The tells are evil

July 5, 2009

Well, it finally happened. The tells betrayed me. That’s right, I’ve been playing with a few regular people on and off since I’ve been living in Florida, and a couple people for almost a year now. These are casual, mostly friendly games, but you still use them to hone your skills and pratice strategy on your opponents, even if the payoffs aren’t even in the hundreds of dollars. One of those strategies is learning tells. Everyone outside of Ferguson and a few others is going to have them, so they’re there for anyone willing to take the time and put in the effort to study and learn.

And I thought I had a few pinpointed perfectly. A month or so ago, a game was going on with me, some others and Player A. Well, Player A holds a pack of chips engulfed in a close fist before his turn to bet when he has something worth betting. You see those types of tells quite a bit, they’re not that difficult to spot if you know what you’re looking for. I call them “anticipation tells.” Some people get a flared nose, some people jump the gun and bet before their turn, while others show signs of impatience and ask who has the bet various times during the round. That last one can be a dead giveaway for a power hand. Nobody with garbage is pressing the table to get on with it. Even a bluffer is playing it cool, biding his time until it’s his turn to bet. They’re focus, if they know what’s good for them, is on making sure they’re not giving off any tells – which, again if you’re paying close enough attention – is a tell in and of itself.

Anyway, the lesson I want to share is that regardless of how coy you think you’re being, you think you’ve uncovered the holy grail of tells, the human response is a tricky beast to master. It’s so random and shifty, even if you’re a pro, you can never be 100% certain what another player is thinking or feeling.

My assumption to the contrary cost me a bunch. I had a moderate two-pair but folded to Player A’s bet, about three times the blind. Player B called, so I was afforded the opportunity to see the hands at the end of the round. Player A had a mid-pair hidden that never received any help from the community, and lost to Player B’s pair of Queens. So the gripped chips didn’t necessarily mean Player A had a spectacular hand…a mid pair certainly doesn’t qualify there. Perhaps it meant he thought he had a great hand. And if that’s the case, there’s a silver lining to the lesson after all. I should end up across the table all the time from players who bet strong on a mid-pair pre-flop. Those opportunities you have to seize before they get wise to their error, because no matter how dumb a player may be, you’d think he’d catch on to that after a while. Even a rhino stops attacking an electric fence in the same spot if he gets electrocuted enough times.

So the tells beat me. Turns out I’m not Matt Damon spotting Teddy KGB’s Oreo tell in underground New York City poker games. (That was cool, though, right?). I won’t abandon my quest to learn others tells and use them in my decision-making process during a hand, but I won’t rely solely on them ever again, either. A gut instinct is a wonderful thing to have, but it must be used in combination with your brain, and even then only after making the correct calculations.

On another but related note, I think I’m slipping with some of my guarding of tells in my own right. Sometimes when you get so wrapped up in improving one strategy, you let something else relax and it hurts your overall game. Another lesson learned, I can’t be too obsessed with watering the trees while the rest of the forest dries up and dies.

Noted. All of it. A good player in any game who wants to learn and improve doesn’t take these as failures, just learning opportunities. You always want to say you’ll make a better call next time.