Poker Tips & Tells
These suggestions are mostly collected from professionals I know, plus the eleven books I’ve read and eight years I’ve played. But mostly it’s from professionals I know; the hands, situations, and observations we’ve discussed in great detail. I stress this point because all too often amateurs who’ve played a long time think their many years of experience go part and parcel with being good. I don’t think it does. In fact, once bad habits are created, people often don’t change, and just get more affirmed in their mind that a certain way or style is the best way to play.
Also note, the game has evolved considerably. Theories and complexities grew as online play grew, as players could see millions of hands. Lots of 30s and older players love to trash the online generation, and say, yeah, but they don’t have intuition, or they don’t have this, or wait till I trap them (which is the worst way to play back at them!). Listen, I’m 41. I understand that side. But I respect how online play has grown the game, and the myriad new theories and styles that have sprung from this, usually ones with greater depth, variation, and ranges.
One of my friends who plays professionally, and has made over a million at poker, even he was complaining about some of the “snot-nosed,” internet brats. The ones that are lazy in every other way except poker, and it shows in their dress, demeanor, and social skills. So I said to him, listen, say there were a bunch of young trust-fund babies who did nothing but golf all day, every day, every week, every month, with occasional partying thrown in. They may be brats and may not know much else about life, but they’re going to be damn good at golf. So why not learn what you can from them?
That said, there are plenty of talented and well-rounded young players who are crushing the game, and don’t have the bad habits with money management that most players in their 30s, 40s, and 50s do. And many who don’t drink alcohol when they play, just water.
Really good poker takes work, I think. More than most people are willing to put in. You must combine serious math study with extensive consideration of hand ranges and situations, plus intuition and observation. Then juggle and flex this every single hand. But most people, understandably, want to just hang out a few hours, play a certain basic style mixed with some basic intuition, and have a good time. See how they run; see what cards they catch.
The tips and tells I offer are not high-level, since obviously I’m not high-level, but I think they’re decent for amateurs, especially those who think they’re solid but can’t understand why they “run so bad”. You hear these people complaining all the time about bad beats and dry spells…but they rarely look for leaks in their own game.
These tips and tells are not tough, you won’t have to spend hours and hours and hours in studying and dissecting hands, though if you ever want to be truly great, you should!
- If you’re plenty rich and just like to have fun, disregard the next nine tips! Enjoy a few pints and play however you feel like. I hope to be at this point someday, ha.
- Don’t play your small blind if a junk hand, not even for a dollar (if 1-2). This is one of the biggest leaks amateurs have. The money adds up. Yes, every blue moon that junk hand will flop something magnificent, but you probably won’t be paid off. Most often, you get stuck in a hand, and pay someone else off with your junk because it’s second best.
- Avoid trapping, most of the time. Big hands need big pots, so build it with your set or two pair or straight. Your EV (expected value) is much higher.
- Don’t be a limp fest. Another huge mistake. People love to do this all day long, limp, limp, limp. Thinking they’re saving money because they’re only putting in the blind. But more often than not, you play a multi-way pot, get stuck and beat. Or you make a little, but not enough to make up for all the times you lose. Limp fest is like bingo fest. Generally speaking, better to raise or fold.
- Since you should be raising more, focus on playing pots head-up or three-way. Your big hands hold up and make more money this way; you can also focus better on outplaying opponents since there are less of them. So when you raise, raise enough to get one or two callers.
- When the river comes, and you have a big hand, and you’re first to act, BET. Every blue moon a trap might be great, but by and large, you need to bet your big hands on the river, especially when you’re first to act. (If you’re good, you’ll be betting even your moderate hands if you can glean thin value.) I can’t tell you how many times amateurs check, the person or people behind check back, and he says, “Ahhhhh, you were supposed to bet, darn.” LOL. Why is that person going to bet a showdown hand? They’re only betting if they too have a monster (in which case they’re calling or RAISING your monster/nuts), or occasionally bluff. Far better EV (expected value) to bet. Some people might think you’re bluffing, too, as the only way to win hand, or other possibilities.
- Considering number 6, if you’re last to act and people have checked to you, it’s usually a great time to bluff. Most good players will not check strong hands on the river, because they know its negative EV, so if they have checked, they only have a showdown hand or less. Bluffing here is probably how I’ve made my most money from people I knew were better than me, and play professionally. Just one of many reasons it’s great to have position. Obviously, though, you have to sell a good story, or you need to imagine a hand that makes sense considering how you’ve acted in the hand; otherwise your bluff will be picked off.
- #7 leads me to this one. So many people bluff when it doesn’t make sense, when they can’t sell a story or hand. Take your time to think through how the person acted on every street. I’ve picked off many bluffs with even ace high this way, realizing the person was just making a desperate and foolish jab/attempt at the pot.
- Learn proper bet-sizing, and don’t massively over-bet pots to “protect your hands.” This second bad habit is extremely negative EV. You’re going to win a tiny pot or lose a huge pot because someone caught a set or top two to your overpair or top-pair top-kicker. I know a few people who love to do this, and think they’re great because of it; literally everyone else at the table is thinking cha-ching!
- Learn when you have the right odds to chase a straight or flush (also considering implied value). Lots of people love to chase when they’re not getting the right odds at all. That doesn’t mean approximate, which leads to chasing without the right odds, because who doesn’t want to chase? There is a certain thrill in catching it. But do the mental exercise to figure out exactly where you are, and if it has positive EV.
- Whenever someone asks about a bet, in a light, non-threatening, almost feminine voice, “How much is it?” They have a monster.
- The same goes if someone starts to act, visibly and facially, all puzzled and inquisitive, like I just don’t understand what you’re doing, and I sure don’t understand this game, but I’m going to call anyway. They have the nuts.
- There’s an old adage, Beware the speech. Worth mentioning though most have heard it. They have the nuts.
- Watch closely their breath, especially the heave of their chest. Heavy breathing is usually bluffing.
- Annie Duke made a good point once about self-soothing behaviors, like rubbing one’s hand or leg, licking or pursing your lips, etc. If they are trying to soothe themselves in some manner, they’re bluffing. This comes from the old FBI handbook on spotting liars and criminals.
- As you are observing people around the table, generally good posture is good hand, slumped is bad hand. Thoughtful smart players try to keep the same posture and behavior throughout the hand, and never chit chat with their opponent if he/she’s trying to get information with questions or conversation. (Just politely be quiet is best.)
- One way to spot a solid player, besides their betting patterns or quiet table demeanor, is how they handle themselves. Usually solid players stay even keel and have good manners; they’ve seen enough, know enough, and have disciplined themselves enough to not get sucked into the highs and lows.
- Another way – professional or serious cash game players always start with and rebuy at the max amount allowed. Sitting at 1/2 with $100-$150 for a long time is negative EV, contrary to how some people think they’re “being careful” and “conservative.” Once you’re a hundred down, probably best to top off the tank.
- Take the time to watch other players, especially when there is a big hand happening. You can obviously glean mannerisms from the people in the hand and what they do with nuts or nothing; also, see who else is watching. The other players not in the hand that are watching the big hand and its players closely are obviously thoughtful, dangerous players.
- This is an old one but still accurate, I think: watch people’s eyes when the flop hits. If they keep staring at it, they usually didn’t hit it, as if they’re trying to get more from it. If they immediately or softly look away, usually they hit it hard. If they go to sudden great lengths to act disinterested, they usually hit it hard. Of course, some people will miss it by a mile, and look away at the next table or whatever. But if you notice someone that looked away, all disinterested, but then they call a big bet by someone else, huge give-away. Monster.
More thoughts later…comments are welcome!