Note: Not at the old Poker1 site. A version of this entry was originally published (2008) in Bluff magazine.
Second of two parts.
The universe may be expanding forever, and someday our Milky Way galaxy may be alone, with the rest of the universe too far away to notice. Or this might not happen. Anthropogenic Global Warming — higher temperatures on earth caused by human activity — will doom civilization. Or maybe this isn’t so. Maybe it’s a hoax; maybe it’s a miscalculation; maybe it’s true. We won’t know until we see the river card. We may have some say-so over what happens, or these outcomes already may be determined by what cards remain in a previously shuffled deck.
Our lives are replete with uncertainty, and we play poker to honor that truth. Poker is a game where we focus on doubt and do our best to conquer it. We choose tactics that give us opportunities for profit, despite the uncertainty. We consider the strength of our cards and the sequence of wagering. We predict what opponents are likely to hold by the way they’ve played hands in the past. Maybe we put those factors together and make our choices. But that isn’t enough.
We’re forgetting about tells. Between all those profound philosophical discussions that constantly take place at the poker table, we have occasional opportunities to briefly concentrate our the cards — and on our opponents. In my mind, which obviously is a scary place to visit, skillful players can double their profits by having an excellent grasp of tells. So, last month, we examined three of my favorites.
To refresh your memory, or if you missed that column, here’s a brief summary of what we discussed:
The impatient knee. Sometimes, when opponents are sitting close by, you can see their knees shaking rapidly below the edge of the table. When they bet and you’re unsure whether to call, make a motion toward your chips. If the knee dance stops, that’s a clue that the opponent is weak or bluffing; if it continues, beware.
A quick glance at their chips. When the flop comes, see if any opponents glance briefly at their chips and then away, seeming uninterested. We learned that these players are likely to have helped their hands.
The extra-emphasis wager. And we discussed the tail-end of a betting motion. Learn to spot that subtle extra finger flick. It usually means the bettor is weak or bluffing.
And, now you’re up to date. Here are some more of my favorite tells.
If you ever witness a home poker game among beginners, you’ll see huge shoulder shrugs quite often. The shrug usually accompanies a bet. It means, “Oh, well, although I’m in doubt, I’ll give it a try.” Don’t be fooled.
In poker, most players are uncomfortable when faced with the reality that they have to lie about their hands. Well, actually nobody’s forcing them to lie, but they certainly can’t afford to tell the truth and be believed. If they do that, they might as well turn their cards face-up on the table. So, they’re faced with the choice of doing absolutely nothing (the poker-face method) or becoming bad actors in an attempt to deceive you (the act-weak-when-strong method).
A few players try to put on their poker masks, attempting to show no reaction, but often they do a poor job of concealing their emotions. Most players choose to be actors. They’re the most profitable source of tells, because they always do the same thing. They act weak when they hold strong hands and strong when they hold weak hands. Did you notice that I said “always”? Didn’t I mean “usually”? No, I meant always. You see, whether it’s a sophisticated opponent who’s trying to reverse a tell or a Simple Simon who’s exaggerating gestures to fool you, that opponent is always trying to act strong when weak and weak when strong. Sophisticated opponents might try to be clever, but whatever they do is always targeted at fooling you. So, it’s your job to determine in what way they’re trying to fool you and to avoid being fooled.
Now back to the shrug. When a novice holds a very strong hand that he’s sure he should bet, he’ll often shrug quite obviously. He wants to convey uncertainty or even weakness. He’s suggesting his bet is doubtful and that he might even be bluffing. Novices never shrug while betting unless they hold strong hands. So, you can always fold your medium-strong hands and save money.
Experienced players seldom provide an exaggerated shrug. But they shrug nonetheless. You just have to focus to notice it. You’ll see the semblance of a shrug even from world class players in high-profile televised events. The shoulders raise just slightly, but the shrug isn’t completed. It’s more of the absence of a shoulder slump than a forceful shrug. But it means the same thing. And when you see it, unless you hold a monster, you should usually fold.
Players who speak in sad voices provide some of my favorite tells. Always listen to opponents’ intonation when they announce their bets. Simplistic opponents may sing-song “I bet” pathetically, often accompanied by a sigh.
Stronger opponents don’t exaggerate this tone. But, again, the same tell exists. You just need to train yourself to hear it. Usually the tell from experienced players is a little less sad and more matter-of-fact. The point is, they use words to accompany their bet in a way that seems deliberately unconvincing. When you hear that, you’re usually facing a big hand and you should fold more eagerly.
Conversely, some players will announce a bet with a bit too much optimism. This also tends to indicate weakness. But that’s less reliable. The biggest profit comes from those sad voices. When you hear an opponent announce a bet in a sad voice — whether the sadness is exaggerated or muted — expect to be up against a strong hand.
And, remember, regardless of whether the universe expands or temperatures rise, cheer up — we’ll still have these powerful poker tells to guide us on our journey to the river. — MC