How to read your opponents

Master the art of reading people and poker will be as easy as taking chips from a baby

As well as earning the distinction of being the best no-limit player ever, Stu ‘The Kid’ Ungar was probably the best reader of other players. One example of his phenomenal ability came from a heads-up match with 1990 world champ Mansour Matloubi. After Mansour went all-in on the river for tens of thousands of dollars, Stu Ungar looked at him hard. He quickly called, but before he did he named Mansour’s hand exactly – a busted straight draw. Mansour was just getting over this when he looked down and saw what Stuey had called with – his hole cards were 10-9 giving him just 10-high. He not only called the hand but with cards that could only beat a total bluff. Mansour Matloubi – former world champion – got up from the table and said he would never play heads-up with Stu Ungar again.

Ungar had what every poker player dreams of – an almost supernatural ability to know what other players are holding. The ability to read a player’s cards based on information they don’t mean to give you is the most exciting skill in poker and gives you a buzz like nothing else at the table. The feeling you get when you make a call for all your chips and pick off a bluff. Or when you pick up on weakness, push your stack in with 8-3 and watch your opponent fold his winning hand. It’s unalloyed pleasure – and the only place you can get this buzz is playing live poker.

Birthday suit

Online poker is great and has changed poker forever and for the better. But if you want to be the real deal, live poker is where it’s at. You haven’t passed the real test this game has to offer until you’ve sat down with the pros and been stared in the eye by someone who’s forgotten more about poker than you’ll ever know. It’s like he’s looking right through you – you feel naked, vulnerable, tiny – like the end to a bad date. And that’s when it all falls apart.

Your mouth is dry, your hands are shaking and your heart is pounding at a thousand miles an hour. You don’t know where to look as his eyes bore through you; and at that point you might as well have your hand tattooed on your forehead. You have become a mass of tells.

A tell in poker is – literally – something that ‘tells’ your opponents information about your hand. It could be the way you stack your chips, the size of your bets, the speed of your pulse, a scratch of the nose, the tone of your voice and on and on. But before you become petrified and swear never to sit down in a live game again, don’t worry, your ability to spot tells and to stop giving them out will improve – starting here. In fact it can become something that makes a serious contribution to your profits. Remember, as TJ Cloutier says, ‘Every poker player has tells, even the great ones.’

Weak but strong

The fundamental rule of tells is this – people will act strong when they’re weak and weak when they’re strong. It’s that simple. Of course, not all tells are an act – some are just a natural reflection of your personality. For example, if a player stacks their chips neatly in value order it’s likely they play a very conservative game… and work in accountancy. If their chips are all over the place they’re more likely to play in a wild care-free fashion and their chips may not be theirs for very long. Occasionally players will represent the opposite to the truth. Double bluffs – or reverse tells – do exist but only at the higher levels of poker (we’ll look at some of that next month). For now all you need to know is that strong means weak and vice versa. So if a player bangs his chips down and stares at you he probably doesn’t have too much. However, if he’s talking easily and doesn’t seem to be taking too much notice of the game then get ready for him to raise your bet.

Cookie monster

But while tells are a very important part of reading someone’s hand, you should be careful not to take a tell as too universal. It’s true that sometimes people have a specific tell that gives them away but this is rare. For example, in the movie Rounders Teddy KGB – played by ridiculously bad Russian impersonator John Malkovich – eats an Oreo cookie a different way based on whether his hand is strong or weak. This is rubbish – he’s supposedly one of the most feared poker players on the New York circuit yet no-one’s spotted this. The point is you should look at tells as a piece of information that should be seen in the context of their play of that hand and all other game variables. For example, if you’re unsure what a bet means and are 50-50 on calling based on factors like pot odds, but your opponent has stopped playing with his chips and is staring straight at you with a tense mouth, then you really need to get your chips in there!

Observe and conquer

Spotting tells and reading players should be something you work hard to improve. It’s impossible to spot a tell unless you’re observing the players you’re playing with and constantly learning their habits and mannerisms. This means when you fold your hands keep your head in the game and watch the action that follows. It means not spending that time thinking about your work meeting tomorrow. Watch the game and try to make an educated guess what the players involved are holding so when you’re in a hand with them you have information you can use. This is a great habit to get into and will make you a much better poker player.

When determining tells, trusting your instincts is extremely important. Your ‘feelings’ about a situation are not spooky or mystical but based on your hours of play at the table and years of people-watching away from the table. All this accumulated experience feeds back to you in the moment you face a difficult decision so try and go with it – you’ll be amazed how often it’s right.

Practise reading tells, trust your instincts and one day you’ll know what players are going to do before they do it. And maybe one day someone will swear never to play heads-up with you again.

Coming soon: Learn how to control your own tells and even reverse them to fool the best poker players in the world.

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187 thoughts on “How to read your opponents

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