Note: Not at the old Poker1 site. A version of this entry was first published (2013) in Poker Player newspaper.
Often you can know with almost absolute certainty when a poker opponent is bluffing. Few players understand how that’s possible. So, they fold — failing to catch the bluff — when they could have won huge pots by calling.
Obviously, knowing the secret will add significantly to your bankroll. And today, I’m going to share it with you.
First, we need to talk about Jack. In the 1970s, he was a hostile and intimidating force — a barroom brawler that people avoided. And he brought his menacing disposition to the poker tables in Gardena, California.
They say every man has a softer side once you get to know him. I don’t think that applied to Jack. Anyway, we’re in a game. It’s five-card draw, limit poker with double the betting size after the draw.
I have drawn three cards to a pair of kings and not improved. Jack had drawn one. I check. Jack bets.
He didn’t have a history of bluffing in that situation, so right away my instinct was to fold. But within seconds, I realized I would call, instead. Let’s examine why.
Imagine you’re walking along a path through the forest and suddenly, right in front of you, there’s a rattle snake. It’s coiled and ready to strike. Had you seen it sooner, you would have walked in another direction. But now you’re too close.
So, what do you do? You freeze. It’s a natural reaction.
You’re afraid that the slightest movement will prompt that snake to bite you. And now there’s this drama, this close encounter, this standoff in which all motion stops. You wait, hoping the threat will pass. And luckily, the snake eventually slithers back to its family at the snake condo or wherever. You can move again.
Do you have that image in your head? Fine.
After an opponent bluffs, he perceives you as a snake. He doesn’t want to do anything to make you strike. So, what happens? He freezes, or at least does as little as possible to get your attention.
All you have to do is compare the reactions of poker players when they’re bluffing and when they’re not to understand this great truth. Although not all poker players fit the same profile, most do. And when you average all their profiles together, it filters down to this…
Opponents who hold strong hands are more animated. They’re not afraid that their actions will make you suspicious and entice a call. That’s because they want you to call. But opponents who are bluffing are afraid that anything they do will make you curious enough to call.
Bluffers don’t what to seem suspicious to you, so they tend to do nothing. Absolutely nothing. As I’ve pointed out many times, they’re breathing is often unusually shallow and sometimes they don’t breathe at all. You’re the snake and they’re trying to keep you from striking. It’s just that simple.
Let’s get back to Jack. He was sitting up straight after firing his chips at my pair of kings. And he was looking just as menacing as ever. It was his nature; he couldn’t help it. But it was what he wasn’t doing that made me almost positive that he was bluffing.
His head didn’t move. In fact, nothing about him moved. He just froze and waited. And I could hardly determine whether he was actually breathing. So, I knew I would call.
But, I hesitated. Hesitation is a key to using tells effectively. If you react immediately when you spot a tell, players are apt to get the message and correct their behavior. If that happens, you won’t be able to profit from that same tell again in the future.
So, I pretended to ponder. Jack did nothing. I called by making a point to seem unsure and reluctant. That also made it less likely that he would be aware of the fact that I was responding to a strong tell.
Back to the tell itself. What’s important is that all players are afraid when they bluff. They’re taking a big chance and are terrified of being called — especially in no-limit games where the bluff is often large.
In this moment of terror, bluffers stop being normal. They don’t move much and usually don’t talk much. If they do talk, their speech is often stilted and unnatural.
So, look for the absence of animation. Look for the big freeze. I saw it then. And when I called, Jack simply flung his cards away facedown, conceding.
After I called Jack’s obvious bluff that day, he soothed his ego by warning, “If you keep calling like that, one of us is going to go broke. And it ain’t me!” As it turned out, he was half right. — MC