How to handle the hum in poker


Note: Not at the old Poker1 site. A version of this entry was originally published (2006) in Casino Player.


Occasionally, you’ll find yourself at a poker table against an opponent who hums. I want you to pay attention when this happens, because there’s a related secret I’m going to share with you today.

Arnold liked to pass his time at the poker table by humming. His repertoire was mostly old-fashioned show tunes from the thirties and forties. His behavior tended to annoy some players, but I found it charming. I also found it quite profitable.

Away from the table, I socialized with Arnold. He was passionate about the old songs and sometimes coaxed me to attend community theaters where amateurs would perform them. Perhaps I should have extended our friendship by warning him about his tell, but I didn’t. The extra poker profit gained from the secret meant more to me in those years than it would today. I partially reciprocated by often paying for our lunches as secret compensation for the extra money earned.

Waiting for the hum

It worked like this. Arnold would begin by sitting at the poker table and concentrating on the game. He was a winning player who prided himself on his observations of opponents. He kept notes on how often they bet, how many times they seemed to bluff, and how apt they were to call.

Unfortunately, he hadn’t committed much of this to memory, so he resorted to taking his notebook out of his pocket between hands – or sometimes even during hands – to assist with his decisions. Other players found this amusing and seldom complained.

Usually after about fifteen minutes, Arnold’s concentration would become challenged and, unless he was actually playing a hand, his thoughts would wander. You could tell that he was daydreaming. Then boredom would consume him and he’d begin to fidget. That’s when the humming would start.

Cheerfully

He’d hum softly to himself while he was sitting out of a hand. When he had a good hand with decent prospects of winning, he would hum a bit more loudly and a lot more cheerfully. It was a sign that he was content and everything was unfolding to his liking.

We mostly played five-card draw, and when he drew one card to a straight or flush, there was sometimes a short break in the rhythm of his humming. This marked the moment of suspense. He’d continue to hum regardless of whether he made it or not, but when he missed, his humming seemed temporarily half-hearted.

You could thereby measure the disappointment. When he connected, the rhythm was stronger. The tell that he broadcast was so powerful and so accurate that you could judge his state of mind by the cadence of the humming. The happier and steadier it was, the more secure he felt and the stronger his hand was likely to be. That meant free money in itself, but there was also a more compelling tell associated with the humming.

Humming when bluffing

Whenever Arnold would bluff, his humming became erratic – like a stage performer who had forgotten the lines that came next. And if you began to call the bet, he not only froze – as is the case with so many opponents who become less animated when faced with a call that they dread – but stopped humming entirely. That’s when you knew dead certain that you could call and win.

Sometimes, I’d hold a hand so weak that I wasn’t sure it would win in a showdown, even if Arnold were bluffing. That’s when I often raised to ensure that I’d win the pot by forcing him to fold.

I frequently teach how poker opponents stop moving and scarcely breathe when they’re bluffing. And I give the reason for this behavior: They’re afraid that anything they do will make you suspicious and trigger your call. So, like most frightened animals in the forest, they try to make themselves inconspicuous. They play dead.

Well, humming works the same way. It ceases when players are bluffing and in danger of being called, simply due to fear. It’s the fear of causing suspicion, the fear of being noticed. That’s why the humming tell isn’t unique to Arnold.

Wherever you hear humming at the poker table, you’ll find this tell. And all you need to do is listen. — MC

Published by

Mike Caro

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Known as the “Mad Genius of Poker,” Mike Caro is generally regarded as today's foremost authority on poker strategy, psychology, and statistics. He is the founder of Mike Caro University of Poker, Gaming, and Life Strategy (MCU). See full bio → HERE.

6 thoughts on “How to handle the hum in poker”

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  1. I played with a player for a period of time who did basically the same thing. Only difference being, instead of humming this player would shuffle his chips. He would shuffle them constantly during hands, whether in the hand or not. The only time he would completely stop shuffling the chips was when he was bluffing and it looked like an opponent was ready to call. I have no idea if anyone else picked up on this because I never discussed it with anyone, but it was a very profitable tell for me.

  2. all your hints are worthless, they dont help you when you flop top pair and flush draw and bet and are raised by someone who has nothing but appears to have you beaten.

  3. I've learned to mix up my "tells", especially when I'm bluffing. I often relax, smile, tell a joke or in general try to appear as if I don't have a care in the world. Or, If I'm really strong, I bet, then go into my shell and don't meet the other players eyes, just look down and in effect hold my breath. I often get a call when doing this that might otherwise have been a fold. I learned that from Mike. Got his "Complete Book of Tells" many long years ago and I still refer to it from time to time. 

  4. Thanks for the tell Mike …. I’ll save my humming for when I am standing in line at the cage with “some extras” ;}

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