Speech play; some people love it, some people hate it, some people have no idea what it is.
Let’s start there:
What exactly is speech play?
It’s when you use jibber-jabber to extract information or exert influence to gain an advantage over an opponent at the poker table. There is an argument for including non-verbal communication into this category, but I’m not going to focus on that today.
Speech-play is usually a contentious topic among players, and it seems to be the one of the most widely disparate card-room rules there is. For the most part, once you’ve read one card-room rule book, you’ve read them all, but speech-play can be allowed at a wide variety of levels from absolutely none at all to a mouth-flapping free for all.
I’ve never played at any game where other players have allowed direct suggestion of action; we all seem to instinctively know that you can’t tell someone else to “call” in a multi-way pot.
As a player, I personally prefer freedom of speech-play, but that’s probably because I’ve got a rampant motor-mouth and think I’m dead clever. Sometimes, it would probably be better for my bankroll if I just shut my trap occasionally. Either way, as a player, I don’t care what the rule is, I’ll work in silence if needs be, but I recently had cause to consider just how useful speech-play is, and whether I should be studying it more before I start using it.
I consciously used speech-play this weekend whilst playing a £35 donkey-bounty at a local club. I’d been playing quite loose and aggro, there was a re-entry available, an okay guarantee and I’m very much in the mode of “trying moves” in my live game at the moment. I was getting good spots, good cards and had taken a head by the time I’d played two orbits. I was loving life.
A young man came to sit in seat 3, three seats to my right. He certainly looked the part, with a fluffy hoody and those headphones that make adult men look like special needs kids on a day trip to LegoLand. He knew some of the players, seemed competent with handling chips etc, my initial instinct was that he was not the weakest target on the table.
I did not know that I would play a monster hand against him very shortly.
We played one hand prior to the monster. He wasn’t a massively busy player, but the table was quite action happy, so I figured he could have just been waiting for a clean spot. I was on BB and he was c/o. He raised and it passed to me. I went for a cheeky 3-bet, and he limped. I c-bet the Qh flop and he raised. I guessed I’d zombied into this hand a bit and gave it up.
We had no further action together until I was UTG next orbit and found KK. I’d opened quite a few pots, so opened 3x, expecting some action from somebody, somewhere. Headphones gave me the action. He 3bet just under pot and got rid of everybody else. I noticed that he was nervous.
The human body is a marvellous machine; it is also a terrible snitch, leaking the secrets of your soul all over the poker table. I’m a trained clinical hypnotist, and to be any good at helping people via hypnotism, you need to be competent at reading micro-gestures and biofeedback. Developing this skill has application in other areas of life, as you can imagine.
Not why I did the course. No, I want help people. Help people.
Anyway, this guy was off the charts with nervous displays. His eyes were so wide he looked like an Anime character on Ecstasy and he started playing with his chips, a fussy, fiddling motion that he hadn’t done before. I wanted to take advantage of his nervousness. When the human body is displaying physical signs of psychological discomfort, the subconscious is vulnerable, it is very open to suggestion. I raised enough chips that he would be committed on the flop if he flatted, and my inevitable and immediate donk bet into an A-high flop wouldn’t be the least -EV play ever. I made my bet and then I opened my mouth.
I decided to take the verbal line of telling him how much he did not want to call. It was important for me to use phrases such as “you know you aren’t going to call.” This isn’t the forum for going into NLP and hypnosis, but what’s really important to know about the sub-conscious, is that it doesn’t really understand a direct negative. You can’t tell a sub-conscious NOT to do something, so I didn’t want to use the phrase, “You shouldn’t fold.”, his sub-conscious, in its nervous confusion, would only hear ‘fold’, which is not the suggestion I wanted to give him.
I wanted him to call.
He twiddled and I jabbered. One of the other players, a gorgeous, poker-hunk of a man called Craig, said to Headphones: “Don’t let her get into your head!” Fantastic supporting suggestion there; Headphones’s sub-conscious heard “let her get into your head”, thank you Craig, you leggy wonder!
Headphones eventually cut through the noise from my face-hole by raising all in. I snapped him. I was never passing KK there, I’m not interested in any other opinion on that. If you think I should have passed there, you aren’t playing enough £35 donkaments, those players never have AA there in a these tournaments.
Of course, he had AA. He wasn’t nervous, he was excited.
I should have gone to hypno-glasses warehouse, what a misread. I congratulated him on the hand as the dealer decimated my stack and left me with a few grains of rice. He looked a bit shell-shocked, as if he’d lost the hand, when he’d justly won it. I tried to engage him on the topic of my talking through that hand, as it had obviously been an entirely impotent waste of air, he was always calling, I was never passing, that hand plays itself. I wanted to know what thoughts he’d had during the hand, but he wasn’t up for hearing any more from me; fair enough, he’s certainly not the first.
I have used the same speech-move with good effect with a light four-bet, on several occasions, goading a player to fold what must be the best hand, when they are physically displaying that they are nervous about it, by battering them with “you really do not want to fold to me, never play tight against me.” This has worked effectively with experienced players who are facing a marginal decision.
In my ongoing mission to practise new moves, can I say I tried something and it failed, or that the end technique is sound, but only as effective as the initial read? Would I have goaded him into a call there with AQ, AJ or 1010? I can never know, because sometimes, speech-play, like a lot of other things in poker, become entirely redundant because the cards speak the loudest. What I took away from this amusing, albeit slightly embarrassing, encounter with Headphones and his damned pocket AA, is that I need to sharpen my tools. If I want to make profitable use of the time, effort and money I’ve put into developing an understanding of people’s minds based on how their bodies are behaving, then I’d best make sure I can differentiate between two major emotions.
This skill has the potential to give me an edge over players who haven’t developed it, but it turns very quickly from a weapon to a suicide-belt if I don’t master the basics of the skill before I start to get creative with it.
If I reckon I can talk people into making the wrong move based on my read on their emotional response to their hand, fear and excitement are the two most expensive emotions to confuse at a poker table.
What a numpty I am.
That said, I don’t want to be too hard on myself. For the first time, I feel like I’m starting to play my own game of poker. I’m thinking for myself, I’m being more creative and I’m pushing myself outside my comfort zone. I’ll definitely go wrong sometimes, but I don’t want to be afraid of that.
I still believe speech-play can be a potent kicker in marginal spots and the ability to use it well is a valuable poker skill. I don’t want to give up on speech-play just because sometimes it’s pointless and I’ll look like a dick. What I do want to do is make sure my own emotions are not clouding my judgement on my opponents’ emotions.
However much I love a bit of speech play, correctly identifying when an opponent is in emotional peril in a marginal spot is the ultimate poker skill. You can use your betting action to force their decision the wrong way; in the end, you can’t put your mouth where your money needs to be.