How much would it be worth to you to know what the player to your left is going to do before he does it when you’re out of position? How about two of them? How much are you giving up if you tell the players to your right whether you’re going to fold or not before you act? How do you get that information? How do you keep from giving it out?
In no-limit hold ‘em, I estimate that it’s probably worth at least one big blind per orbit to reliably know what one player to your left is going to do before they act, and probably having two of them give it up is worth more than double; it’s worth more like 2.5 big blinds. If you’re reliably telling someone to your right what you’re doing, you’re giving up at least a big blind per orbit yourself -- probably your actual big blind.
How can we get that equity, and keep from giving it up? Well, to get it, you have to look for it.
How do we look for it? When we get our cards, we look to the players who are going to act after us. Watch how they examine their cards. Look for a reaction. Take note of what they do with their cards, and their hands. There are two types of tells which are pretty reliable in this situation when they are present. The first is how the player holds their cards, if at all. Do they hold them in their hand? Do they place them on the felt? Do they look ready to play? The second is where they place the cards on the felt. Are they tucked in tight against their chips or the rail? Are the cards well out in front, ready for the muck? You need to learn, by repeated observation, what the players who act after you do with their cards. It may be nothing – but it may be something.
How do we keep from giving it up? Well, there are two ways to achieve that. First, we can just create a routine. Look at your cards, memorize them, cap them with a small denomination chip. Never vary. Second, we can just wait. Don’t look at your cards at all until the action is on you.
Since I like to act quickly when it is on me, I usually go with the first option. I have a set routine I follow. First, I check out my opponents. Then I check my own hand. I look at my hand, memorize it, and then cap the cards with a low denomination chip, centered in front of my chips. Make it the same every time. If I find myself varying from the routine at all (maybe I catch myself holding the cards in my hand like our friend in the big blind above) then I make that the routine for one orbit. The whole idea is for the action to be the same every time.
You can wait until the action is on you to look. I don’t prefer that alternative. When you look, everyone at the table is checking you out. Any tells you have, and we all have some, are under the deepest scrutiny possible. In addition, you’re slower. You need to look, consider the action to you, formulate a plan for the hand, and then act. It’s slow. And this game is slow enough – I choose not to make it worse.
How does this work in practice? Sometimes, not at all. Against a player with a regular routine, you’re not going to get reliable information very often. Maybe one time in ten you’ll get some kind of read that is useful to you. On my last trip to the ‘Shoe, though, I got a reliable set of each type of tell.
Early in the session I noticed that the player two to my left was looking at his cards, then holding them in his hand, about an inch of the felt. When the action came to him, he would spin them into the muck. Since that’s often a way that players let us know what they are going to do, I started watching closely. He folded the next few hands – all the same way.
Finally, a hand came where this player varied. He looked at his cards, but instead of holding them in his hand, he tucked them neatly against the rail just to one side of his chips. I could almost hear his thoughts. “These are nice cards. I’ll just put them here for safekeeping, and we’ll see what happens.” Sure enough, when it was on him, he called. And play proceeded.
At that point I made it a game. Watch what he does with his hand. See if the action matches the tell – confirmation through repetition. It’s important if you’re going to rely on this kind of information to drive input to your own action that you make sure it’s good. And in this case, it was. Over the course of seven hours of play, not one time did this player call or raise with a hand he was holding in his hand. And every hand which was tucked against the rail called or raised, if the pot wasn’t raised. Only very occasionally did the tucked-in hands get folded to aggressive raises, and then, generally only to the tighter players. I started looking for opportunities to raise his blinds when the cards were in his hands, particularly if the action was folded on to me.
But this particular day, it got even better. The player one to my left was doing things a little differently, but still giving away information. This player would look at his cards, and then consistently place them on the felt, with a hand on top of them. Always the same. Very consistent. It took about an hour to notice what he was doing.
This player had a placement tell. Instead of holding the cards or putting them down, if they were cards he intended to fold, he would put them forward, with his fingers resting on the middle of the cards. When action was on him, he would curl his fingers and flick them into the middle. When they were cards he was thinking about playing, he would place the hand further back, with his fingers on the felt past the edge of the cards. The results were almost exactly the same as with the other player.
So tell me this, my friends. If you’re on the button, and action is folded to you, and both blinds want to fold, do you care what cards you are holding? Or are you already stacking those chips? I know my answer.
I know what you’re saying. “Mr. F,” you’re saying, “I never pick up that kind of thing. And I never give the information either.” To this I say that I am dead certain neither of these players thought they were giving anything off. And often you’ll see this stuff too – not always, but often. If you look for it. But you have to look for it. Make it part of your routine. The players who are going to act before you are nowhere near as important as the players who are going to act after. As you look at them, your brain, one of the finest pattern recognition computers ever assembled, will be putting the pieces together. Eventually, you will start picking things up as the patterns fall into place. Then all you have to do is start adapting your strategies appropriately.
So go forth. Get equity from the players to your left. Don’t give it to the players to your right. And good luck at the tables.
Mr. F has been playing poker in the Chicago area for ten years, at a variety of stakes and locations. He’s interested in the game theory of poker, but his primary interest is in the psychological and social interactions which take place across the felt. His favorite film is not Rounders.