The previous section dealt with rather subtle hand movements that were mostly unconscious. Now I’ll address the very forceful bets you will occasionally see players make. This kind of exaggerated behavior could be grouped under “strange behavior”, and strange behavior as a whole is usually indicative of a strong hand. (See ‘Acting strangely’ for more information.)

One of the common misconceptions about poker tells is that players who bet with a lot of physical force are betting this way to cover up a bluff. This idea has become part of popular poker knowledge; you can find it repeated a lot on the Internet and in poker tell books and articles.

In general, I think Caro’s strong-means-weak concepts are correct, but this is one of those cases where it has been misapplied. While there are some rare people who put on an aggressive demeanor when bluffing, this is far from the norm. Most people who bet in an aggressive, ostentatious, or “strange” manner are value-betting, not bluffing.

I’m referring to actions like shoving chips into the pot very hard, or throwing chips towards a specific opponent, or staring down an opponent when betting, or performing any ostentatious or over-the-top behavior that is out-of-the-ordinary for that player.

Bluffers want a potential caller to go away. For the most part, they don’t want to do anything strange that could arouse their opponent’s interest. This is true for almost everyone, regardless of skill level. Bad players are naturally reserved and restrained when bluffing, because they are anxious about getting called. Better players, while they are less anxious and are capable of being physically looser, know that the best course of action is to act calm and normal when bluffing, so as not to give an opponent a reason to call, even if it’s a false reason. (Good players will generally act consistently calm in all bluffing situations but, like all players, if they are throwing chips in forcefully or otherwise acting weird, they are more likely to have a good hand.)

For many average players, having a good hand is a big psychological release for them. It means they are free to get a little creative and crazy, to throw some chips around a little harder, to try to psych out their opponents with some table talk. These kinds of players will sometimes throw their bets in forcefully when they have made their hand. Or they might “talk shit” when they are strong. For many of your opponents, appearing strong in these ways will actually mean they are strong.

For these reasons, when you see a player betting in an ostentatious manner, you should be cautious. For example, if you see a guy fire his chips halfway across the table, you should be aware that this guy is probably not bluffing. Or if you see a guy reaching for just a few chips to make a small bet, and then seemingly change his mind and throw a bunch of chips in, that’s probably a strong hand. If a guy bets into you while staring you down and giving you the middle finger, he is almost certainly not bluffing.

Differentiating subtle hand movements from exaggerated ones

I want to distinguish this more extreme tell from the subtle betting motion tells in the last section. A very forceful betting motion should be considered a separate type of tell.

For example, a player might have the following basic tendency: he pushes his chips in slowly and carefully when he has a strong hand, but tends to push his chips in with a little bit more forward force when he’s bluffing. He might also be capable sometimes, when holding a strong hand, of shoving his chips into the pot very quickly and forcefully, in an over-the-top manner (like maybe when he’s been losing a lot, or maybe when he’s angry at a certain player.) These three behaviors are not contradictory, even though they overlap a bit; this player (and many players) are just capable of exhibiting more than one behavior in a situation. If you don’t take this complexity into account, a player’s behavior can seem random and very confusing.

The main thing to remember from all of this is that whatever a player’s usual tendencies are, when he’s betting in an ostentatious or overly aggressive manner, there’s very little chance he is bluffing. I think this is an important concept to remember, because it covers a wide range of player behavior and will tend to trump a player’s more usual tendencies.


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