Online Poker Tells

How to read the tells of your online poker opponents including buy, chat and buzz and using the pre action button to learn about your foe and give nothing away about your moves

Online Poker Tells

Conventional wisdom dictates that there are no such thing as online poker tells. How could there be when you can't see a foe's face, hear the timbre of his voice or watch him shake as he pushes chips into the pot? Even the way he swigs his beer (or, famously, per Rounders, cracks his Oreo cookie) can inform you whether he's got a monster or a stone cold bluff. But how can you check out his cookies, his beady eyes and his other body language when all you can see is a screen name?

Well, conventional wisdom is for conventional thinkers, in fact, they are abound. You just have to recognise them for what they are. And guess what? You already do. Consider for starters the case of...

Timing Tell

You're playing no-limit Hold'em against some slackjaw from Canada, screen name SassCatchYou_Anne, who has shown herself to be a typically bad Internet player: she calls too much, raises too little and chases too far. You raise under the gun with pocket Jacks and everyone except Anne folds. The flop is 9? - 7? - 6?. You bet half the pot. She thinks and thinks and thinks, almost times herself out, and finally calls. The turn is the 2?. You bet the pot and she instantly raises you all-in.

What do you think? Does she have the flush? Of course she has the flush! Her hesitation on the flop was all about, ’Do I have odds to call?' Her instant raise on the turn was that of a straightforward person making a straightforward play. And you know this. You know this. You know it so well that you then do one of two things: either you fold and get out of her way, or else, knowing full well that you're beaten, you ’call to keep her honest' or ’call for the size of the pot'. I fervently hope you fold, but a lot of people will call, which just proves the difference between picking up and acting correctly on what you see. But that's a whole other story; for now, just recognise that there is this thing called a timing tell and then do these two things:

1. Be on the lookout for those whose oscillating pace of play betrays information about their cards or their thinking, or both.

2. Never oscillate yourself. Always take the same amount of time to act. Don't let your hesitation give you away.

Yeah, fine, I hear you say, but what if they're faking? What if it's a false stall designed to make me think they've got a tough choice when really they've got a monster? Sure, that's a possibility. On the trickiness scale it's about on a par with pulling a coin from a toddler's ear and therefore well within the realm of most peoples capability. Remember this, if you've seen someone like SassCatchYou_Anne lay down this sort of false stall before, then suspect her of it here. If you haven't seen it yet, don't assume it now. In other words...treat them as kosher until proven otherwise.

Show a typical user a button raise (or other move) one time and he'll form a hypothesis. Show it to him a second time and his hypothesis is confirmed. The third time you show it to him, he's ready to counter-attack. He's made an adjustment. But you see this coming. Like a fighter pilot getting inside his enemy's turning circle in a dogfight, you anticipate your enemy's tactic and plan your own response in advance. In the case of the blind steal, it's simply a matter of not taking that third stab at the blinds unless you happen to have a big hand. In other words...

Yeah, fine, I hear you say, but don't you have to get lucky to pick up a real hand just when they're making a ’third time's the adjustment' adjustment? Yes, you have to get lucky, but it's a special kind of luck, called situation luck, and this kind of luck works for you no matter how the cards may fall. If you get the cards you need when you need them, great, execute Plan A. Thanks to context density, your foes won't put you on a big one and you'll own them. If a poor one comes, go to Plan B and decline the steal opportunity. This not only thwarts and frustrates your foes (who thought they were so cleverly lying in wait) it also makes them doubt that you're the rascally blind stealer they thought you were. Maybe you just had consecutive good ones. The beauty of their doubt is it lets you start the whole sequence over later, stealing once or twice before they get up the gumption to take a stand, when, if you're situationally lucky, you'll happen to have a hand.

So now you have two classes, tose that inform you stuff about your foes, and tells that inform them what you want them to do. But there are lots of others. Have you considered these?

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Every Internet site has these little chat boxes, where people can yack away to their demented hearts' content, right? You've encountered some of these rude boys, I'm sure. You outplay them because they're morons, but because they're morons they think you're just butt-lucky, and so they type into the chat box something sweet like, ’I hate you, I hope you die!' What does this covey to you about their state of mind? It communicates to you that they're angry, on tilt and ready to dump all their chips.

Can someone fake this sort of rage? Sure, but most people who vent spleen into the chat box do it to relieve the psychic pain they're in. They've just suffered and yelling at you is all they can do to make themselves feel better. That's meta; not a situation–specific tic but a whole roadmap to their entire (flawed) state of mind. That's some powerful information. And there's more...

Any time you see someone buy into any game for less than an adequate amount ($100, say, in a $1–$2 no–limit game) you should assume that he's timid, scared, running really bad, or otherwise unwilling to put an adequate amount of money into play. Push him. Punish him for his weakness and assume that his weakness is real until he shows some backbone.

If playing in a game is a buzz, then playing in two must be twice the buzz. Double–dippers, then, or even triple–dippers, are informing us that they're more interested in stimulation than win rate. If you scour the sign–up lists and find that you're playing against someone who's playing on several other tables, too, you can guess that he's not fully committed to playing his best. How could he hope to, when his focus is naturally fragmented among the several games he's playing? To exploit this just wait until you see him involved in a big confrontation in one of his other games. At that point, you can steal from him in your game because he'll be literally distracted by more pressing matters elsewhere. The buzz tell is unique to online poker; for obvious reasons that they can't double–dip in real world casinos.

As you know, every site offers you the option of planning your moves in advance. If someone has no interest, they can click Check/Fold Any, grab a drink or go for a wazz. If they have a monster, they can Bet/Raise any and go to war with guns blazing. These pre–action buttons, of course, cause their actions to appear on–screen instantaneously when their turn comes around. You, who are paying careful attention, will quickly note which actions are thought out in the moment and which are planned in advance. An instant raise, for instance, says they have cards so big they don't care who does what in front of them. A raise with hesitation might betray a drop in confidence based on all the raises that preceded their intended one. Again, for this there is a two–point plan:

1. Use pre–action button information as a reliable indicator of how confident your foes are.

2. Don't ever use the pre–action buttons yourself; information is power and you should never give it away for free.

When your reading skills are honed you won't just see them at the table, you'll be able to 'feel' them.

Mastering concepts like pot and implied odds, expectation and the other fundamentals of the game, are vital to making you a winner. However it will always have an element that defies rational analysis, this is the dissecting and reading of an opponent. The ability to look into anothers eyes, find his weakness then move in for the kill. Of course, we all enjoy a game of cards and a beer with our mates, we might even enjoy a bit of banter in a casino; but beneath this friendly exterior lurks a vicious, ruthless game like no other. Because when we play we’re not just trying to take others money, we’re trying to find a weakness, not just as a card player, but as a person, and exploit it.

Sound unpleasant? Want no part of it? No problem, my sister’s Wendy house is still up, so perhaps you can join her for a tea party while the big boys play cards.

Okay, let’s lower the testosterone a bit and look at why a mastery of this subject is so important. It is a game of probabilities. We know there are 52 cards in a deck, so the chances of every eventuality can be expressed as a mathematical certainty. However, it’s also a game full of uncertainty, and one reason for that is every decision is made by a different person, and everyone is gloriously unpredictable. For example, someone may get dealt J-10 in medium position. In one scenario they may have won the last three pots, be dominating the table and decide to raise. In another that same person may be contemplating what to do when the sandwich they ordered arrives, and decide to pass. Same hand, same player, different outcomes.

Mike Caro, author of Caro’s Book of Poker Tells and one of the greatest thinkers on this aspect, labelled this as the 'law of loose wiring’. The key point is that it’s impossible to predict how they will play any cards they receive. This is where they come into play, if it’s impossible to predict how someone will play the cards they receive, any information you can glean on the strength is like gold dust.

Using them is much more than looking for a specific twitch or move. It’s about knowing your opponent and seeing their weakness. This process should start even before you sit down and the cards are dealt.

There’s a huge amount of information available to you about the way people will play from their personalities and how they act. Are they a regular in the casino? Does everyone know their name? This could mean they are serious (or perhaps a degenerate gambler). Are they chatty and friendly to everyone on the table, desperate to be liked? This kind often has a weak style and calls too much.

As soon as the play starts you can get information about their playing styles. Do they enter a lot of pots? Do they call pre-flop raises a lot? Often these are signs of a weaker person. Are they into the game and concentrating hard or is it just a bit of fun for them?

Your observation skills are vital to picking up information, playing should be an active exercise. If you’re playing to win you should be tired after a long tournament or cash game session.

Something I’ve been doing for many years is to do a 15-minute report on those I’m sitting with. After I’ve been sitting in a game, cash or tournament, I go round the table and summarise what I know about them and their styles. This restates and makes clear what I know and identifies who I don’t know enough about and need to watch more closely. Oh, I should mention this summary should be done in your head, they tend not to appreciate it out loud.

As your observation skills become honed and watching becomes second nature, you’ll begin to get strong impulses when you have decisions to make. You will 'feel’ who is strong or weak without having a specific 'tell’ to give as evidence for this.

Doyle Brunson writes about this in Super System 2 and discusses the notion of ESP, that inescapable feeling that your opponent either has a certain hand or their holding is a certain strength. Doyle’s conclusion is that there’s nothing spooky about this. In fact it is your hours of observation at the table, all of which is stored in your subconscious, feeding back to you about what your opponent has.

It’s important to understand how we as humans take in information. We’re generally capable of taking in 10-15 inputs consciously each second, that is, things we are actively aware of. Subconsciously, however, we can take in literally millions of inputs each second. You’re taking in huge amounts of information without being aware of it and it’s all being stored for later use. We’ve all experienced it; for example, have you ever been at a party and heard your name in a conversation behind you but not heard the rest of the conversation? The reality is you have heard the rest of the conversation but haven’t processed it consciously because it isn’t relevant to you. And besides, your conscious mind is focused on the stunning girl/chap/bowl of potato salad you’re trying to convince yourself you have a chance with.

So, back to the table, even though you may not have spotted a specific one, your subconscious is picking up all kinds of micro- gestures and mini-tells from your opponent. Like a Jedi, you must become open to receiving this information and allowing your subconscious to feed this to you at the table. The problem is we’re not used to doing this in day-to-day life. Our modern lives are dominated by conscious inputs, TVs, mobiles and so on and we’ve lost this ability. A shocking example was provided by the Asian tsunami disaster, tragically thousands of people died, but did you know that hardly any animal lives were lost? All of them fled the danger areas long before the wave hit. It’s because they’re much more in tune with all of the inputs from the world around them than we are.

The way to give yourself the best chance of accessing all the information you’re getting is to be as calm as possible at the table. Try to be almost Zen-like and tune out the clatter around you. Try to feel what your opponent is feeling. It may sound a bit kooky now, but with practice your reading ability will shoot up.

However, all of this and all of your active observation at the table will be pointless if you don’t act on your instincts. You must listen to that little voice in your head that says when you’re beaten and need to fold, or saysyour foe is weak and you need to raise. (Though I should point out that if your little voice is stating anything other than 'fold’ or 'raise’, especially if it involves heinous acts of violence, it should be ignored.)

Beyond this, I can’t do anything more than give you over to the greatest reader of who’s ever lived, Stu 'the Kid’ Ungar, for the final word on this subject: 'You have to know your reads are correct. If you can’t trust your instincts you have no chance at a table. No chance whatsoever.’

Of course you can be the best reader of tells in poker, but if you’re whistling the Terry and June theme tune every time you have a good one you’re not going to make any money.

Stopping giving them off yourself can be hard because you’re not consciously aware of what you do at the table. Given this, the first piece of advice is to become conscious of what you do and try to diagnose any patterns in the way you hold cards, stack chips and so on.

It’s a good idea to try and adopt a standard routine. Always look at your cards the same way, hold them the same way, move chips and bet in the same way and so on. Your ability not to give any signs off comes under most examination when you’ve made a big bet or raise and are being stared down by another. The best tip is to shut down in some way and give up as little information as possible, don’t be tempted to engage in banter or rise to any kind of bait, as a good gambler will pick up on information from you.

Phil Hellmuth is legendary at making a bet then effectively shutting off everything, showing no emotion and responding to nothing. In later years Phil 'the Unabomber’ Laak has taken this to extremes by covering himself in a hooded top and putting his head on the table. Pretty effective, but how does everyone resist the temptation to nick his chips? Personally, I try to look bored and disinterested after I bet, usually staring at the chips. Of course you should find your own routine, just try to make it consistent whether you have the goods or are bluffing outrageously.

Another useful technique is to actively visualise a good one when you have a bad one. Let’s say you move all-in before the flop with 10-6 in the late stages of a tournament and (understandably) don’t want a call. Simply visualise K-K in your mind’s eye. Convince yourself you have a great one and your body language will reflect this, throwing your opponents off the scent.

Once you’ve established control of your own body language and are reading well you can’t start to give out false information. This is something that happens a lot at the top level of the game. Once everyone knows that an aggressive chip placement means a bluff, an advanced gambler up against another good one might use this when they have a strong one to throw their opponent off the scent. Obviously this idea won’t work against anyone other than someone good enough to be picking up on them, but against such it’s worth trying and, if for instance you get someone to call a bet they’d otherwise fold, can be very valuable.

I hope this article has given you an insight into the world of reading others, it’s one of the most fascinating and exciting parts of the game. Remember, once you’ve stared a professional in the eye, seen his lip thin slightly and his breathing slow down, called and picked off his bluff... well then you’ll be a very dangerous opponent indeed. And no longer welcome in my game.









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