Players with good hands will sometimes feel relaxed enough to verbalize their fear of a better hand.
You’re in a no-limit Hold’em tournament. You raise pre-flop with Kh Qh. A player behind you three- bets it and you call. The flop comes Ks 9c 3h. You check to your opponent and he bets. You call. The turn comes the Jc, giving you a gutshot to go with your pair. You bet out fairly big. Your opponent thinks for a while, shaking his head, and says, “Oh, man, you got a set of Jacks? I know you hit a set of Jacks.” Then he pushes all-in. This speech, for whatever reason, makes you suspicious and you call. He shows you a set of 9’s.
I hear this kind of thing pretty frequently. When a player has a good but not great hand, he will sometimes quite honestly express his fears that someone has hit a better hand. The first hand to enter his fevered imagination is naturally the most plausible hand that is better than his. In the hand just mentioned, if your opponent had pocket Jacks and had hit a set, and if he had thought he might be beat, he might have said, “Oh, man, you got a set of Kings?” If he’d had a set of Kings, he might have said, “Oh, man, you got the straight?”
This tell only happens because the player has a strong hand. If he didn’t have a strong hand, he probably wouldn’t be relaxed enough to say anything. And if he did say something he probably wouldn’t be expressing concern.
And this tell doesn’t have to be an expression of very serious worry. In some cases, like in the set of 9’s hand, it will be very unlikely that a player’s hand is beat. But the player is relaxed and says the first thing that comes to his mind. Also, stating his fear of a better hand, however unlikely, serves another purpose: expressing the possibility of being beat will make the player feel better in the event he is actually beat. In the set of 9’s hand example, if you had actually beat the guy with a set of Jacks, he could say, “I knew you had that set of Jacks. But what could I do?”
A player who has been complaining for quite some time, but who now is quiet and seemingly relaxed, probably caught a good hand.
Some players love to tell people about how bad they’re running. They tell everyone at the table about how they can’t get a hand, how all their hands get beat, how they can’t ever catch a straight or a flush, how everyone draws out on them, how they never get big pairs.
Some players will make it obvious how much they are disgusted with things, even during a hand. They’ll wear a disgusted look throughout every hand; they’ll shake their head in disbelief at their misfortune. Or maybe they’ll just have a subtle, perpetual scowl. If you’ve played cards for a while, you’ve seen this behavior before.
So when you see a player who’s acting like this suddenly change demeanor in the middle of a hand, you should be cautious. If this player is suddenly peaceful and friendly, and less grumpy than he’s been lately, then you should be on your guard. Try not to give him your money, so he can move on to complaining about how nobody ever calls him when he has a good hand.
There are so many potential sources for tells, it begs the question, “How can you possibly observe all of this behavior at the table?”
The quick answer is: you can’t possibly observe and interpret all behavioral information while you’re playing poker. And you shouldn’t even try. Trying to observe everything at the table will drive you nuts. Observing too intensely is draining and is not conducive to playing long sessions.
Not only that, worrying too much about tells distracts you from the much more important task of figuring out your opponents’ basic playing tendencies and strategies. Focusing on fundamental strategy is by far the most important thing you should be doing with your mind when you’re playing. Poker tells are something to pick up as you go, in those moments when your mind is not occupied, or after you already have a good understanding of your opponents’ styles.
Experience will let you figure out what the most important tidbits of information are and how best to gather them. You will become more efficient at watching people. You will remember what has worked for you in the past.
Also, remember that there’s no one correct way to study tells. Everyone will approach the information-gathering process differently. How you gather information at the table will be a function of your own personality and preferences. For example, I generally avoid any obvious watching of opponents; I prefer to gather information with peripheral vision and quick glances. More outgoing players might take a more in-your-face approach by staring at people or initiating conversations to actively gather information. I tend to focus a lot on eye contact tells and facial expression tells; others may find they read body posture or hand movements more easily. There is no correct method; there is just what you grow into and what feels natural to you.
You should think of the descriptions of common tells in this book as starting points to make your own observations. Some people will display many of these tells as I’ve described them. Others will show different variations of these tells, or tells completely opposite of the ones I’ve described. Some people will not have any noticeable tells.
There are no certainties when it comes to poker tells. But, over time, patterns become apparent. If you are attuned to the major ways tells can present themselves, you will pick up on some of those patterns. That was my goal with this book; to prepare you to observe tells no matter how they are presented, even when they aren’t what I’ve described here. To make you better at watching people.