Underhand tactics

Trash-talking, calling the clock and staring someone down might not figure in the ‘classy’ poker book

Throughout my long career of playing poker I have witnessed every sneaky, unscrupulous tactic imaginable, from the sublime to the ridiculous, the subtle and the downright rude. But, however straight your moral compass may be, it’s a fact of poker life that used properly, a little bit of shiftiness can go a long way to boosting your bankroll.

In this article, we’re going to take a look at some of the tricks of the trade players will use to try and throw you off balance; both for future reference and for you to implement into your own game.


The undisputed king of the vitriolic verbal onslaught is Tony G. The worst example I have seen of his notorious abusiveness was in the Monte Carlo Millions. Tony came out bluffing and got all his chips in almost dead. He hit runner-runner to win the pot and knocked out the other player. What then followed was unreal.

He stood up screaming: ‘How bad are you? I played that hand like I had a set!’ The swearing and abuse continued for a full five minutes after his hapless victim had left the table. Any of you who go on youtube can bear witness to his outbursts and I have to admit that I love watching them. They are part of his character, but are done for a purpose: to destroy the opposition. You have to say that as a rule it works well for him, it makes him appear fearsome to lots of players who don’t know him.

It’s less effective on players like me who know him; players who have witnessed a more gentle, caring side to the big guy – such as when he won the Betfair Asian Poker Tour and donated half his winnings to charity before giving the trophy to the local lad he beat. That’s an act of kindness many people don’t see.

Andy Black, on the other hand, uses the ‘I am your teacher so don’t misbehave’ routine to bamboozle his opponents. He will often give a player a good telling off as to etiquette or procedure, and an apology counts for nothing as it only exacerbates his condemnation of your actions.

This forces a lot of players to shy away from action with him, allowing Andy to often steal his way to victory. With Andy though it’s not an act – it’s his way of doing things. He is the first to speak his mind, but not to the point of being rude. Nevertheless, it has the same effect as Tony G’s method: it makes you feel uneasy and susceptible to his will.

One of the best ever put downs was at The Vic in London by Tony Bolton, who after skinning a player was asked if he could loan him £20 for the cab fare home, to which Tony replied: ‘Here’s a pound – losers get the bus.’ This guy came back and went on tilt with Tony for six months. You either have to take it or be good at giving it back. For the most part I handle it easily as I love the verbal that goes with the game and often enter into banter with fellow players. I am trying to gain an edge by getting them to tilt.


You have a myriad of options if you’re going to trash talk. Do you want to belittle like Tony G or scold your opponents like Andy Black?


A tactic I often use to throw a player off his game is to call the clock on him.

This is a rule whereby a player who takes a long time over a decision is put under a time constraint by the floor manager – usually two minutes. You are allowed to call the clock on any player at any time even if you are not involved in the hand.

At this year’s WPT Championships one guy was taking ages on every hand he played. No one said anything until, on taking his usual four to five minutes, he declared to the raiser: ‘Next time you raise I will call you, but I can’t now,’ before showing 2-4 offsuit. On the next hand, as soon as it was his turn – but before he even looked at his cards – I called the clock on him and continued to do so for the next hour.

He played every raise against me and I won a good load of chips off him. This was picked up on by some other pros who joined in the fun. In the end we were arguing about who called it first!


Calling the clock on someone is akin to calling them to arms – obviously they are hardly ever going to like you for it and you have the chance to put them on tilt


Another part of a player’s armoury is the supposed mental calculations that you process whilst making a decision. Gus Hansen is a master purveyor of this tactic. When he is making a move, he tosses his head from side to side and mutters to himself as though working out his options and what he thinks you have. It often gives the players the impression that he is indecisive – but do not be deceived.

He is in my opinion the best odds calculator in the game bar none. Many a time he can quote you very precise odds at any given moment. This apparent lack of conviction gets him lots of action as I am sure it is designed to. He often tells you what you have in your hand and watches your reaction as to his analysis. It’s an excellent way to get information from a player. If you ever happen to be at the same table as Gus, listen to his thought process (as he always speaks to himself out loud) and try to pick up segments of it that you can improve your game with.


Pretending you’re working out odds, outs or your opponent’s hand is a good way of convincing your opponent that you’re unsure of your own hand. This is extremely useful if you want to encourage action


All who have played the game will have at some point encountered the stare-down. Personally, there are only a few players I don’t make eye contact and enter dialogue with. One is Carlos Mortensen. I swear that man can see into your very soul.

The first time I encountered this was when we were up against each other in the semi-final of the Heads-up Poker Circuit in Barcelona. I got through in the end, but never spoke a word or looked at him the whole match. It’s not that he is physically intimidating – and he is a great guy – it’s just that I was sure he could read me if I said anything or even glanced in his direction. I guess I shouldn’t be surprised, after all he is the only player ever to have won the WSOP main event and WPT World Championships.

The other player I watch out for is Phil Ivey. At the Monte Carlo Millions, I was happy to talk and look directly at him, totally oblivious as to how good he was at getting a read on me. After watching the show on TV, I realised it was a big mistake and would have to play him differently next time. That infamous hand against Paul Jackson where both players kept re-raising each other with nothing made it obvious that Phil is a totally different proposition to most.

Against 90% of players I am sure Paul’s move would have worked, but Phil’s ability to read you with those glances mean that invariably he comes out on top.


Employ the stare-down to make your opponent uncomfortable and force tells; counter the stare-down by talking back at him and convince him you are totally relaxed (unless you’re playing Carlos Mortensen or Phil Ivey)


Your edge at any time in poker is very slim so make an effort to learn from your adversary and maybe add a little spice into your game. Don’t try to be a carbon copy of the players I have mentioned as it will probably end in tears, but rather learn to handle their tactics and try to enhance your own game by adding bits that you find helpful.

You should watch poker shows, high-stakes cash games and read books. But more importantly, when you are on a table with a top player, take into account everything you witness and use it the first chance you get. Put that extra 10% into your game and watch as the good results flow.

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