Poker Tells: Is Your Opponent Actually a Horse?

Alex Weldon : March 17th, 2016

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One frequent topic of debate in the world of poker strategy is how much information you can glean about a player’s probable style just from who they are and what they look like. There’s always a risk involved with putting too much faith in a stereotype, but anyone who’s played much in a live environment knows that it actually is pretty often the case that the table full of sixty-something white guys is going to be a rock garden, while the young Asian kid who just sat down is probably either going to have everyone’s chips or be out within an orbit or two.

But what if – bear with me here – your opponent isn’t a person at all, but is in fact a horse? This sounds crazy, I know, but I have it on good authority that unbeknownst to the average player, pretty much every poker tournament which runs has numerous horses registering for it. Not only is this happening with the knowledge of poker insiders, but it seems a lot of well-known (human) players have entire stables of horses that they help sneak into tournaments.

I’ve looked over the rules for all the major poker tours, the World Series of Poker, and so on, and shockingly, it doesn’t seem that anyone has thought to include any species-related registration requirements, stipulate a maximum number of legs per player, or anything of the sort. There’s therefore little we can do about the problem directly, but it’s important to be aware of the possibility of a mare or stallion at your table. Horses can be dangerous opponents; they’ll make hay of your mistakes and always seem to have the best equinity when the cards are turned over.

But how can you tell? If this is news to you, as it was to me, then you know they’ve just about mastered the art of passing for human. Fortunately, as poker players, we’ve honed our senses to pick up on the slightest tells in our opponents, and their disguises are not perfect. To help you protect yourself at the tables, I’ve assembled a list of subtle signs you can watch out for if you suspect the “person” on the other side of the table is actually a horse.

  • Terminology errors: Ever since Mr. Ed brought language to their species, horses have been steadily improving their mastery of English, but there are some nuances to poker jargon that they still struggle with. Listen for expressions like “big blinders,” “hitting trotter-trotter” or referring to orbits as “laps.”
  • Got a cold, buddy?: Likewise, their vocal cords are better adapted to whinnying than speaking human language, so their voices tend to be kind of raspy and frail, like they’ve got laryngitis. There’s a word to describe this, but it’s not coming to me.
  • Listen for the hooves: Horses are inherently show-offish, so they like to do chip tricks, but this is one of their weaknesses. Don’t rely on your eyes, but use your ears. When a human plays with her chips, it sounds like “click click click.” If she’s actually a horse, it’s going to be more like “clop clop clop.”
  • Hairstyle: That guy with the faux-hawk sitting in the two seat? When you’re going on break or taking a dash to the bathroom, steal a quick glance from behind. If it runs all the way down his neck and beneath the collar of his shirt, it might actually be a mane.
  • Watch the rail: If there are spectators at your table, keep an eye on them. If you notice them placing a lot of side bets whenever your villain gets into a race, you’re probably dealing with a horse.
  • How he excuses himself: This is another terminology error, though unrelated to poker. If he’s getting up to go to the bathroom, he might get confused about who he’s going to see about what. Dead giveaway.
  • Inexplicable paranoia: I don’t quite get this one, but I once saw a horse get crippled after losing a coin-flip, and he suddenly freaked out like he thought someone was going to shoot him. Might be common, might not.
  • Strong preference for five-game mixes: They don’t want to make this one too obvious but sometimes can’t help themselves, so learn to read between the lines. For instance, if there’s a guy at your table who can’t stop complaining about how much better the WSOP was before the $50k Championship event got switched to 8-Game, think about what he’s really saying.
  • Hashtag #gluefactory: Horses don’t shower. If your guy busts out, check his Twitter. Of course, at this point, he’s not a problem for you anymore, but you’ll know for the next time.

That’s all I’ve got for now, but I hope it helps you stay safe at the tables. Like Zach Elwood always says, keep in mind that the absence of a tell doesn’t automatically mean the opposite; all of the above are signs that your opponent is a horse, but a player who fails to exhibit any of those tendencies isn’t necessarily human. They could still be a horse, just one who’s learned to conceal his tells, and we don’t know at this point who else could be playing. There was a guy at my table the other day who I’m 80% sure was actually a manatee.

Have you spotted a horse at your table? What were the giveaways? If you’ve got any horse-tells of your own or advice on playing against a known horse, let us know.

Alex Weldon (@benefactumgames) is a freelance writer, game designer and semipro poker player from Montreal, Quebec, Canada. Inspiration for some jokes in this article came from Dustin Gouker (@DustinGouker) and Zach Elwood (@apokerplayer).

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