This article first appeared in Card Player magazine.
About a year ago, this happened. It’s seven-card stud, $150/$300 limit. A 34-year-old man (all right, it’s just an estimate) has been losing all night. He sat in the game shortly after I did, which was 10 hours ago. In all this time, through all those hands, I have not detected anything that might indicate that he has ever acquired any useful poker skills. Got the picture?
Good. A regular winning player, age 63 (again an estimate), has been competing in this same game for the past four hours. I don’t know much about 63, although I’m an expert on 54 – which is how old I am as we speak. The only thing I know for sure about age 63 is that it’s old enough to know better.
That “Hollywood” act.
Better than what? Well, just hang on; you’ll see shortly. For convenience, we’ll call these two principal characters the Kid and Mr. Regular. Suddenly there’s this monster pot, over $4,000. It’s the final card, the river. Mr. Regular bets with three kings showing.
The Kid hesitates. Looks at his card a second time. Leans back in his chair. Suddenly shrugs his shoulders. Raises. His voice is sadly melodic as he sighs, “I guess I might as well make it six hundred.”
Immediately, and angrily, Mr. Regular calls.
“I can beat your three kings,” the Kid says.
“Well, if you can beat my three kings, show me what you got. Stop yappin’ about it.” Mr. Regular is truly irritated.
Obviously, I wonder why Mr. Regular would even bet three kings. They were all exposed. Clearly, the Kid wasn’t going call if he couldn’t beat the three kings he saw right before his eyes. And loose, inexperienced, and losing players like the Kid are never going to throw away anything that is better than three kings. You might bet an exposed three kings as a bluff, hoping a knowledgeable foe will fold a straight, a flush, or a full house, smaller than kings full. But you better be sure it’s a knowledgeable opponent, because nobody else has enough common sense to fold. In order to make this laydown, you need to have enough sophistication to realize that your opponent wouldn’t bet three exposed kings that stood unimproved and you need to have enough emotional stability to make the laydown in response to this realization.
But wait! There’s another problem here. If your opponent with three kings grasps that you’re sophisticated enough and emotionally stable enough to make that laydown, then he can bet his exposed three-of-a-kind as a bluff. So, there are levels of reasoning in poker. And there are always levels beyond those, and if you miscalculate what level your opponent is on now, that’s trouble. Still, in the case of most weak opponents, such as the Kid, there is no chance in hell that your bet will be met with a laydown of a straight, flush, full house, four of a kind, or a straight flush. It just won’t happen, so bluffing is out of the question. In this case, if you bet your exposed three kings, you can only lose, you cannot possibly win anything.
Calling and losing is fun.
OK, most readers realize that, and the point today is something else. But before I get to that point, let me drift even further off topic. If I say that nobody would ever call if they couldn’t beat the exposed three kings, that isn’t exactly true. I would, and I have. I do it just to get a laugh from some players and to thoroughly bewilder others. The psychological advantage of making a call that cannot win can be worth the money, if you know how to maximize the profit with the right kind of chatter. I say stuff like, “I had to call, because I’ve seen him bluff before.”
Opponents will think you’re crazy, and even ones who believe they are too smart to be taken in by your “act,” will be taken in. They just feel you’re too unpredictable and bizarre not to be called in the future. Done right, calling with, say, a pair of aces against three exposed kings will return much more than its cost in future calls.
Now, where was I? Oh, yeah, back to the point. Mr. Regular made a very bad bet with three kings exposed and no improvement, because unsophisticated opponents like the Kid are always going to call if they can beat that board and are never going to call if they can’t. But, it’s what happened next that is the real point of today’s column.
Remember what I already told you: After betting, the Kid had hesitated, re-examined his final card, leaned back, pondered, and eventually raised with a sigh. Mr. Regular had called instantly and was irritated when the Kid said he could beat three kings. He told the Kid to stop yapping and prove it.
You have a what?
So, now the Kid turns over a straight flush! Well, Mr. Regular rises halfway from his chair, fuming. “You didn’t need to go through that Hollywood routine,” he rants. “I was going to call you anyway!”
A couple comments, here. First of all, as bad as Mr. Regular’s bet was, his call was even worse. The Kid was not going to raise three exposed kings in an attempted bluff. Such a maneuver would never occur to him. Second, Mr. Regular probably wouldn’t have called the raise if it hadn’t been for the Kid’s act. While Mr. Regular no doubt was smart enough to see through the act, it irritated him into calling. This happens all the time in poker, a game where it’s very easy to let your emotions overrule your intellect. Third, players who hesitate and bet with a sigh and a sad voice are almost never bluffing. Fourth – and here’s today’s point – if the Kid never hesitates when he has the absolutely unbeatable nuts, then he better never hesitate at all!
What’s that supposed to mean? It means plenty. In poker, if you want to disguise the strength of your hand in the long run and remain unpredictable, things that you do under some circumstances need to be done, also, under different circumstances. Most players hesitate when they have tough decisions to make. They need the time to reflect. This hesitation means, those hands are borderline. If an opponent knows this, then he knows exactly what to do when faced with hesitation. He knows that the raising hand cannot possibly be extremely strong, within the spectrum of raising hands, and he can call, fold, or re-raise based on that information.
The only ways to avoid giving this type of information to an astute opponent are (1) occasionally hesitate and pretend to ponder when you have unbeatable hands, or (2) never hesitate at all. So, when I said Mr. Regular was old enough to know better, I meant that his years of poker experience should have taught him that “Hollywood” is a perfectly acceptable, and sometimes necessary aspect of poker.
Personally, I almost never use this form of extreme acting when I have a powerful hand. Instead, I often just tell opponents that I have them beat and that they’re about to make a ridiculous call for which I am thanking them in advance. This usually makes them suspicious enough to trigger their calling reflex. The reason I personally don’t use that “Hollywood” act often to induce a call is because many opponents have negative feelings about it, and I don’t want to do anything to destroy the carefree atmosphere needed to maximize profit in a game.
However, I would never criticize others for their “Academy Award” performances with unbeatable hands. And neither should you. By the way, in no-limit and pot-limit games, this “Hollywood” behavior is more readily accepted. That’s because much more emphasis is put on reading opponents in those games, and anything goes as a counter-measure to the scrutiny of others. Even in these games, though, most experienced players do little acting and favor a “poker face.”
Another tell exposed.
One more thing. Have you ever seen an opponent throw his hand away before you act on the final betting round? This often happens when an opponent has missed a straight or a flush in seven-card stud. You will frequently hear something like, “Take the pot. Why waste time? I can’t beat your board.”
What’s the harm in that? The harm can be significant if this becomes a habit. If you’re observant, you can make conclusions about the times your opponent does not throw the hand away prematurely. At those times, you realize that your opponent can beat your board, and you worry about the hand he might have made. The average hand you are facing now is stronger than it would be against an opponent you had never seen fold out of turn.
When an opponent folds prematurely, even with only one opponent involved in the pot, he is not just giving away information about that poker hand, he is giving away information about his future poker hands. And he probably never even considered the possibility. — MC