A Very Useful Poker Tell for Heads-up Play
I wanted to share a story that I was originally going to post on my Reading Poker Tells
blog, but then I figured Iíd share it here, with Cardschatís permission. Love to hear thoughts on it or on similar situations anyoneís been in.
A very useful poker tell for heads-up play
I played a $60 tournament the other night and wound up chopping the pot with one other guy. While playing heads-up I noticed a pretty common tell that involved the length of time my opponent looked at his hole cards. Itís a fairly common pattern, one that Iíve written about in my book and on my blog, but I havenít talked about how much more obvious it can be in heads-up situations.
The opponent in question was not terrible, but he was pretty nitty and passive. Before getting heads-up, I hadnít gotten any good tell-related info on him. This was partly a factor of him being pretty good at being stoic and partly a factor of him playing hardly any hands. Also, he was sitting to my right the whole game, and Iím usually much more motivated to study the people directly behind me.
One of the more important tells I look for is how long players will look at their hole cards the first time they pick them up. The most common pattern is that a player will tend to stare for a couple seconds at bad or mediocre cards, but if he has a decent hand he will put them down more quickly. If he has a premium hand like AA, KK, QQ, or AK, it is very unlikely that he will look at them for more than an instant.
Why is this a common pattern? In my book I say that looking away quickly from a good hand is an instinct to hide something valuable from other people. I relate it to that scene in the movie Blood Diamond, when the African guy looks down and sees a huge diamond in the river and wants to obtain the diamond without letting people know that heís seen it. What is his first reaction? His instinctual reaction is to look away quickly so that other people donít notice the diamond. Itís a similar reaction to what an animal might do if it found food around a bunch of other hungry animals; look away quickly. Hope no one discovers the food.
But in this case the behavior that is more meaningful to study is the opposite; someone looking at bad cards for a longer than usual time. This behavior is more significant because many people can peek quickly at a wide range of cards, including bad cards, whereas you will seldom see a player stare for a couple seconds at good cards. In other words, a player might have, say, a 65% chance of having strong cards when he looks at his hole cards for a short period of time. But that same player could have a 90% chance of having a weak hand when he stares at his hole cards for two seconds. Itís more likely to be a significant behavior because it takes more time to perform.
Now this is obviously not true for everyone. Experienced players are very good at looking at their cards in a consistent, unreadable way. And Iíve talked to some players who tell me they are more likely to stare for a long time at their premium hands. (I donít believe thatís a common pattern, though.) But the behavior Iíve described is a very meaningful tell for a lot of people. And when you notice a player who has this pattern, it doesnít have to be extremely reliable for it to still be very useful information.
How is it used in practice? One example: if you know this tell is meaningful for a specific player, and you are considering making an aggressive blind-stealing raise pre-flop, you can feel much safer when you see this guy staring at his cards for a couple seconds. Whereas you would not feel confident stealing if you saw him quickly put his cards down after looking at them.
This is an especially powerful tell in tournaments because itís a structure where you are forced to make aggressive raises and frequently must go all-in with mediocre cards. In these situations even a little bit of information goes a long way. (See my blog post about how picking up information from the person behind you can prevent you from making an ill-timed raise.)
With this guy Iím talking about, I did not have this information when we were playing with multiple players. As I said, he was pretty unreadable and not too active. When we got heads-up, we positioned our seats to be directly across the table from each other.
It was quickly obvious that although he didnít have this tell so much when we had multiple players, he had it big-time when heads-up. The reason this tell can be much more obvious in heads-up play (or very short-handed play) is that there is no one beside a person to make him nervous. When this guy had people right beside him, he was more cagey about looking at his cards consistently and quickly, just in case someone might see the cards. When we got heads-up and he had more empty space around him, he was much more relaxed and this tell become more evident.
When he had bad or mediocre cards, he would lift them up pretty far off the table, and stare at them for a few seconds. When he performed this action there was, in my estimation, a 90% correlation with him folding to my pre-flop raise, regardless of what position we were in.
When he put his cards down quickly, I did not bother raising him unless I was willing to call a re-raise. It did not matter what he had when he was putting his cards down quickly, whether it was great cards or a hand like 9Ts that he was excited about seeing. The point is; if I have so much great information that he is weak when he stares at his hole cards for a couple seconds, I can just wait for those spots to steal from him pre-flop. With such a great tell, there is no reason to put myself in tough spots like raising him with AJs when he puts his cards down quickly. I can just choose my spots against him in those instances when he has shown weakness.
This can go the other way, too. In spots when Iíve played with opponents with this tell, and I spot them putting their hole cards down quickly, I am much more likely to try to get value on a big pre-flop raise when I hold a really strong hand. For instance, if I have AA and I see this kind of opponent put his cards down quickly, I figure a bigger-than-pot-sized bet is more likely to get called.
I realize that for people not used to looking for such things, this tell sounds too good to be true. But it really can be that easy with some players. And I promise you if you start looking for it, youíll see it. And youíll be more likely to see it in short-handed or heads-up play, when peopleís guards are down.