Note: Not at the old Poker1 site. A version of this entry was first published (2009) in Poker Player newspaper.
About this series: The following column is part of a series of self-interviews in which I get to ask my own questions and then answer them.
About the numbering: Don’t worry if you haven’t read any previous columns in the series. Each one is independent. The questions continue with number 166, but you can subtract 165 and start fresh, if that makes you happier.
About today’s word, “Speech”: For over 30 years, I’ve taught the science of speaking at the poker table. Yes, it really is a science, and I stand ready to deflect criticism from academics who don’t like the word “science” used frivolously. Today’s interview examines the importance of what you say and don’t say at the poker table — and how that equates to profit.
Question 166: Looking through old gambling magazines, I see that you’re among the earliest players whose table presence is defined by talking. Why do you do that?
It’s because you can talk your way to success at poker.
How many sofas are sold to reluctant visitors to a furniture store if the salesperson doesn’t say anything? Some, you say. And you’re right.
A few sales will be triggered without any intervention from the salesperson. But the chances of making a sale are much better if that salesperson speaks the right words.
It’s the same with poker when you hold a profitable hand.
Say the right things and you’re more likely to be called. Sure, the speech might backfire, but you’re playing the percentages. Poker talk, done correctly, increases your profit. Persuasion works in this world, and poker is no exception.
When I want to be called, I’ll say things that make opponents suspicious. In poker, making sales is easy, because opponents are predisposed to call.
Most opponents came to the poker room hoping to see action, so they have a powerful bias toward calling and a secret distain toward folding. Help them along.
Sometimes I’ll bet and then, when my opponent seems hesitant about calling, I’ll say, “I might be bluffing, but maybe not.” This puts your opponent’s mind in coin-flip, either-or mode — I’m either bluffing or I’m not. Opponents will usually take their chances by calling.
Occasionally I’ve talked opponents out of calling my bluff. Be very careful with that tactic.
Remember that opponents want to call, so anything you say is more likely to make them suspicious than if you didn’t say anything. But when the call is already in motion, that’s the time to shout, “Stop! Before you fold, remember that I bluff once in a while.”
This can befuddle opponents, because you sound like you were oblivious to the fact that they were about to call. It seems like you’re begging for a call and they occasionally might reconsider and fold. That won’t happen often, but it’s worth a try, because on the rare times that it works, you’ve added a whole pot to your bankroll.
Conversely, if you want a call and your opponent is in the act of folding, say something quickly. The opponent sometimes hesitates, reconsiders, becomes suspicious, and then calls. That’s a free roll. Usually, you won’t get that call, but it doesn’t cost anything to try.
In poker, speech matters.
Question 167: Mike Matusow is another famous player who talks incessantly while playing poker. Who’s better at it?
I think Mike Matusow is a superior player and fun to watch. Poker speech seems to work to his advantage quite often. But I’m much better at saying the right things. Not bragging. Just sharing some truth
It’s the difference between speaking the right words and just babbling. Babbling often works, but sometimes it costs you money.
What I don’t like about Mike’s approach is that he sometimes irritates opponents. I don’t believe in being critical of opposing play or insulting other players.
Ridicule motivates them to play better and to avoid confrontations with you in the future. That’s exactly what you don’t want to happen, especially against weak opponents who supply your profit by coming into your pots frequently and supplying most of your profit.
If Mike and I ever play a heads-up match, it’s going to be the ultimate confrontation between poker players using speech from different perspectives. He’ll try to ridicule me into submission and I’ll try to confuse him with good-natured words and a little love. In a match like that, he’d save time by just mailing me the money. Again: Not bragging; just reporting.
Question 168: Isn’t it dangerous to say things when you’re in a hand? I mean, aren’t you afraid opponents will be able to read you?
If you’re less skilled at poker psychology than your opponents, it’s true that what you say can hurt you.
Astute opponents might be able to pick up tells from your words. That’s why it’s important for you to become skillful at poker speech and manipulation — and to be capable of making sales.
Question 169: Aren’t there times when you’re quiet?
Actually, I seldom say much unless I’m involved in a pot.
I never intervene by making comments about pots where others are battling each other. And I try to target my words to a specific goal. If I don’t have a goal, I just sit and sulk.
Question 170: How much of your poker profit is derived from speech?
In a game against skillful opponents who don’t have tells, all of my profit is attributed to my speech.
That’s because, if you remove tells, then the only way to make a profit is to outplay your opponents tactically or to trick them into playing poorly. When you consider the rake or seat rental, along with dealer tips, you probably won’t have enough of an edge to win against skillful foes.
So, outplaying your opponents tactically isn’t enough and results in no profit. Speech can trick even skillful opponents into playing poorly — and that accounts for all of the extra money, which results in an overall profit.
Against weak opponents, most — but not all — of my profit comes from speech. I’d make money against them without saying anything, but speaking the right words at the right time accounts for most of my profit. Tells come in second. Tactics third. But talk, tells, and tactics are all monumentally important.
Question 171: What about people who believe talking is impolite or unsportsmanlike?
Some players think poker should be played without unnecessary speech. There are British clubs and tournament games where the rule is that you can’t talk about your hand during play. I think such rules are contrary to the soul of poker.
Poker is the perfect mix of tactics and psychological warfare. Let’s reserve the right to lie about our hands and to occasionally deceive by telling the truth.
There may be a place in this world for a face-to-face game played in silence, based on random cards, and complete with bluffing, calling, betting, raising, and folding. Just don’t call it poker, because that name is already taken. — MC
Next self-interview: Pending