Note: Not at the old Poker1 site. A version of this entry was first published (2004) in Poker Player newspaper.
You know how a little girl won’t look you in the eyes when she’s lying? You know how a little boy looks away when he’s telling you a story about how a strange kid came to the neighborhood and trampled your flowerbed with his tricycle? Adults aren’t much different – just a bit more subtle in the way they avoid your eyes.
Sure, some will overcompensate and stare directly at you when they lie, but often it’s too direct – and that’s the real-life tell. But, okay, so what happens in a poker game.
The look-away in poker
Poker is sort of an alternate universe. The physics are all screwed up. Most opponents, especially unsophisticated ones, look away when they have good hands and are more likely to meet your eyes when they’re bluffing. You talk about strange! Well, that’s how poker is, and now I’m going to tell you why.
Here’s the deal. In everyday life, lies are only occasional. Yes, most people are uncomfortable lying, but they somehow manage. They’ve never been in an arena where they need to lie almost all the time. Poker is such an arena. Lie? What do I mean when I say poker players need to lie?
Well, just think about it. A poker hand is a secret. It’s the secret nature of a poker hand, in fact, that makes the game work. If hands weren’t secret, you couldn’t play poker. That’s because the elements that make up poker are: (1) Making some wager large enough to be worth fighting over before you even get a hand – something that starts the war; (2) Controlling something, the strength of which is unknown to your opponents, so that you can wager with a degree of uncertainty; and (3) the ability to win all the money just by betting, regardless of whether your secret holding is strong or terribly weak.
So, poker is a game where you can win on pure courage, as long as an opponent lacks the will to call your bet. Those are roughly the elements I use to define poker for students. I also say that the definition of the game requires that all the money wagered goes to a single player – the one with the best hand. Now, you can quibble about that last part, but that’s all it is – a quibble. You see, even in a high-low game, a pot is actually awarded to just one player.
That’s because there are theoretically two pots – one to be awarded to the best high hand and one to be awarded to the best low hand. People get tricked into thinking there’s one pot and you win half of it – and we all even talk about it that way, but conceptually that’s not what’s happening. Think two pots and you understand high-low better.
Another quibble you might have with the notion that the whole pot goes to one player is that, well, what about when two players tie? Then the pot is split, right? True, but the goal isn’t to split – it’s to win, and split pots among tied hands are just a glitch in the awards process. In fact, you could easily set the poker rules so that there are not equal-strength ties. You could make the high card, by suit, in the hand the winner. And, in my mind, that’s probably the way poker should be played – but tradition has set us on another course.
Now you’re thinking I’ve forgotten my point. I was talking about why poker players have to lie. You’re right in saying that’s what I was talking about, but you’re wrong in thinking I’ve forgotten my point. I’ll get to it soon, but right now I don’t want to. I want to tell you – by way of further defining poker – that you don’t even need cards to play the game!
When I introduce players to poker, I tell them that the ingredients that make up poker – a pot going to one winner, something to start the war, secret strength, and the ability to win by betting even with the worst hand – don’t require cards. Look poker up in any dictionary and you’re sure to see the word “cards” in the definition. That’s stupid! I teach that you could play poker like this…
You’re at a farm house, you and a bunch of yahoo friends. Got the picture? It’s a rowdy experience, with everyone throwing beer cans against the wall to see who can make one stick first. But, eventually, you all figure out that beer cans don’t stick to walls. So, you suggest that everyone wager $1 and put all the money in a pile in the middle of a table. All your friends jump up and down with enthusiasm, yapping, “Sure, I’ll bet on that,” and “count me in.” So, the pile grows to $9 — $1 for each of the 10 of you, except Bradley, who spent all his money on cigarettes. Brad pouts in the corner.
Now, you let your buddies know what you’re betting on. You pass out brown paper bags to each of them and keep one for yourself. You all head out to the pasture with the instructions to find the biggest cow chip you can in 10 minutes, to hide the chip in the paper bag, and to return to the table to wager on the sizes, with the winner taking all the combined money. Everyone scurries off. Except you. You’re too lazy. You simply pretend to scurry off, but turn back immediately to the farm house to plot your strategy.
Trashing the cow chips
Okay, everyone returns. The betting begins. Oscar wagers $10, Pete and Paul call and everyone except you folds, tossing their cow chip bags into the trash can. Now you reach into your pocket and take out the money you’ve been saving to buy a turkey dinner. You throw all $74,505 on the table. “That’s your turkey money!” Oscar exclaims, knowing how much you’ve been looking forward to the dinner at a fine restaurant. Well, wait, this story is losing credibility. Let me fix it. Got it now… You reach into your pocket and raise to $73 that you’d gotten as change from $100 when you bought groceries this morning. There – I’m trying to keep this realistic.
Now, Oscar says “Oh, Gosh, I didn’t want to call that much.”
“What’s the matter, Oscar,” you goad, “you don’t have a big enough cow chip to call?”
“I guess not,” Oscar says, tossing his bag into the trash. Pete and Paul do the same and you reach to the center of the table and scoop up all the money.
“Just out of curiosity,” Paul says, “how big was yours?”
You tear open your bag and show that it is empty.
“That’s bullshit!” Pete moans.
“It wasn’t any bullshit at all,” you correct.
Back to the point
So, you see, that’s poker. No cards, but all the elements are there. And this takes us right back to the point. You can’t win at poker if you tell your opponents what you have while the wagering is in progress. And, by extension, you can’t lead them toward the truth about what you have by acting happy or sad.
Here’s the lesson, then. Players who are new to poker and who come straight from the real-world experience where they rarely lie are uncomfortable about poker, where they can’t tell the truth about their hands except in an effort to deceive. Yes, that’s right, if you tell the truth about your secret hand in poker, you must be hoping opponents will have doubts about your honestly. Otherwise, telling the truth will ruin you.
Now, since a poker hand is a secret that must be guarded – because nobody else can ever know what’s in the brown bag until the wagering is finished – inexperienced players tend to always deceive in almost comically transparent ways. In effect, they try to convey strength when their hands are weak and weakness when their hands are strong.
That’s because in the real-world, they gradually work up their courage for occasional lies. And they’re uncomfortable having to do it all the time – as in poker. So, they latch on to the only thing that seems natural – weak when strong, strong when weak.
So, remember when I told you that poker players look away when they have a good hand and, often, at you when they’re bluffing? Their wagering (calling, betting, or raising) will be inline with the true nature of their hands. If strong and waiting for you to bet, they’ll look away. Their pending wager represents the truth, yet they look away. They’re trying to lie about their strong hands by avoiding your eyes while awaiting your bet, seeming as if they’re not interested in the pot. In effect, they’re trying to make your bet seem safe – a lie.
And there was today’s word: Avoiding. It’s what opposing eyes do when they hold strong hands in the strange arena of poker where they must lie about the size of your cow chips in order to win. — MC