Note: Not at the old Poker1 site. A version of this entry was originally published (2011) in Bluff magazine.
If you want to start a campfire, find some kindle. Twigs will do the trick. You can’t usually strike a match against your biggest log and expect it to burn.
With poker tells, some of your opponents are like big logs. You need to set them on fire before you can read the smoke signals. Eliciting tells from players who pride themselves on their consistent movements and stoic poker faces is an art form. It’s the art of setting them afire. It’s the art of kindling.
So, today I’ll show you how to do it. Ready?
Opponents voluntarily exhibit tells when they feel motivated to do so. They may also display involuntary tells, such as trembling when they wager with straight flushes and stacking their chips neatly when they’re playing tight, but they won’t put on acts to deceive you. As long as they believe it’s in their best interest to make themselves unreadable, they’re going to just sit there and do nothing to give their secrets away.
Fortunately, most opponents are actors who try to deceive you, and their tells are easier to spot. But this is about the opponents who won’t cooperate in that way. As a group, they won’t react until they feel the flames and start to burn. It’s your job to make that happen.
Here are six techniques I use:
- Reach toward my chips. Nothing elicits a tell better than simply making a subtle motion to call. Don’t seem as if you’re doing this in order to gauge a reaction. Slow movements toward your chips alert the opponent that you might be testing. He will have time to think and plan a defense, which means he will continue to just sit there without reacting.
Instead, act as if you’ve suddenly decided and move quickly toward your chips. That will frequently unnerve your opponent and put him in desperation mode. Previously, he’d been just waiting like a statue. But suddenly his fate seems certain. And now his reaction is instinctive.
If he wants the call, he won’t react. Everything is going his way, and he doesn’t want to intervene. But bluffers will often panic and lose composure. Automatically they’ll respond by moving, perhaps by looking back at their cards or acting out a quizzical expression. These are attempts to prevent a call. If you see any change of behavior, the chances are good that it’s a bluff and you should complete the call. If you don’t, stop. Throw your hand away.
- Ask a question. Sometimes the easiest way to find out what an opponent holds is to ask. Occasionally, I’ll fashion my question to a particular player or circumstance with “Did you hit the flush on the turn or are you just trying to bluff?” I might even say, “I want us to be able to trust each other in the future, so tell me if you’re bluffing.” But, more routinely, my question is, “Do you want me to call?” or simply “What do you have?”
An answer like, “Call and find out” is often dangerous, although I’ve seen this used when bluffing. Usually a bluffer fearing a call won’t try to antagonize you by appearing impolite, so anything that borders on the belligerent is much more likely to be a strong hand. However, anything like “I’m bluffing,” or “You have me beat” is likely to be the truth! That’s because the player is hoping for the satisfaction of showing the hand after you fold. It’s the “I told you so” syndrome. Also, if you call, he can concede less painfully, because he told the truth. Players often try to fool you by telling the truth. “I have you beat,” also is usually the truth.
- Analyze the hand aloud. I love to babble at the poker table. While what opponents may hear from me may sound like, “You bet on the flop, then checked on the turn when that king came, but now you’re betting again with a deuce of clubs on the river. So I’m confused. Maybe you started with…” Actually, I’m gauging their reaction to everything I say. If at any point in the babble, they try to convey, through a shrug or a facial expression that indicates it isn’t likely, I’ve hit the mother lode. Opponents will often go out of their way to express indifference when you’re hitting on the truth about their hand. When you’re saying things that don’t apply, they’ll sometimes nod almost imperceptibly or seem a bit more relaxed.
- Begin to fold. This is the opposite of reaching toward your chips (#1). This time you should look for subtle signs of relaxation if the player is bluffing. In particular, I like to see the player exhale. This means he was barely breathing or even holding his breath. That’s something bluffers often do, fearing that any signs of animation will make them more noticeable and trigger your call. When they relax as I begin to fold, that’s the tell I’ve been looking for – and I call.
- Conspicuously study the opponent. I sometimes make opponents a bit uncomfortable, in a friendly way, by letting them know they’re being scrutinized. Surprisingly, they often feel the urge to act at that point, whereas they were trying to give no clues previously.
- Explain that I can’t read them and ask them to provide a tell. Sometimes I’ll confess that I’m not getting a tell. A simple request that they provide one often works! Friendly cooperation or outward amusement means the opponent is relaxed and happy with the hand. I don’t call. Refusal to respond to the good natured request in an outward way, while still seeming friendly, often means a bluff. So I do call. Defiance or stubborn unwillingness to smile usually means they don’t mind antagonizing me and want the call. So I fold. Feigned amusement that doesn’t seem natural indicates that they’re experiencing tension and also indicates a bluff. Call that.
You’ll have more success reading tells against opponents who voluntarily try to act, in order to confuse you. There the key is that if they’re pretending to be strong, they’re usually weak; and if they’re pretending to be weak, they’re usually strong.
But don’t give up on tells from opponents who seem unreadable. Just change their behavior. It’s worth the effort. — MC