Note: Not at the old Poker1 site. A version of this entry was first published (2005) in Poker Player newspaper.
Despite the fact that most of my poker research deals with analysis of hands and statistics, the skills I find most fascinating and profitable are those involving tells and psychology. In this column, I’m going to revisit a lecture I did a few years ago defining one of the most important tells in poker.
The reason I’ve decided to devote my space to this tell is that I’ve seen it several times on recent TV telecasts. In fact, I’ve seen very strong players exhibit this tell. Well, if world class players provide good examples of a tell in action, you’d speculate that it’s a mannerism that afflicts players of all skill levels. And you’d be right.
Here’s the lecture, edited slightly — and with pride — for this column…
How to interpret fumbled bets
Today I’m going to explain a poker tell that has been worth thousands of dollars to me in a single session. The tell works for all forms of poker, from stud to hold ’em to lowball and beyond. It is dynamite powerful in limit poker games, but it can be worth even more – much more – in pot-limit and no-limit poker games. You’ll see this tell exhibited on major poker tournament telecasts sometimes. Watch for it.
I want you to imagine this situation. You’re playing no-limit hold ’em, and it’s the last round of betting. You have a pair of queens — both cards in the pocket, your secret two-card hand. Fine. An ace has just fallen as the final board card, and you’re worried that your opponent might hold an ace to match it. If he does, you lose. Otherwise, you win.
You check to him. He immediately picks up a substantial amount of chips – two stacks – and slides them into the pot. The size of the pot previously had been $2,000. The chips being bet total over $4,000. You know that the opponent occasionally bluffs, but is he bluffing this time? Should you call?
Sometimes I can decide with a high degree of certainty whether I should make a call like this. That’s because sometimes the chips are fumbled. What do I mean by fumbled? I mean that the bet doesn’t happen as smoothly as the player expected. Sometimes a whole stack falls over, sometimes it just leans precariously, or sometimes a few chips splash off the top.
What does that mean? Well, often it doesn’t mean anything for certain. Players can fumble with strong hands, as well as with weak hands. It’s what happens next that puts the profit in your pocket. Again, that fumbled bet could be just an unusual accident or a sign of nervousness. If it’s a sign of nervousness over making a weak bet or a bluff, it’s not because hands are shaking. Remember – as I’ve said repeatedly – bluffers don’t shake noticeably. They bolster themselves and become rigid.
Yes, the chips could fall over because the bettor is shaking noticeably. But in that case, he’s probably not bluffing. If the player is bluffing, the chips may fall over because he is keeping his fingers too rigid in an effort to prevent shaking. It’s hard to maintain dexterity when you’re tightening muscles in your hands to keep from shaking. This is often what happens when an opponent fumbles a bet.
But opponents also fumble bets because they’re shaking after making a hand. This is a release of tension when the suspense ends. It almost always means a big hand. Now, in this imaginary no-limit hold ’em case, we saw the fumbled bet, but we were unable to determine how it happened or whether the player was shaking or rigid at the time.
What happens next?
Like I told you, in that case, it’s what happens next that tells the story. If the player makes any immediate effort to clean up the fumbled bet – to straighten it out – that’s usually a sign of a weak bet or bluff. The player is afraid that you’ll interpret the fumble as nervousness and that you’ll become suspicious and call. Fixing the fumble, straightening the bet, is an instinctive act designed to undo the damage and make you less suspicious. Don’t fall for it. When you see a fumbled bet that an opponent tries to fix immediately, beware of a bluff. Strongly consider calling.
But if an opponent fumbles a bet and does nothing to straighten out the situation, by adjusting the stacks or putting the chips back in order, beware for another reason. That’s probably a strong hand, and the player doesn’t really care if you’re suspicious. Strongly consider folding.
So, you should do two things: First, watch the bet itself. If it’s fumbled because of shaking fingers, that’s probably a strong hand. If it’s fumbled because the fingers are too rigid, that’s probably a weak hand or a bluff. Second, in the likely event that you can’t determine why the bet was fumbled, watch what happens next.
If there is an attempt at a cover-up, an attempt to undo the damage and straighten out the chips or money, there’s a good chance you’re facing a bluff and you should call. But if there is no attempt at a cover-up, there’s a good chance you’re facing a strong hand and you should fold. In our no-limit hold ’em example, you should call with your queens if there’s a cover-up attempt. But if there’s no cover-up attempt, your opponent probably has aces (probably with a compelling kicker, too) – so you should fold. — MC