This is a useful strategy for keeping a player friendly toward you without showing him how you play.
Let’s say there’s a fish in a no-limit game with whom you’ve become friendly. At some point you bluff him out of a pot on the river. He folds and asks, “You hit the flush, huh? Come on, let me see it.”
You don’t want to show him your bluff; you’d rather let him think you had a good hand. But you don’t want to say you had a good hand and not show the cards, either, because that isn’t usually perceived as being very friendly. So instead, you fold your hand and tell him, “I wouldn’t mind showing you, but I don’t want to show all these other people. I’ll tell you later.” He’s appeased and stays friendly. Then later you can tell him whatever you want about the hand.
An attempt to get a weak player to show his cards.
After a mediocre player has bet and his opponent has folded, and if I’m curious what the mediocre player held, I will frequently say “good bluff” in a very serious tone of voice. This will sometimes result in the player turning his hand face up or else telling me what he had. People sometimes do this
out of a desire to prove me wrong and show that I’m not as smart as I think. Or sometimes, with players I’m sitting next to, they’ll lean in and whisper what they had out of a sense of camaraderie.
This works a surprising percentage of the time, even sometimes when I think it’s very unlikely, considering the stakes. If it doesn’t work, it doesn’t work, but it has no real downside other than potentially irritating someone.
By how you talk and conduct yourself at the table, you can build an image and reinforce the mistakes of other players.
Your “image” at the table refers to how other players perceive you. You can build an image just by the way you play your cards. You might be perceived as a LAG, or a rock, or unpredictable, or known for big river bluffs, or a degenerate gambler, or more than one of these things. A good poker player knows how he is perceived by his opponents. He keeps track of how that perception can change due to game conditions, and tries to take advantage of how other players perceive him.
With players who don’t know you, you can also build an image with how you talk and how you hold yourself. You may strive to give off an image of being wealthy and uncaring about the money. You may attempt to act less knowledgeable about poker than you are. If your act is convincing, most poker players, even competent ones, will apply the logic of Occam’s Razor and come to the most-likely conclusion: that you’re a mediocre player, not a good player trying to act like a mediocre player. It’s a logical conclusion because there are many more mediocre players than there are good players.
The most useful images to build are the ones that influence your opponents to play in certain, predictable ways. For instance, it’s widely recognized that if your opponents are playing too tight, you’d like to influence them to play even tighter. Similarly, if your opponents are playing too loose, you’d like to influence them to play even looser. Ideally, you’d like to exaggerate their basic mistakes to make them even easier to play against.
What does this mean in practice? Let’s say you’re playing an opponent that folds too much. Generally speaking, you wouldn’t want to show this opponent your bluffs, because that would encourage him to start calling more, and play a better strategy. It’s a much better plan to try to encourage him to continue folding, and to even fold more if possible. How might you do this?
Doyle Brunson pointed out one strategic way to accomplish this in his book SuperSystem. He recommended to be aggressive, but not overly aggressive, so that the opponent’s attention isn’t drawn to how much he is being bullied. If he becomes aware that he’s being bullied, he’ll take more stands against you and play closer to correct strategy. Being aggressive, but not overly aggressive, allows you to continually steal pots from him without him becoming attuned to what is happening. (Although, with the right players, getting them angry and on tilt could be just what you want to accomplish.)
Another method, which is more psychological than strategic, would be to choose what hands you show to this player and what kinds of things you say to him. For instance, when you actually have a
strong hand, and he folds, you might choose to show it to him, to reinforce his idea that you are getting involved only with good cards. You might act disappointed that he has folded in a big pot, so he gets the idea that you’d prefer him to not fold as much. When you bluff him off a big pot and he asks you what you had, you could choose to lie and tell him you had a big hand. These are all ways to subtly encourage him to continue folding.
Similarly, with players who are too loose, you’d like to encourage them to play even looser. You want to encourage their fundamental mistakes. With these players, you might show them your bluffs and you might tell them that you bluffed them out of a pot when you were actually value-betting.
With opponents who are too aggressive, but not good, you might want to increase their aggression. You might imply that you are reluctantly folding decent hands, or even show a tough fold, in an attempt to increase their aggression. If they think you’re afraid to play a big pot without the nuts, it increases the chances that they will make big careless bluffs against you.
Sometimes, though, you want players to slow down against you in order to make them more predictable. If you’re playing with decent, aggressive competition, it might be to your advantage to make them think you’re willing to call down very light. This might be an image you establish by actually calling down light a couple times, or you could try to establish this image by only giving the impression that you’re willing to call down light. For example, if you make a typical call against someone on the river with an overpair, and you lose, and someone asks you what you had, you might say you only had second pair, or top pair with a weak kicker, in an effort to appear more “unbluffable”.
When trying to build an image with your words, you shouldn’t make your performance over-the-top. For instance, in the example where you’re telling someone you called down pretty light, you shouldn’t tell them you called with a ridiculous hand, like bottom pair. No one’s going to believe you if you say you’re always calling down really light but you’re playing very few pots. And no one’s going to believe you if you claim you’re always bluffing but you’re playing very few pots. Your lies and deception should be subtle and believable, and fit in believably with your observable playing style.
For many people, false tells conjure the following kind of story to mind:
In a big no-limit Hold’em game, a player exclaims, “Hot damn!” every time he’s bluffing. He does this all night long, bluffing at small pots here and there and saying “Hot damn” until he’s sure most of his opponents have picked up on his tell. He waits for a huge pot to develop when he’s holding the nuts. Then he makes a huge bet and exclaims, “Hot damn!”, which causes his “observant” opponent to call him.
It’s a fun story. But there’s a number of reasons why this thing will hardly ever happen in real life. For one thing, all the times the hero of this story is saying “hot damn”, he must also be bluffing at a pot and he must also get caught bluffing, in order to build up the tell in his opponents’ minds. In order to set someone up for his false tell, he’s losing money by playing sub-optimally.
He also has to wait for the perfect situation in which to cash in on this false tell. The game would have to be very deep to justify this kind of deception. Even in a deep game, and assuming his false tell is perceived just as he wants it to be perceived, there’s no assurance the perfect all-in situation would come up that would reward him for this whole act.
The third problem is that he can’t be sure that his opponents are even noticing his act. If they’re savvy enough to notice his behavior, they might be savvy enough to realize what he’s doing.
So you can forget about using false tells for long, complicated, meta-game fake-outs, like we saw in that story. The most useful method of using false tells is just by faking well-known poker tells against somewhat-decent opponents. And these opponents should also be strangers to you, so that they’re more likely to give you credit for being a fish and therefore believe your tells.
A simple example of this: you’ve sat down in a no-limit Hold’em game, with players you’ve never played with before. You’re heads-up against a tight, decent player on the turn. You think he’s very likely ahead, so you make a substantial bluff while saying in an uncertain tone of voice, “I guess I’ll bet” and shrugging. Now, if you’ve pegged your opponent right, he’ll have enough basic poker tell knowledge to interpret your actions as indicative of great strength, and he’ll fold.
Mimicking a common tell like that is, in my opinion, the only practical way to use false tells. It’s not something worth doing very often, but it can sometimes be a useful trick when playing with new opponents.
Faking common tells will tend to work against even quite experienced players. In the example I just gave, a very good player may notice your behavior and it might occur to him that you’re performing a false tell. But false tells are just so rare; if the good player doesn’t have any other knowledge of you, he will have to assume the most likely explanation: that you’re just a fish.
Also, even if a player thinks it’s possible you might be performing a false tell, most players don’t want to risk being wrong in such a situation. If you perform a tell that your opponent knows usually means great strength, your opponent doesn’t want to feel stupid by calling you just because he has a hunch you’re performing a false tell. Because if he calls you and you turn over a good hand and he loses, he’s going to have the added pain of knowing he spotted a common tell and didn’t act on it as he should have.
Again, faking false tells should only be used against strangers, because strangers won’t know your playing style, or how skilled you are. Strangers will always be more likely to believe you are a fish than believe you are a decent player pulling a complicated move on them. This is just because there are a lot more fish than there are good players.
The other reason you really can’t use false tells against players you play with regularly is because false tells have rapidly diminishing value. If a regular player sees you using false tells a couple times, he’ll adjust, even if he just adjusts by ignoring your behavior altogether. If you continue to try to fake regular players out, you’ll get into a complicated mental war with them where you won’t be able to predict how your premeditated tells will be perceived by them.
Here are a few more examples of how some common tells can be used as false tells:
Example 1: I’m in a no-limit Hold’em game with strangers. I’m heads-up against a tight pre-flop raiser. I flop a flush draw. I think it’s likely my opponent has an overpair and will call any semi-bluff bet or check-raise I might make, so I just call his bet on the flop. The turn brings a blank. I think if I check, I’m probably in for a large bet if he has an overpair. If I bet out a standard amount, I’ll be raised if he has the probable overpair. So I put on an expression of obvious disappointment, shake my head in a disgusted way, and I bet a third of the pot. My opponent looks at me with a bewildered look on his face and just calls. My false tell of looking disappointed (meaning strength to many players, even inexperienced ones) probably enabled me to get a cheap draw.
Example 2: I’m heads-up in a no-limit Hold’em tournament. It’s the turn and I have a flush draw and a straight draw. My opponent makes a substantial bet. I think for a while with a disappointed look on my face, and then push all my chips in while saying, “Well, I’ve only got a little bit left. Might as well go all-in.” The player looks at me knowingly for a while, shaking his head. He knows what it means when a typical player makes excuses for going all-in. He folds.
Example 3: It’s a no-limit Hold’em game. I’m heads-up with a good player who I’ve only played a few pots with. I have a strong hand and make a bet on the river that I think it’s unlikely he will call. In order to add to my chances of getting called, I get very still after betting and put a small, slight smile on my face. (Both of these are tells good players know bluffers often have.) He studies me a while and calls my bet.
Example 4: In a no-limit Hold’em game, I’m against a decent player on the river. I make a value-bet and he thinks about calling. When he reaches for his chips to shuffle them, I fake the tell of threatening to turn my cards over. Seeing this well-known tell for weakness, he calls my bet.
Example 5: Here’s one example of a false tell I used to use pretty regularly. It was a no-limit game, and there was an old man who was pretty decent, but who had a few glaring weaknesses in his game. If someone waited a really long time before betting, he would invariably think they were trying to Hollywood him with a strong hand (which is generally a good assumption in most games). He’d give their bet way too much respect and he would fold very good hands, sometimes face-up, saying something like, “Nice try”. I would occasionally use this knowledge against him when we were heads-up and I wanted to pull off a bluff. I’d wait a very long time and then bet or raise. He always folded when I did this. (Of course, if he ever were to call me and see what I’d done, I would have to adjust.)
Example 6: A long pause followed by a check is frequently a tell of weakness amongst predictable players. Decent players are aware of this. Against decent players, I’ll occasionally try to induce a bluff by taking a long time to check to them.
Bluffing and the “Calling Reflex”
As has been pointed out, it’s a natural instinct for bluffers to get quiet and still. You might surmise that because of this, you’d be better off acting animated and physically loose when bluffing. But this would be a mistake.
As Mike Caro pointed out in his book, bad poker players have what he termed a “calling reflex”. Many gamblers are just looking for excuses to put their money in the pot. You don’t want to do fancy psychological tricks with these players when you’re bluffing, because they’re liable to perceive anything out-of-the-ordinary as giving them a reason to make a call against you. The best general advice is to remain consistently unreadable whether you’re bluffing or value-betting.
I’ve occasionally faked the false tell of being talkative (when I was bluffing) with players who I thought were decent enough to interpret my false tell in the way I wanted it to be interpreted. But, 99% of the time, you should just have a consistent style of behavior so you won’t have to worry about trying to psych out your opponents in such ways.
“Fancy play syndrome” and false tells
When first starting out at live poker, I used to be way too fancy for my own good when it came to false tells. I was constantly trying to deceive my opponents with complex acts, even though most of my opponents were not thinking much beyond what their hand was.
The most important thing I’ve since realized is this: you should not perform an action unless you have a relatively good idea of what the consequences of that action will be.
This could apply to any action you take in poker, or in any game, or in most real life situations. Ideally, you want to know how people are likely to respond to your actions. For example, before you bluff-raise the river, you should have some reason to believe it’s probable your opponent will fold (or at least will fold often enough for your bet to result in a positive expected value).
As the lesson applies to false tells, the lesson is: don’t present a false tell if you’re not pretty sure how it will be perceived. Against most opponents, good or bad, it is hard to predict how they will interpret your actions. If they are bad players, it’s a crapshoot as to what strange conclusions they will draw from your behavior. If they are good players, it’s likely they can figure out what you’re doing. If you don’t have a good idea how your deception will be interpreted, you should just focus on playing your A-game.
There are many players who try to perform false tells only when they have strong hands, because those are the moments when they are relaxed enough to try such a thing. For example, some players with strong hands will try to consciously “look weak” by feigning uncertainty, or looking down at the table, or doing something else that is out-of-the-ordinary for them. These players are only thinking of the specific hand they’re playing, and not how people may be observing their behavior over the course of many hands. In this way, their attempts at false tells actually become their tells.