Forum Files: Best of Poker Tells/Behavior

Alex Weldon : January 19th, 2016


Most weeks, the threads we pick to look at in the Forum Files are pulled largely or entirely from TwoPlusTwo’s “News, Views and Gossip” subforums, as this is where the most hotly-debated subjects are to be found. This week, however, we’re going to take a break from that and take a look at the Poker Tells/Behavior (PT/B) subforum.

PT/B is a relatively new addition to TwoPlusTwo, having only appeared back in August to coincide with Zachary Elwood’s launch of his Reading Poker Tells video series and website. In order to promote his books and videos, Elwood agreed to act as host and moderator for the PT/B subforum. So, what kinds of threads has PT/B produced in the five months it’s been active?

The inevitable megathread
Thread: Most reliable and useful tells

It’s inevitable that any subforum with a fairly specific topic will produce at least one catch-all “megathread” to contain an ongoing, meandering discussion of the subject and for people to post observations that they don’t feel are quite worthy of their own thread. PT/B is no exception, and this is that thread; it was created within days of the subforum’s inception and has remained near the top of the first page ever since.

It’s probably also the subforum’s most important read, as it’s a great survey of what a diverse group of players at various skill levels do (and sometimes don’t) regard as a useful tell. By the same token, it’s also one you’ll want to approach with salt shaker in hand, as for every time a player has picked up a genuine tell on his opponents, there are probably a half dozen instances of results-oriented people attributing one lucky guess to having picked up a tell, or conveniently ignoring those times that their rock-solid information turned out to be wrong.

Still, every post in the thread is useful in some way: Either it’s a valuable piece of information for reading others, or else it’s useful intel on how the posters themselves – and thus, other players by extension – think at the table. After all, knowing how others are going to read your behavior is at least as useful as correctly interpreting what they’re doing.

The ubiquitous card-check
Thread: A massive tell I once had (useful one)
Thread: Looking at hole cards before making significant post-flop bet

One subject that has come up in multiple threads as well as producing a couple of its own, is what it means when a player takes a second (or third) look at her cards. This is an interesting one, because it’s inevitably a conscious act, whereas most tells happen unconsciously. Some skilled players may pretend to check their cards in order to send false information or simply to avoid giving up real information when they genuinely have to take a second look, but in most cases there is a reason the player needs to look – that some piece of information which was of lesser importance earlier has now become of greater importance.

The original poster of the first thread had a pretty bad version of the tell, which was that he could only perfectly remember his hole cards when they were a pocket pair, and would thus always double-check his non-pair hands preflop. More generally, others have found that preflop double-checks correlate with a lack of coordination between the hole cards: Nine-Eight suited is much easier to remember than King-Seven offsuit, for instance.

The tell is both more common and more complicated postflop, however. The canonical example is a third suited card hitting the board, and a player checking to see whether he has one of that suit. The theory is that he’ll almost never have the made flush (unless it’s a fake tell), as he would have known already if he were on a direct flush draw. Similarly, you could probably imagine that someone holding a small suited Ace might re-check on an 8-4-2 board because she’s second guessing whether she’s hit a small pair (with A4 or A2) or a gutshot draw with (A5 or A3); preflop, it was the Ace and the suit which were most important, but now it’s crucial to remember correctly what kicker she had.

In other situations, however, the tell could mean something else. Made immediately before the bet, Elwood thinks it’s usually strong, as he says in the second thread above. His theory is that it looks weak and that people instinctively avoid doing things which look weak when they’re bluffing. To that I would add that one’s cards only matter if the hand goes to showdown, so if the player is genuinely refreshing her memory about what she holds, it may indicate that she sees a showdown as a likely possibility.

Does talking always work against you?
Thread: What to do when someone asks you a direct question.

Players, especially novice players, are at least as concerned with whether they themselves have tells as they are with picking up reads on others. One place that it’s especially natural to be worried about giving something up is when you’ve reached a crucial juncture in the hand – maybe you’re all-in – and your opponent asks you a direct question. “Do you want me to call?” perhaps, or “You wouldn’t be bluffing here, would you?”

I would have expected this to be a short thread, as to me the obvious answer is the same one Elwood himself gave in the first reply: If your opponent clearly wants you to say something, the correct thing to do is to keep your mouth shut and just stare at the table in front of you, regardless of whether you’re nutted or bluffing or something in between.

Surprisingly, others have given a wide variety of other answers, from having a canned response (“I like my hand,” or a sarcastic witticism), to trying to guess what your opponent is looking for and giving him a false tell, to automatically calling the clock on anyone who tries to get info out of you this way. My favorite answer comes from poster “Allen Degeneret,” who suggests farting really loudly, though I fear if one applied it in practice they might find themselves getting Esfandiaried straight out of the tournament. Or is deliberate farting not as bad as peeing?

The first tell I ever picked up
Thread: Reaching for chips, then checking

If I had to nominate a candidate for the “most reliable tells” thread, it would be either this or its close cousin, the “player picking up chips before the action is on him” tell. It’s one that I picked up on my brother-in-law in our home games and that I’ve likewise seen a few times playing in live tournaments.

My opinion about this behavior, which matches that of Elwood and the in-thread consensus, is that this is very often a deliberate or semi-deliberate attempt at a reverse tell. What it means is that the player in question is trying to dissuade others from betting by attempting to look as if he’s thinking of doing so himself. The reason for this will usually be that he has some sort of weak hand or marginal draw and would like to get to the next street without calling a bet.

As Elwood points out, that doesn’t necessarily mean that the player will fold to a bet – he may still decide to call with bottom pair or a gutshot or what have you – but that he believes that he has some equity but would prefer that no more chips go in the pot at the present juncture. This could lead you to bet your own marginal hands, or perhaps try a multi-barrel bluff.

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