During-action tells are tells that occur from the moment it becomes a player’s turn to act, until the moment the player completes their action.
During-action tells include the length of time it takes to bet (these types of tells are called bet-timing tells), the betting motion itself, and any verbal or physical behaviors that accompany an opponent’s bet or check.
This chapter is not broken up into strong or weak like the other chapters.
The length of time it takes a player to act can be a result of many factors.
The length of time spent on completing an action is much more likely to be truthful in limit than it is in no-limit. In limit poker you won’t see physical and verbal deception very often because, in the fixed- limit format, it just doesn’t pay to spend a lot of time trying to deceive your opponents. Decisions come fast and furious, with each individual decision being much less important than any similar decision in no-limit.
In limit, immediate bets or raises (and by immediate, I mean occurring in a half-second or less) are very likely to represent very easy decisions, and very easy decisions usually indicate good hands. You will not often see someone bluff immediately when the river comes (although most people will usually bluff within a couple seconds).
Also, in limit, long pauses will usually represent genuinely difficult decisions. Most regular players will not spend a long time acting as if a decision is hard when it is not; this is because they don’t want to antagonize people by slowing up the game. Plus, the usefulness of deception is greatly reduced in limit because the bets and pots are smaller. (But if the amount of a single bet is meaningful to a player, his actions will more likely approach the tell behavior seen in no-limit. An example of this would be limit at nosebleed stakes, like the Andy Beal matches1.)
1Andy Beal is a Texas multimillionaire businessman who challenged a group of the best poker players in the world (Jen Harman, Barry Greenstein, and Phil Ivey, to name a few) to heads-up limit Hold’em battles. Some of these games were played as high as $50,000/$100,000 – still the highest limit games ever played. Read the book “The Professor, The Banker, and the Suicide King” by Michael Craig for a great telling of this story.
In no-limit, it is much more common for behavioral deception to take place, because each individual decision is so important. It is much more common in no-limit to see actions mean the opposite of what a superficial interpretation of the situation would indicate. A complete novice to poker (and to deception) might infer that a quick bet means strength and a bet that takes a long time means weakness or indecision. But in no-limit, where there is more value to deception, mediocre players are more prone to bet rather quickly when bluffing and to take a longer time when value betting. Good players, on the other hand, will disguise their hand strength by balancing the length of time it takes them to act.
Of course, all of that is a very simplified explanation. Bet-timing can vary greatly in any game, at any stake. There are just so many different situations, and so many different player tendencies. Also, bet- timing tells are one of the more consciously controlled behaviors, which means there will be more “acting” and therefore a lot more complexity and confusion. To illustrate some of the complexity in this area, here are a few examples of tendencies you might see in some players.
– You might have a player who often takes a long time before he checks when he has a weak hand. He is giving the impression (either consciously or unconsciously) that he has things to consider and might have a hand that warrants a call.
– You might have another player who, when he checks, always checks quickly, whether his hand is strong or weak. He doesn’t want to give anything away about his hand so he strives to equalize his behavior, even if that means not thinking that long about his decision.
– You might have another (more tricky) player who, when he holds a strong hand, will often wait a long time before checking, in an attempt to induce action from an opponent who he hopes will read him as weak for doing that. (This is an example of a false tell.)
This gives a very quick glimpse of some of the complexity when it comes to bet-timing tells. And these examples were only talking about checks. Factor in bets, raises, re-raises, different positions, and multi-way pots, and you’ve obviously got massive behavioral complexity.
The best advice I can give is that correlation and consistent observation will help you make sense of some of these things. Just know that it is a complicated area, so don’t be discouraged if you don’t make quick progress.
The most important thing to consider is a player’s known playing style and their motivations in the hand. A player will sometimes purposefully take a certain length of time during their turn-to-act, based on what they are trying to accomplish in the hand. So the first thing to ask yourself is, “What are they trying to accomplish by acting quickly or by taking a long time?”
The following sections include some general observations about bet-timing. This advice will apply primarily to no-limit games, though some of it will also apply to limit. As stated, though, limit betting is generally quick, with less information to be gained from these type of tells.
Speed of Checking
In no-limit Hold’em, it is a common strategy for the pre-flop raiser to follow up his pre-flop raise with a bet on the flop. (This is known as a continuation bet.) Some opponents who hold strong hands will check quickly to the pre-flop raiser, because they don’t want to prevent the pre-flop raiser’s natural inclination to fire a continuation bet. They don’t want to arouse suspicion by taking too long to check.
Most average players who hold mediocre or weak hands will take a few seconds to check to a pre- flop raiser in significant pots. If you’re the pre-flop raiser and you’re heads-up with an average player who usually takes a few seconds to check to you, and now he has checked quickly to you, this should make you wary. (“Quickly” in this case is relative, depending on how fast the player usually acts. It might be anywhere from one second to five seconds, depending on what’s normal for that player.)
A quick check from a player who is last to act is not as worrisome. Often the player last to act is just grateful to have gotten a free card and isn’t thinking too much about his image or how his actions may be interpreted.
Your average player who is last-to-act and takes a long time to check is similar to the first-to-act player who does the same thing; he is probably weak. This player often wants his opponent(s) to think he was considering a bet but changed his mind.
When combined with other tells, bet-timing tells can be very revealing. Let’s say it’s a pretty substantial heads-up pot and the turn card has just arrived. Your opponent stares at you while it’s your turn to bet (which we already know is a sign of weakness for some people). You check to him and then he takes a long time to check. While neither of these tells might be very powerful on their own, when combined they point to a fairly high likelihood that this player has a weak hand.
Or let’s say instead that this player is first to act and has checked to you quickly when the turn comes, which is a bit out-of-character for him. You study him; he doesn’t look at you; his gaze is focused on the table. These two factors (his speed in checking and his demeanor) might make it more probable he’s hit a big hand.