TELLS AND READS

Unlike in the movies, tells are not anywhere near 100% accurate.

you study your opponent, scanning for information. The flop comes down and she quickly looks away, after glancing furtively at her chips. you’ve spotted a couple of tells—mannerisms, body language, or other specific parcels of information that reveal the strength or weakness of a hand. Based on what you’ve observed, you think she’s loaded. Sure enough, she comes out firing! your attentiveness has paid off. you’ve dodged a bullet.

A tell is a specific bit of information that may reveal the strength or weakness of an opponent’s hand. Careful, though! Tells are often highly accurate when they’re inadvertently projected by amateurs, but they’re just as often deliberate and deceptive when observed in a pro. Tells are sometimes very useful, and you need to be aware of them, but be wary of buying into them when you’re staring down a normally steely-eyed expert.

A read is different than a tell. A read is an agglomeration of multiple bits of information gathered over time that allows an attentive observer to create a “gestalt,” an organized whole impression that’s more than the sum of its parts. Virtually all great players have the ability to synthesize plays they’ve seen an opponent make with hands shown down, betting patterns, past conversations and expressed opinions, and a multitude of other factors, without conscious discursive thought to make an intelligent read and act accordingly. Note that reads are more art than science and require a lot of experience to perfect.

I recently played in the New Zealand Championship event. Early in the second day an interesting hand came up. I was in the small blind with blinds of 400/800 and a 100 ante. I had around 45,000 chips, a healthy CSI of 22.5, so I wasn’t under any pressure. My opponent had more chips than I did. It was passed around to me. I had Ts 8h and limped in. An aggressive player in the big blind whom I know well declined his option to raise. The flop was Qc Tc 8c.

I had bottom 2-pair, but of course, a flush was possible and I had no clubs. I bet 1,200 into the 2,400 pot and my opponent quickly raised to 3,600. What to do? My read was that he didn’t have a made flush. This read was made without consciously analyzing all the bits of information at my disposal, as I’m going to do for you now, but the gestalt that clearly came together was “no flush.” In this battle of the blinds, my aggressive opponent would have raised pre-flop with any pair, any ace, and most kings, so it was unlikely that he flopped a set or was holding either the ace or king of clubs; he’d also have raised pre-flop with QT, and probably also with Q8, a better than average hand. If he flopped a flush that didn’t include the ace or king of clubs, knowing the player, his raise on the flop would have been greater than 2,400. If he didn’t have a flush, a set, or 2-pair, what could he have? His most likely holding was top pair, either with or without a club draw, or just a draw. Hands such as Qh5c, Td9c, Jc3h, or something similar were in the range of hands that I put him on. I decided that I had the better hand.

Knowing that my opponent was enamored with the concept of fold equity, I decided to re-raise enough to show him that I was willing to commit to this hand and to try to convince him that he had no fold equity and was an underdog, if he was drawing; I re-raised to 15,000. If he called, and anything except a club came on the turn, my plan was to move in. To my surprise, he quickly went all-in! Even with my tournament life on the line, I was confident in my read that he didn’t have a made flush, straight, or a set, although his chance of having Q8 escalated a bit in my mind. If he didn’t have this precise hand, I was confident that I was ahead, so I called. He turned over Jc7d, a flush draw and a gutshot straight draw, giving him 12 outs. I was a 55%/45% favorite to become one of the chip leaders with only about 25 players left. A 3h on the turn catapulted me to about a 4/1 favorite, but a fatal 2c on the river had me walking. Bad luck! Even when you make the right read and have way the best of it, doesn’t mean it will always pan out. That’s poker.

If you made the right decision be happy even if the results didn’t go your way this time.

A tell is more specific than a read. It involves observation of a distinct sign that indicates either strength or weakness. often, but not always, this sign has been intentionally created to convince an opponent to make a desired action. For example, a player may slam his chips into the pot when he’s bluffing in an attempt to convince you that he’s strong (see “Live Tells” below).

Live or online, one of the most important parts of analyzing the likely holding of a person whom you know nothing about is his betting pattern—does it make sense? Does it tell a story? Is it consistent with how he might play a hand that beats yours? If not, you should be more likely to call. If so, it militates against calling, although you may need more persuasion to be convinced enough to fold.

one of the direct insights into your opponents’ thinking is observing the hands they show or that you can quietly look up online. To quickly check what an opponent mucked on PokerStars, click on the chip rack, then click on “Instant Hand History,” and find the hand you want. Think back through their actions and put the story of their hand together, noticing how they play various holdings. Jot down a note. This information will help you read them later when you lock horns.

ONLINE TELLS

online, you’re not looking for a shaking hand, crossed arms, or furtive glances, but there are still
some patterns to observe. The most common one is simply how long an opponent takes to respond. of course, we don’t know if the baby just turned breakfast over, or the doorbell rang, or the curtains are on fire … but in most cases a long pause adds emphasis to the action being taken. If a player thinks a long time, then checks, he likely has a weak hand and wants to see another card, hoping that you think he’s considering betting. He’s looking for a “free card.” Don’t accommodate him. Bet!

If a player “goes into the tank,” activating his time extension, and then bets … look out! often, he’s
got a huge hand and is just pretending to have needed an eternity to think. He may be thinking about how big a bet you’ll call. The most likely scenario, though, is that he’s just “hollywooding,” acting up a storm, and hopes you’ll think he’s weak. This is one of the situations where it’s most useful to be able to take notes. you might be unsure the first or second time you observe this pattern, but by the third time you’ve likely picked up an important tell.

A famous online player whose name I’ll keep to myself routinely stalls when he has a monster, making sure his time clock has been activated prior to putting in a substantial raise. In every instance, he’s shown a big hand when called. Most amateurs act right away with both very strong and very weak hands, but think about the hands that they’re unsure about.

Professionals are harder to pigeonhole, but most generally try to take the same amount of time on each decision, a la Chris “Jesus” Ferguson. Against amateurs, though, they may try to sneak in a curve ball if they think it might work, by making either slower or quicker decisions, depending on the circumstances.

Keep several other things in mind. of paramount importance is position. Would you have called with his hand from the five-hole with four players yet to act? Would you have called a raise with his hand from that position?

one clue to a player’s expertise is whether the math involved in a decision influences him. Did he even pause in calling a player where he’s likely to be a 10-to-1 underdog and the pot is offering him only 4-to-1 odds? If not, why not? Most commonly, the reason is that he’s oblivious to the odds, but is listening to his gut, his intuition. After all, every situation is 50-50 for him—either he’ll win or lose. Make a note about these weak players.

Bets of odd amounts may be bluffs as the player is trying to make an imposing pile of chips to reduce the chances of a call.

Next, observe whether implied odds influence a player. Does he understand the concept and make decisions based on it? Does he call with a draw, getting the wrong price, when his opponent is all-in (no implied odds here)? If an opponent hits his draw and moves in, will he pay him off? These patterns and tendencies may win you a big pot later.

Frequency of play is important both online and in person. If your opponent is in 80% of the hands, then you’re dealing with someone who’s taking the flop with a lot of weak and vulnerable hands, such as 9c 7h. you may be able to trap a player such as this for all his chips, especially if he overplays his hands on the flop and beyond. Pay particular attention to how this type of player plays draws and how you can best exploit his tendencies.

Putting out a bet of an odd amount that visually looks imposing is another potential tell. An example of this would be a bet of 99 dollars (a stack of three $25 chips, four $5 chips, and four $1 chips). The theory is that most players are much more willing to call the smaller looking bet than the more threatening looking big stack of chips—even though in actuality the $99 bet is less than a $100 bet.

Live Tells

When you can study players live, you’re privy to an onslaught of information that’s not available to you in online tournaments. Players must now look at flops unemotionally, put chips into the pot instead
of clicking a mouse, and face long stare downs when they’re bluffing. Changes in posture, facial expressions, chip handling, and eye movements are there for all to see. Knowing that they’re under intense scrutiny, players often try to mask their actions by acting in a manner opposite to the strength of their hand.

The classic tells can be described in a simple way—a weak acting player is strong and a strong acting person is weak. What do I mean by that? Well, people who appear not to know that it’s their turn to act—they may be watching television or ordering drinks; they may fail to put their bets over the line into the pot or seem more interested in flirting with the cocktail waitress than playing the hand— usually are holding a monster … especially when taking a break from these “distractions” to bet.

on the other hand, if someone stared at you, splashed his chips into the pot aggressively, or talked to someone at the table, he probably doesn’t want you to call. Mike Caro has written an excellent book on tells that includes photos. Tells, and reverse tells, are also discussed in both Kill Phil and Kill Everyone. (See the appendix for recommended reading).

Common tells in inexperienced players include preparing to discard their hand before it’s their turn to act, staring at the flop if it hasn’t helped them, and glancing down at their chips after seeing the flop. These are so common and important that a brief discussion of each is warranted.

Preparing to Discard Before It’s Their Turn to Act

Many new players are eager to see their starting hand. If it’s unplayable, they immediately lose interest and prepare to discard. If you’re seated a few seats to the right of the button and observe a couple of players to your left preparing to muck their hands, this may be a good time for you to steal the blinds.
To avoid this tell yourself, always look at your hand only when it’s your turn to act. This way, you’ll be able to study the other players when they check their cards and see their reaction, picking up valuable information that can help you decide how to play your hand.

Staring at the Flop

Inexperienced players who stare at the flop generally have no part of it. When they hit the flop, they usually stare away. Watch for this when you’re not involved in a hand, comparing opponents’ reactions to the flop with their actions and cards shown. If you pick up a pattern, it can be an extremely reliable tell. It’s almost as if they “tell” you, “I missed that flop, so you can safely bet,” or “I hit that flop, so look out!” Thank you very much!

Players who sneakily look at their chips are preparing to bet

Glancing Down at Their Chips

opponents who furtively glance at their chips like their hand and are preparing to bet. you can use this tell in some advantageous ways. If you have a mediocre hand, fold. If you have a strong hand and want to be raised, just limp in. your opponent will then usually raise and you can come over the top (re-raise). A corollary to glancing down at chips is called “loading up.” Some players actually organize their intended bet in advance. If you see a player loading up, it’s similar to glancing down at his stack. It’s best to get confirmation of this tell prior to relying on it, as some seasoned players use this ploy to try to scare you out of betting.

When you’re playing against pros, it’s best not to rely on tells. They know what they’re doing and, like a baseball manager sending out false signs, they can feed you a lot of misinformation, depending on their evaluation of your level of expertise. Several years ago, I was playing in a 6-handed tournament. Ben Roberts, a smooth U.K. pro seated on the button, had his cards off the table and cocked between his thumb and index finger, in classical discard position. As it was folded around to him, noticing that everyone had folded, he drew his cards back and raised. It appeared as though he was about to throw his hand away, but seeing that everyone had folded to him, he’d now decided to steal the blinds. I was in the big blind and decided to challenge him. At the end of the hand he showed me pocket aces! I’d been well and truly duped.

At the 2007 Aussie Millions, we were down to 36 players from a starting field of more than 700 and well into the money when this hand came up. I raised from mid-position with Kc 9c and was called by Gus Hansen in the big blind. The flop contained two queens and two clubs. Gus checked and I made a small bet of 25,000, around 35% of the pot. Gus now raised to 75,000. As he made the raise, his hand was visibly shaking. A slight tremor can mean two distinctly different things. In inexperienced players, it can indicate a monster, since they’re unable to bridle the rush of adrenaline. More commonly, though,
it indicates slight nervousness when bluffing. Gus is a pro and I couldn’t bring myself to believe that he was shaking with excitement, yet I was convinced that the tremor wasn’t an act. I decided that there was a good chance that he was bluffing. I had the second best possible flush draw and decided to move in. Gus insta-called and showed me Ac Qs! I had totally misread his tremor and was unceremoniously relegated to the status of observer.

Summary

  1. A tell is a specific trait or mannerism; a read is an agglomeration of various bits of information.
  2. Delayed action emphasizes strength to a bet or weakness to a check.
  3. Acting weak often means a strong hand; acting strong often indicates weakness.
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