I have a few friends who are not poker nuts, not many, but there are a few. Some of these people would not know the difference between a straight and a flush, they think JQ is better than JJ because a queen is higher and they would assume deuces beat aces because, “a pair of twos beats a pair of ones” (actual quote from a non-pokerer).
Non-poker heads have heard nothing of the more subtle nuances of poker, and yet they’ve all heard of “tells”. Somehow, in a day and age of poker where the largest majority of serious players are using a computer to play against faceless opponents, people who have never been dealt a hand are aware of one of the most complicated soft-skills of poker.
How has this happened?
HOLLYWOOD, BABY, YEAH!
I’ve attached a video of Matt Damon being creepy and psychic in one of my favourite scenes from Rounders. If you’ve not watched it in a while, then remind yourself how brilliant and utterly ridiculous it is.
If you’re without wi-fi, here’s the short version. Damon walks cold into a room of players he hasn’t played with before and soul-reads the whole table. He takes over some old guy’s hand (without permission) starts lobbing chips about, destroys the whole table on an elaborate and speeched-up bluff and then flounces from the room like a Mystic Meg on amphetamines, with the claim “oh, I don’t play cards.”
Hmmm. Thanks Matt, you’re the reason my mum keeps picking up random objects and saying “What’s in my hand, Kat? You don’t know? You need to give up poker then!”
You’re the reason that my cousins say, “show me your poker face! Oh that’s crap”, and you’re the reason that when I estimate I have 50% equity against a guy’s playing range when he shoves 30% of the pot on the flop, then turns over the very top hand his range included, that less experienced players say “Kat! I thought you were good at poker! How did you not know he had quad Aces there?”
Hollywood juices it all up.
I’m a bit disappointed that I’ve got to 34years old without the need for going to court about anything, because I can’t wait to shout “YOU’RE OUT OF ORDER!” at a sleepy magistrate. What do mean that’s not how it works? Shut up lawyers, don’t ruin it for me, I’ll get my mate, Pacino, on you.
I’ve given up telling my non-poker acquaintances that “tells don’t work like that”, but not due to emotional exhaustion about the subject, more due to the fact that these people will then ask me “No? How does it work then?” and I don’t have a neat answer, which is embarrassing, because I’m supposed to know about poker, and yet I don’t seem to care about the bit of poker that everybody outside poker knows about.
As I principally play microstakes online, I do not see studying online timing/pattern/sizing tells as too much of an important part of my game. I’m not saying there is no truth to online tells, but I think they are only marginally reliable against good, regular online players. Even then, any information from my HUD is likely to supercede a timing tell, because he could just be wiping fried chicken grease off his fingers.
I started to look for ways to exploit players’ tells in my live game, not because I really believed it would increase my profit, but more because I was so bored in the early stages of live tournaments. The hand rate is slow, people tank/spanner chips/look confused way too much, and I found my hand selection slipping into mania in attempt to keep me awake. I decided I would attempt to make it more interesting for myself by noticing details, playing memory games and watching every twitch from every opponent.
Frankly, it’s exhausting, but when you watch someone closely, you’re more in tune with when something about their behaviour changes. In any environment, a change in behaviour is a big, red, psychological flag- they’re invariably up to summat. It’s all very clever, and deep, and all that shit, but it hasn’t really helped me much.
I want to tell you about two different situations that I got into where I actively used information gathered from tells. In both cases it was wrong, because I’m a numpty.
I was playing a crusty old live reg at a dingy local poker club. He has a superb physical tell, whereby if he has a strong hand, he will cover his cards with one or both hands, but they won’t be touching the table and so will be shaky, because he’s old. If he thinks he has a weak hand, then both his hands will be flat on the baize and steady. I’ve played with/dealt to him for around 5 years and it’s a nailed-on, reliable tell.
On this occasion, he min-opened from the h/j and placed his hands flat on the table. I re-raised from the sb and folded out the bb. I hadn’t looked at my cards, I 100% expected Old Man Shaky to fold.
He didn’t, the old sod.
The flop was Ah-Qh-4h. Shaky’s hands had not moved. I c-bet 60% of pot and he looked at me. I’m pretty sure he was trying to get a read off me, which would have been hard, given I’d not seen my cards yet. I smiled at him and he instantly flatted, I’m not sure what my smile told him except that I need some dental treatment.
The turn was 6c; my stack was about 1.5xpot and I shipped the lot, smiling all the way, and looking at Shaky’s flat, immobile hands. He tanked, and I relaxed. I had time to hope I didn’t actually have Kh10h in my hand, or I’d just smashed any potential value in the bum. Then he said “call”, the old twat.
I actually said “what?” out loud, because it was so unexpected.
He flipped over Ac-9d for top pair. I turned over one card, 2c, and wished I was dead, then turned over the other, 2h. I could not believe he had an Ace. I wanted to stand up and scream at him “but your hands, your damn hands, man! They did not move! You old slag, your hands have been reliable for half a decade and now they let me down? NOW?”
The dealer was a little genius and put the 9h on the river to fill my four-flush, what a lovely lad. Shaky was unimpressed, and he said to me, “What the fuck were you betting with there, love?”.
I sheepishly replied, “I just thought you were weak, I thought you were going to fold.”
“Yeah,” he said, “I thought I was weak too, but you bluff all the time, I’ve seen you, I decided…” he poked a wrinkly, shaky digit into my face, “… I decided, correctly, to call you. I’ll get you later.”
He didn’t get me later, I won the tournament and he went home to lose an argument with his own prostate, that’s poker/life, eh?
I was playing in the same club as mentioned above and there was a chap I didn’t know much about at the table. I’d seen him around, but not played with him before, and only dealt to him a couple of times. He’s a quiet chap, with a ruddy, smiley face and big red cheeks that wobble a bit when he moves, which isn’t very often as he only very occasionally limps into a pot and then folds the flop. After about four orbits, I have him pegged as a super-nit, and no real threat unless he finds a monster when I’m holder a slightly smaller monster.
I was on the bb and UTG min-opened, there were five callers, including Wobbly Cheeks. I looked at 6c7c and limped to the flop.
Flop presented as 2c-8c-9d and I’m pretty happy, so I check. The original raiser bets the pot and thanks to Wobbly limping, I decided to limp too. The turn was the Jc, and Wobbly Cheeks’s face vibrated to the point of explosion. His breathing became audible, his eyes were glistening and he occasionally made a tiny squeak, similar to the noise that dogs make when it’s Walkies time.
Orginal Raiser noticed too, and checked. The Cheeks instantly wobbled allin for around 3.5xpot. My mouth was pretty dry. I could tell that the Original Raiser was going to pass, from the way he sat back, putting a physical distance between him and the money. I had a flush, but I was scared.
Cheeks looked like a deranged Hamster with too many nuts in his face-pouches. He was looking at me hungrily, and his breathing was ridiculous, it sounded like he’d just run a half-marathon whilst carrying a canoe.
I’m not the world’s most disciplined player, by a very long way, but I had to read this tell as me being beat. AcXc was a seriously likely part of his range and it made me dead; there was no other hand he could be this excited about on this board. I reluctantly released my hand and cursed his Cheeky good fortune.
Wobbly Cheeks then said “Oh no! I bet too much. I’m always doing that, I finally get a hand, and then I scare all the customers away. My Dad told me I shouldn’t bet so much when I’ve got the nuts.”
I had just started to smile smugly when he turned over Qh10s for the Qhigh straight and no re-draw. I had 100% pot equity, with my opponent massively over-betting into me, and I passed. Profitable poker right there, kids.
I’d have called that bet in the games I play online, I’d passed live because of this guy’s “tell”.
Another player said:
“Mate, that’s not the nuts! What if someone had a flush?” Cheeky thought for a moment and then laughed.
“Then I’d be on my way home, I guess!” I shrunk in my seat and hated myself a bit; he hadn’t been bluffing, he just didn’t know what was going on. Neither did I, I suppose.
In both of these situations, I made ropey plays based on live tells. I made ropey plays because I ignored the golden rule of tells, it’s not just what the tell means to you, it’s what it means to your opponent.
I paid off Shaky because I omitted to factor in his opinion of me, his image of how I play. I make light calls myself, we all do; of course there’s a lighter call where there’s a looser player. I failed to give Shaky any credit for his years of playing me, and it should have cost me, I just got lucky.
I lost the pot to The Cheeks, because I failed to include the obvious information that he was a rank beginner, and top pair would probably have given him a stonk-on on that board. It was a big bet, and there is plenty of mathematical argument for folding, but I had information that I chose to ignore in favour of a “tell”, and it cost me. I was convinced he had me beat by his own misguided conviction that he had everyone beat; that’s not a tell, that’s a mis-direction, albeit an unconscious one in this case.
Tells can be useful, especially with great experience and in marginal spots, but they can also be dangerous. The information you get from another player’s tell is influenced by what you think of them already, and the usefulness of the information is dependant on what they think of you.
If I grow into a world-class live player (HAHA!) and am playing in £10k events with the best, then I will definitely spend more time on working out how understanding tells will improve my game. Before that, I’m going to spend more of my study time on game theory and maths, because I think it’s going to be more helpful in my immediate poker future.
I still watch other players closely when I play live, and I am not saying I’ll never use that information, but for now, for me, I’m telling myself to stick to maths and percentages when getting involved in big pots, because I’m not a Hollywood actor, my opponents won’t do what it says in my script, and I’d rather lose my money in a hand because I correctly assessed a guy’s range and he was at the top end of it, than because I made a mathematically questionable decision due to his eye twitching at an odd moment.
The best players in the world couldn’t do what Damon did in that Rounders scene, so I’m not going to feel too bad that I can’t either.
Hey, film makers! You don’t seem understand poker at all, and I’ll choose likleyhood learnings over Hollywood lessons every time: How d’ya like them apples?
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