The Poker 

Other Stuff


Place your advertising button here!
Email us for rates










Poker strategy essays

Learn Texas Hold'em

Try our new texas holdem software which will help you a lot when it comes to figuring out odds in your online game. Also, find the best texas holdem bonus at the most complete texasholdem resource in the world. Top lists that are updated every day and so much more.

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 your life.

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 the play.

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 board.

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 Ace.

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 an Ace.

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!



Home|Contact us

©2005-present The Holdem Lounge. All rights reserved.