Note: Not at the old Poker1 site. A version of this entry was first published (2005) in Poker Player newspaper.
I confess. I’ve possibly caused a lot of poker players to go broke. It’s the truth and I’m not happy about it.
Years ago, I sat down with myself and examined my poker-playing life. It was 1978 or so, shortly after I’d contributed my section on five-card draw poker to Doyle Brunson’s original Super/System – A Course in Power Poker. That changed my life. Before that I had greedily guarded my poker secrets, refusing to share them with opponents. Giving away poker secrets seemed stupid.
Figuring it out yourself
But, when the book came out, I was rewarded in a way I hadn’t expected – an emotional way. Because I’d done real research on poker and my concepts rang true and were true, astute players realized this. They were grateful. The truth about poker had never before been published. Previously, it had been hit and miss, homespun wisdom, misinformation mingling with sparse admirable advice. You pretty much had to figure out poker on your own.
So, the acclaim filled a need within me that I didn’t know existed. I got caught up in the emotional reward of being widely appreciated. I wrote more and I research more and the gratitude sustained me. Looking back, I’m glad. So, one day I just decided that I was going to pursue poker education, helping others succeed. It was my calling. Statistics. Strategy. Psychology. One area missing from poker literature was a detailed analysis of reliable tells. So, over 20 years ago, I wrote Caro’s Book of Tells – The Body Language of Poker. The tells were all credible. And while many players undoubtedly prospered because of my book, I suspect many also went broke. If so, it wasn’t because the information was wrong. It was because the information was misused.
Let me explain it through the transcript of a lecture I gave years ago…
How to use tells
For years, I’ve taught the science of poker tells. I have a whole book on the subject, complete with pictures showing when opponents are bluffing and when they aren’t. And I explain why. This aspect of poker is so important that I’ve even produced videos on the subject. And I’ve spent years on research.
Previously, we’ve discussed a few specific tells, but today I want to talk about how players who should build considerable profit from tells fail to do so. And you don’t need to understand all the tells I talk about to use this advice. Sooner or later, you’ll be able to pick up tells on your own, just by observing your opponents carefully.
Maybe you’ll see that Robert taps his fingers rhythmically on the table. You notice that he continues to do so after he bets a strong hand, but he stops taping when he’s bluffing. This is, by the way, a classic tell from my book. What you’ve discovered isn’t a peculiar tell that’s special to Robert. In fact, most players become less animated when they’re bluffing. Instinctively, they don’t want to do anything to make you suspicious and cause you to call.
Then there are the actor tells. Players who sigh, shrug their shoulders, and use sad voices are very likely to hold strong hands. They’re trying to fool you by convincing you that they’re weak when they’re actually strong.
But even if you don’t read my books or follow my teachings about tells, you’re going to see some on your own.
Losing by misusing
Here’s what I want to teach you today. Tells can become one of the biggest factors in adding to your poker profit. You’ll make much less money if you ignore tells. But you’ll also make much less money if you recognize tells, but use them unwisely.
I believe most players – even serious players – use tells unwisely. There are three main reasons:
The first way players use tells unwisely is that they weigh them too heavily. A tell should be merely a clue to a possibility. A clue to a possibility. A clue to a possibility. A tell is a clue to a possibility — like seeing three suited cards on the flop and reasoning that your opponent is more likely to have a flush than if there were only two suited cards on the flop.
There are some tells that are overpowering and almost 100 percent accurate, but most aren’t. The ones that aren’t that accurate should be treated as mere indicators. You should weight them along with all other factors, pushing you somewhat in the direction of one decision or another. For instance, a tell may indicate that you should throw your hand away, but if the pot is very large relative to the size of the bet and there are other indications that your opponent might have missed the hand or might be bluffing – based on the way the hand was played, you should often call anyway. If you’re giving tells the final say-so about your decision in all cases, you’re using tells unwisely and costing yourself money.
Bias toward calling
The second way players use tells unwisely is that they are always on the alert to spot tells that lead them to call a bet. Players instinctively have a bias toward calling. They came to play, not to fold. Because of this, deep psychological feelings cause them to ignore tells that would lead them to fold – or not to look for them very aggressively. But they sometimes overrate or imagine tells that lead them to call. Players who look for tells that lead them to call, but ignore tells that lead them to fold, are unbalancing their game, using tells unwisely, and costing themselves money.
The third way players use tells unwisely is that they become too proud of their ability to read opponents. They’re apt to brag about making the right call with words like, “I knew you were bluffing.” It’s even worse if they say, “I knew you were bluffing, because you stopped tapping your fingers.” For a momentary ego boost, you’re wising up your opponent and you risk losing the value of that tell forever.
Don’t call with confidence!
How do I play it? If I have a 100 percent tell that a player is bluffing, I’m not going to immediately call with confidence. I’m going to pretend to ponder. Then I’m going to appear to make my call reluctantly. I might even say, “I think you’ve got me beat, but the pot’s too big to fold.” I’m going to say this sincerely. I’m going to sell it. And then my opponent is simply going to lose a pot, believing he almost got away with the bluff. I haven’t given him any clue that I was using a powerful tell to make my decision. Players who use their tell-reading abilities to impress opponents are using tells unwisely and costing themselves money.
So, we’ve learned to avoid three unwise uses of tells. We’ve learned that tells should usually be weighed as just another factor, not given final authority to decide. We’ve learned that we need to be just as vigilant in seeking tells that prompt us to fold as in seeking tells that prompt us to call. And we’ve learned to keep our egos out of tells and pretend we don’t see them, even when we’re using them to win lots of money.
This is “The Mad Genius of Poker” Mike Caro and that’s my secret today. — MC