest of the table through him.”
“How can that be,” she demanded, “when he acts after me and raises all the time when I’m in a pot?”
“Mmm,” I mused, “he doesn’t raise all the time, for one thing. But, for another, how about if you not only knew whether he would play, but also had a good idea whether he would raise? Can you see how you can play in such a way as to take maximum advantage of that? If you know on the first round he’s not going to play, you can open with weaker hands for your position. If you know he’s going to raise, you can trap him and others in the pot with your strong hands.”
“All very good,” she supplied, “but how do I know these things?”
“Individual tells,” I answered, “are the topic under discussion. Now watch. Susie is just to Corky’s right, with the action on her. I can tell you that no matter what Susie does, Corky will not play this pot.”
We watched. Susie, a conservative player who rarely opened for a raise, put four $5 chips in the pot. As I had predicted, Corky folded.
“How,” Sophie gasped, “did you know that?”
“The same way,” I pointed out, “that you will by being observant. Let’s watch the next pot.” On the next deal, Susie faced a raised pot. While she was thinking, I told Aunt Sophie to notice what Corky was doing. Susie folded, and Corky’s cards almost beat Susie’s into the discards.
“Ah ha,” she noted. “I see what you mean. This I never paid attention to before, but now I see it.”
“Well, wait,” I put in. “Let’s watch a pot he plays and see if he does something different.”
Next hand, Jim, one position to Susie’s right, came in for a raise. Susie again paused, considering her action. Susie always stopped the action briefly on her turn. Corky waited for Susie to dump her cards, and then swooped in to the pot with a raise. I sensed more than saw Aunt Sophie’s smile of recognition.
“I see,” she observed. “When Corky is not going to play, through his cards he shuffles impatiently until his turn to act. If he’s going to raise, his cards untouched on the table in front of him are sitting. He fooled me all the time. When his cards on the table like that were sitting, I thought he was going to fold. That’s what lots of players do when they’re going to fold, their cards they don’t protect because they don’t have no interest in them. So lots of times Corky raised me when I was in a bit light, and then a raise I had to call for the pot odds.”
Adjust your position
“Exactly,” I interjected. “After you have made the first mistake, continuing in the pot is then usually the correct decision. Even if you need two cards, if there are 10 bets already in the pot, calling one more bet has a positive expectation. Of course you’d have been better off if you hadn’t called the initial one or two bets in a pot that was going to be raised. Usually you don’t know that, but with Corky, you do. Now, as it happens, whether he will raise is not always clear, but you should always know if he is going to play in a particular pot. Since, as you say, he’s an aggressive player, he often raises when he does play. However, if you see him holding the cards in his hand and shuffling impatiently through them like that as you noticed, then you can be pretty sure he won’t play. What this means is that you can effectively adjust your position. For example, say you’re two to the right of the dealer. Your cards are 8-7-6-5-king and everyone has folded to you. Normally you would not open with this hand with four players yet to act. But you know Corky will fold. This is the same as if your position was one to the right of the button, and you would open to draw to any 8 from this position. Now let’s say you’re in the same position, only this time the pot has been opened, say for a raise, and another player has called. Your hand is ace-two-three-joker-king. Ordinarily you would reraise with this hand, but a quick glance to your left shows Corky’s cards innocently sitting in front of him. Corky’s hands hover over his chips, looking ready to grab those cards and dump them. You just call. Corky raises. The first two players call. You now reraise. Corky may or may not put in another raise, but it doesn’t matter. Whether he is drawing or pat — unless pat with a 7 or better — you have the best of this situation. Corky may sometimes fool you and play when you think he’s going to fold. This usually happens when he is just holding his cards in his hand but is not shuffling through them, sort of a cross between his other two tells. This generally means a relatively weak hand. If you put in extra action, since he was planning to draw two cards or to a rough hand, he folds; if you just call along or fold, he calls. These are individual tells, unique to Corky. Can you see how useful they are? You can use them to take advantage of an otherwise dangerous player.”
“Nu,” she prompted, “any more?”
“Yes,” I concluded, “next time.”