Poker strategy essays
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Reading tells versus
reading the play
By Guy West
Poker players talk a lot about tells
and the ability to 'read' a player by their facial
expressions and body language. There is an almost
mystical quality to the subject and myths abound.
Being able to pick up on little tells,
whether consciously or subconsciously, is a valuable
skill, but it is over-rated compared to the related
but different skill of reading the play.
Players are prone to claim AFTER they
win an important head to head pot that they read their
opponent's hand because of some tell or another, but
the truth is that in many cases they just guessed
right. You're always going to be either right or wrong,
so it's no miraculous feat to guess right. You'll
be right about half the time just by blind luck and
there is plenty of information in a poker game other
than tells, so your decisions should be right more
often than not even if you never picked a tell in
Remember that players can and do
manufacture false tells all the time, hence the saying,
"strong is weak and weak is strong." More
often than not the good reader is actually reading
the play or the tournament situation, not the flexing
of a player's jaw muscles.
Here's an example I recall from a
real game, to illustrate what I mean about reading
I was playing at a 10 player table,
no limit Holdem with $4 - $8 blinds.
The player under the gun (first
to speak) raised $20 and everyone folded round
to me in big blind position. This player, let's call
him Plod, had shown no tendency to be particularly
loose or aggressive, so I put him (until further evidence
became available) on a strong hand of either AA, KK,
QQ or AK.
I held As 10s and with $32
already in the pot I called his $20 bet because
I had position and disguise and my cards held enough
potential against a strong hand. A bit marginal, but
head to head offers plenty of potential to outplay
someone in a no limit game.
The flop came 7h, Ad, 3s. Plod
now thought for a while and checked. Slightly
surprised, I tested the waters with a $10 bet,
expecting the check-raise, but Plod just called.
The turn came 3d, pairing the
Suspecting the slow playing of AA
or AK I waited for Plod to check again. Instead, to
my surprise he went all-in for $106!
This would seem to present a tricky
problem. Here I was with Top pair (Aces) but
only a 10 kicker (the 3s are shared), versus
possible Ace trips or Ace pair with King or Queen
Kicker, not to mention possible trip threes. Just
one pair of bullets with which to call an all-in bet
on a dangerous, paired board.
I thought about the situation for
a while and then called the all-in bet, producing
a $284 pot.
Plod looked irritated and turned over
KK, leaving me ahead with my paired
The river came 9h and my Aces
over threes took down a relatively good pot over his
Kings and threes.
Of course Plod made a mistake going
all in on a semi bluff. As the saying goes, he is
only likely to be called by a hand that can beat him.
The Ace over-card was showing and is one I was quite
likely to be holding in the circumstances. But, as
Plod rather bitterly asked me, how I could call his
all-in bet with just my paired Ace against that board,
versus an under-the-gun pre flop raiser? He was not
happy. Even less so when I told him I thought I saw
a tell that indicated he was bluffing!
Some people would accept that as a
good read, that I really saw something in Plod's face
or analysed the amount of time he took, or noted a
pulsing artery in his temple. In fact though I was
lying, or more accurately as we call it in Australia,
bullshitting. The truth is I just had to read some
fairly obvious clues in the play to know that my Ace
paired had a great chance of being in front.
It's easy to reason thus...
Of the pocket cards Plod is most likely
to be holding when he raised under the gun, AA or
AK puts him ahead after the flop. But if he held either
of these hands when the Ace fell, why would he have
only called my modest $10 bet, especially after
first checking? Slow playing AA would seem
a bit silly against someone possibly playing suited
connectors or a lower pair and hoping to connect cheaply.
In any case, if he was slow playing a set of Aces
his all-in, betting first on the turn after a minor
scare card, wouldn't make any sense. The idea
of slow playing is to not frighten the horses! A small
bet or check to try and trap me would be indicated.
A holding of AK is also unlikely as
slow playing a single pair after the flop would seem
nonsensical. Logic dictates that Plod is more likely
to be holding KK, QQ or JJ than any hand containing
Why couldn't he be holding a 3
though, or 77? Well, anything is possible,
but any hand containing a 3 is highly unlikely,
since Plod raised nine other players under the gun.
77 is remotely possible, but the pre flop raise
under-the-gun makes it unlikely. More especially,
someone slow playing a set of sevens (he checked then
only called after the flop) wouldn't suddenly go all
in on the turn without setting a trap first.
So in reality it wasn't difficult
to accurately read the situation as good for my Ace
with it's average kicker, despite his all-in bet.
One could easily imagine that Plod checked his KK
or QQ after that ugly Ace flopped, but couldn't quite
lay down such nice pocket cards to my modest bet.
Then when the second 3 turned, knowing I may well
have paired an Ace and be ahead, he saw a chance to
use the scare card with an all-in bet to bluff me
out of the pot, perhaps thinking that a big call was
unlikely on just one paired Ace.
Scenarios like this could appear like
clever cases of 'reading' the opponent's face or playing
style and this would be amplified if the player making
the call talked it up, as did I, for psychological
reasons. However in reality I simply read his play,
not his body language. It's quite difficult to regularly
make good calls based on physiognomic tells and whilst
such tells do sometimes occur I think they are over
emphasized. Most of the world's elite players do not
consider it necessary to wear sunglasses or caps to
hide their eyes. Reading tells is not as common as
some people would have you believe and a so called
'good reader' is often just reading the play and the
player's styles, not their tells.
No-one has ESP or a sixth sense! Instead
of wearing dark glasses and pulling down your cap,
worry more about concealing the nature of your play.
If a good player does manage to find a tell they will
not publicise the fact, as this warns the other player
that they are giving out inadvertent information.
The good player will say nothing and try to keep using
the tell to advantage. There is nothing in poker etiquette
that requires them to alert a player to their tell.
So be suspicious of anyone claiming to have a read
on you or anyone else, at least if they are talking
about physical tells. They're probably just grandstanding
or trying to unsettle you.
Just a few words on strategy. In the
example just given, Plod made several mistakes worth
noting in the play and any body language would have
been neither here nor there.
Firstly, this is perhaps controversial,
but in my opinion raising under the gun with KK was
not optimal play. It gives a lot of information away.
There was a good probability that one of the other
nine players would have raised, leaving Plod with
good disguise and flexibility. If a couple of people
called the raise he could perhaps come over the top
all-in, with a decent pot already there to tempt the
call. Even if no-one raised after his check there
was a good chance of no Ace flopping and the Kings
still providing plenty of firepower after the flop.
The second mistake was checking after
the flop, as it telegraphed the fact that Plod probably
held no Ace. That let me know that if I held an Ace
I was probably in front and even if I hadn't held
an Ace that I may have a chance to scare him from
the pot. A bet, even a modest bet, would have created
a problem for me as I have to then figure I could
be up against an Ace with higher kicker or even pocket
Aces. Should I then call, knowing I'd probably have
to absorb more pain, or cut my losses straight away?
Plod should have bet both for his own disguise
and to learn more about my hand. Instead, he
allowed an enemy bet that could either indicate strength
or it could just be seizing upon perceived weakness,
a difficult bet to read.
The final and most serious error was
of course going all-in after the turn. Not so much
because it was possible he was behind, but because
it was too easy for me to read what he was holding
from the play. In my opinion it's actually better
to go all in with absolutely nothing if your opponent
doesn't have a simple read on the situation (and can
easily figure some scenarios that beat him), than
to go all in on a playable hand but one where it's
easy to read what you have.
In summary, spend most of your
energy on disguising your play and reading
the play of others. Don't worry so much about
disguising your body language. It's probably not that
which is giving your opponents their ESP!
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