Betting fashions have been a real thing ever since I started to play poker seriously 13 years ago. In general, there are two types of plays people make in poker. (I’m oversimplifying, but bear with me.) First, there are the “fundamental plays.” You raise with A-A pre-flop. Why do you do that? Because it’s a good play. It makes money. You want to raise your strong hands. This is a fundamental play.
Second, there are the “fashion plays.” You check and call the flop with middle pair, but you bet out on the turn for one-third pot no matter what comes. Why did you do this? Or, more to the point, why do so many 2-5 players do this? There’s nothing obviously correct about this particular play. Sure, you can rationalize it, but it’s sort of arbitrary. Why not bet full pot? Why not check-raise? Why not check and call again? What is special about check-calling the flop, then betting out small on the turn with a particular kind of hand?
If you haven’t played enough to know what I’m talking about, that’s fine. It’s almost better that you don’t, actually. If you haven’t been exposed to these plays, you probably won’t be imitating and making them, and you’ll be able to see them more clearly for what they are.
I call these kinds of plays “groupthink.” Player pools at card rooms are social structures. You play with the same players every day or every week, and the social rules of human behavior kick in. You begin to copy those around you. You shy away from doing things that will set you apart, particularly if that thing is conspicuous. This is natural. It’s ingrained in our brains.
Over time, certain sets of rather specific plays, often strategically unsound, become commonplace. There’s no real reason to play these hands in a particular way. It’s often not the best way to play them. But everyone does it and it becomes a fashion that takes hold of many regular players in a regular game. The first instance of groupthink I spotted was in 2003, in the Bellagio’s 15-30 and 30-60 limit hold ’em games. A lot of the regulars started to play top pair, weak kicker, in a very specific way. If you bet into them on the flop, they would call. If you bet again on the turn, they would raise. If you called and checked the river, they would check it back.
It was uncanny. For a while, many of the regular players would
dutifully play their top pairs this way over and over. And while you could see the logic, it wasn’t optimal. There were few other hands these players played this way. So you could fairly assume someone held a weak top pair when you saw this betting pattern. (Many of these players would also fold their pairs if you reraised the turn and bet the river.)
These betting fashions, by their very nature, are often local in nature. The peculiar tics of the 2-5 Las Vegas player pool will differ from those of the 5-10 Los Angeles pool, which will differ yet again from those in Florida games, and so forth.
But be on the lookout for particular betting lines that players in your games take with specific hands. The most relevant hand types are often marginal made hands—top pair/weak kicker, or middle pairs, or draws. These are often the tougher hands to play, so many players rely on a rote approach that becomes common. If you can identify this rote betting sequence, you’ll have a huge edge in all the hands where an opponent takes a fashionable betting line.
I’m not an expert on physical tells so I don’t have a lot to say on the topic. I do use them sometimes, so they’re worth a mention. The ones I use most fall into the general category of “lack of interest” tells. Players have these behaviors when they’ve looked at their cards and decided they won’t play for the pot. For example, some players will look at their cards pre-flop, and if they’re folding, they’ll hold their cards carelessly waiting for the action to get to them.
When you see this particular tell, you can play pre-flop as if you were one seat closer to the button. If you’re two off the button, for instance, you would follow my early position recommendations. But if you catch someone to your left pre- folding, you can now play using my cutoff recommendations. Over time, these small adjustments will help you squeeze a few extra bucks out of your games.
You can see lack-of-interest tells post-flop too, especially in multi-way pots. If someone misses the flop from the blinds, they’ll sometimes make it obvious they don’t intend to go after the pot. If you catch lack-of-interest tells from one or two players, it can make it worthwhile to take a small stab at the pot in hopes that other players are also folding.
Other tells I watch for are discomfort tells. It’s hard to put into words what I look for. But many times players will give off body language that betrays a lack of confidence about the upcoming action. They’re worried about something. They’re worried they’re
beat. They’re worried they’ll get drawn out on. They’re worried you’ll raise if they bet.
If I catch a discomfort tell, I am more likely to consider a bluff, especially one that puts stacks into play.
If you want to learn more about physical tells, I recommend the excellent books by Zachary Elwood, Reading Poker Tells and Verbal Poker Tells.
I’ll be honest. It’s hard to learn and identify live reads from a book. It’s an area where experience will be the best teacher. But take a few things from this section.
First, live reads are important. I haven’t listed that many here, but I use them all the time. It behooves you to figure out how to incorporate them into your decisions and strategies.
The reads I rely on the most are bet-sizing tells. These tells are everywhere in live no-limit cash games. Many players don’t think clearly about how they bet and as a result they tend to fork their ranges in a way that gives away too much information.
Every time your opponent bets, you have a chance to glean a bet-sizing tell. If they’re responding to your bet, however, and if they don’t raise, they can’t give you a tell. Because these tells can be so valuable, it’s worth it to play a hand a little more passively. The value of raising and taking control might actually be less than the value of allowing your opponent to take another action and give off a possible tell. Always consider alternate ways to play hands, particularly if you’re considering ending the betting action early by raising or shoving pre-flop or on the flop. In live 2-5 games, I often find myself drawing hands out to the turn and river in an attempt to elicit a bet-sizing tell.
Bet-sizing tells aren’t the only information you can get if you draw out a hand. You can also get a physical tell.
For instance, say your opponent bets the flop. You have a hand you might raise with, but instead you choose to call in position. The turn card completes a flush draw. Your opponent shows discomfort with the card and then bets a small amount. These two pieces of information—the physical tell and the bet-sizing tell— together can give you clear guidance about how to continue. If you’re always raising flops and getting stacks in early, you miss these opportunities.
Betting fashions are another way that players give away information about their hands—if you let them. Once you become a card-room regular at certain stakes, you should be able to identify a few clear betting patterns that many of the other regulars tend to use. These patterns often involve an attempt to navigate through muddy waters with a marginal hand. First, you have to give your opponent a chance to complete the pattern. Once you see it, it’s often trivial to react with the perfect counter- strategy. (Usually the counter-strategy is to blow your opponent out of the hand.)
Here’s the bottom line. Many no-limit hold ’em players live in fear of the turn and river. These are the streets where scary cards often arrive. They’re also the streets where the bets are biggest. In an attempt to avoid difficult play on these streets, many players attempt to short-circuit the game by shoveling money in pre-flop and on the flop.
If you wish to be a superior player, however, you must resist this temptation. The turn and river will eventually become your best friends, precisely because they feel so threatening to your opponents. Under the pressure that comes from these streets, your opponents will crack, and they’ll give off information about their hands and their intentions in a number of different ways.
Harder to do than say. But try to relax and let your hands get to these later streets. Then throw the action to your opponents so they can tell you just how they feel. Armed with this extra information you can often play your hand to perfection.