Note: Not at the old Poker1 site. A version of this entry was first published in the London Telegraph in 2005.
Historical note: The following explanatory note didn’t appear in the series, but was sent with each column as submitted.
Doyle “Texas Dolly” Brunson stands unchallenged as the most celebrated poker player who ever lived. In 2005, at age 72, he won an unprecedented 10th championship gold bracelet at the World Series of Poker. He is among the few living members of the Poker Hall of Fame, and his books are the bibles for poker professionals.. Through www.poker1.com and www.doylesroom.com, Brunson has teamed with Mike Caro, today’s premiere poker educator, to offer a free learning experience to players worldwide. This column is founded on those collaborative teachings.
A lot has been said about tells in poker. Tells are those clues that broadcast the truth about the poker hand a man is holding. No matter how strongly he may try to hide the particulars from you, his secrets are told by subconscious mannerisms and, sometimes, by his failed attempts to confuse you.
One of my expert collaborators for both my Super/System books (the original and its sequel that was just published), Mike Caro, contributes potent tips about tells in my books. He even wrote his own classic book on the subject more than 20 years ago. One thing he doesn’t discuss in detail, though, is a tell that has paid off greatly for me over the years.
I first became aware of this tell while traveling the dusty highways of the sixties, through the Texas panhandle and beyond. They say that tells are mostly displayed by amateurs or typical everyday players, seldom by pros or in big-limit games. For the most part, that’s true. It’s a whole lot easier to make money from tells in little league poker. Well, here’s a tell that, strange as it seems, is just as likely to be exhibited in the big leagues by a poker pro as by an amateur in smaller games; and, in fact, it’s more likely to be seen in a big game than a small one.
Tension at the moment
It has nothing to do with a player acting or trying consciously to deceive you, little to do with how skillful an opponent is, and everything to do with the tension a man feels at the moment. In those old days, I’d travel the poker circuit in the southern United States. That’s really where poker came of age. You can consider it the nesting ground for the game as we know it today. Sure, you’ll see poker in Old West movies and its part of our culture on both sides of the pond. But poker the way it’s now seen, especially hold ’em poker, evolved in the sixties. There was a band of us renegades who went from city to city, fighting through dust storms and tumbleweeds, riding down lonely highways, going from game to game, helping poker hatch.
That’s where I learned that people react differently under pressure. Some become artificially smooth and confident when they hold weak hands. It’s an act that betrays them. Some have mannerisms unique to them – mannerisms that may stick with them for months like a favorite idiom of speech and then disappear or ones that may stay with them permanently. These mannerisms are ones you sometimes can read, and when that happens they give you a great advantage in a poker game.
But under pressure, many of my opponents were exhibiting a particular tell that I first discovered on that sixties southern poker circuit and included in my first book, back in 1978. It was powerful, prevalent, and deadly accurate. It had to do with pulse.
There are many things a man can control in a poker game. He can control the direction he looks, how he positions his hands, his posture, his smile. He can control his breathing, his movements, his voice. But one thing he can’t control – at least without training – is the strength of his pulse. Pressure causes a person to have a stronger blood flow, and you can see it. One trick is to look at the side of an opponent’s neck. Observe how that player is when relaxed, when not under stress. Then determine if that is a person who, when not relaxed, will involuntarily telegraph the fact. It’s the contrast between those two states of mind that you’re looking for.
Bluffing in a big no-limit game is a key catalyst of stress and the thing that is most likely to present you with this tell. Yes, watch the neck. If an opponent is bluffing, you’ll often see a marked increase in the pulse, visible right on the side of the neck. Once you spot this, you’ll never forget it.
It’s one of the things that has kept me from going broke during bad poker runs and kept me in luxury most of my career. I hope it will help you, too. — DB