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.
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