Online Play: Part 2

In the second part of his guide to playing killer Internet poker John Vorhaus identifies some online tells

Conventional wisdom dictates that there are no such things as online tells. How could there be when you can’t see a foe’s face, hear the timbre of his voice or watch his hands shake as he pushes chips into the pot? Even the way he swigs his beer (or, famously, per Rounders, cracks his Oreo cookie) can tell you whether he’s on a monster hand or a stone cold bluff. But how can you check out his cookies, his beady eyes and his other body language when all you can see is a screen name?

Well, conventional wisdom is for conventional thinkers – in fact, reliable tells are abound in Internet poker. You just have to recognise them for what they are. And guess what? You already do. Consider for starters the case of…

The timing tell

You’re playing no-limit Hold’em against some slackjaw from Canada, screen name SassCatchYou_Anne, who has shown herself to be a typically bad Internet player: she calls too much, raises too little and chases too far. You raise under the gun with pocket Jacks and everyone except Anne folds. The flop is 9? -7? -6?. You bet half the pot. She thinks and thinks and thinks – almost times herself out – and finally calls. The turn is the 2?. You bet the pot and she instantly raises you all-in.

What do you think? Does she have the flush? Of course she has the fricking flush! Her hesitation on the flop was all about, ‘Do I have odds to call?’ Her instant raise on the turn was that of a straightforward player making a straightforward play. And you know this. You know this. You know it so well that you then do one of two things: either you fold and get out of her way, or else, knowing full well that you’re beaten, you ‘call to keep her honest’ or ‘call for the size of the pot’. I fervently hope you fold, but a lot of people will call, which just proves the difference between picking up a tell and acting correctly on what you see. But that’s a whole other story; for now, just recognise that online poker offers this thing called a timing tell and then do these two things:

1. Be on the lookout for players whose oscillating pace of play betrays information about their hand or their thinking, or both.

2. Never oscillate yourself. Always take the same amount of time to act. Don’t let your hesitation give you away.

Yeah, fine, I hear you say, but what if they’re faking? What if it’s a false stall designed to make me think they’ve got a tough choice when really they’ve got a monster? Sure, that’s a possibility. On the trickiness scale it’s about on a par with pulling a coin from a toddler’s ear and therefore well within the realm of most players’ capability. Remember this – if you’ve seen a player like SassCatchYou_Anne lay down this sort of false stall before, then suspect her of it here. If you haven’t seen it yet, don’t assume it now. In other words…treat online players as kosher until proven otherwise.

Pattern tells

Online poker happens so fast that it’s often easier to see patterns of play online than in a real life game. In a bricks-and-mortar cardroom, for instance, you might notice that the player two seats to your right seems to be attacking your big blind from the button with alarming frequency. You wonder if he’s got a real hand or if he’s just in love with the real estate raise. In the real world, you might get a look at how he handles the button three or four times an hour. Online, though, that button comes spinning through his (virtual) hands every few minutes. It won’t take you long to see a pattern in his play. If he raises from the button more than half the time you can assume that he doesn’t need much in the way of a hand to feel comfy about popping in a raise. That’s a tell, my friends, a tell revealed through the particular phenomenon of online play known as context density.

Context density is a measure of the amount of information available within a given time-span. The more information a situation offers, the higher its context density. In the real world, poker information is diluted by time, space, cocktail waitresses, table chat, sports on television and so on. Online, though, everything’s crammed into this one little visual space and this tiny unit of time. Because so many common poker situations recur so quickly online, context density is high, and pattern tells emerge easily and reliably. Thanks to context density, you can swiftly figure out who makes button raises only with quality hands and who will attack your blind with any old rags. Against the former, you fold; against the latter, you play back.

Context density is good for gathering information, but it’s great for spreading misinformation. If you know what to do with it, you can use context density to train small-minded foes to see the tells you want them to see and make the moves you want them to make.

Suppose it’s you who’s pumping in those real estate raises. The first time you raise, the blinds fold because they can’t be sure whether you have a real hand or not. The second time you raise, mere minutes later, the blinds fold again, because they still can’t be sure – but they sure are getting suspicious. Now they’re on the lookout. They’ve seen you make a specific play twice and they won’t let that happen again. So the name for our next tell is exactly what they’re thinking now…

Third time’s the adjustment

Show a typical player a button raise (or other move) one time and he’ll form a hypothesis. Show it to him a second time and his hypothesis is confirmed. The third time you show it to him, he’s ready to counter-attack. He’s made an adjustment. But you see this coming. Like a fighter pilot getting inside his enemy’s turning circle in a dogfight, you anticipate your enemy’s tactic and plan your own response in advance. In the case of the blind steal, it’s simply a matter of not taking that third stab at the blinds unless you happen to have a big hand. In other words…

Steal twice, real once

Yeah, fine, I hear you say, but don’t you have to get lucky to pick up a real hand just when they’re making a ‘third time’s the adjustment’ adjustment? Yes, you have to get lucky, but it’s a special kind of luck, called situation luck, and this kind of luck works for you no matter how the cards may fall. If you get the cards you need when you need them, great – execute Plan A. Thanks to context density, your foes won’t put you on a big hand and you’ll own them. If a crap hand comes, go to Plan B and decline the steal opportunity. This not only thwarts and frustrates your foes (who thought they were so cleverly lying in wait) it also makes them doubt that you’re the rascally blind stealer they thought you were. Maybe you just had consecutive good hands. The beauty of their doubt is it lets you start the whole sequence over later, stealing once or twice before they get up the gumption to take a stand – when, if you’re situationally lucky – you’ll happen to have a hand.

So now you have two classes of online tells – tells that tell you stuff about your foes, and tells that tell them what you want them to do. But there are lots of other online tells. Have you considered these?

Chat tells

Every Internet site has these little chat boxes, where people can yack away to their demented hearts’ content, right? You’ve encountered some of these rude boys, I’m sure. You outplay them because they’re morons, but because they’re morons they think you’re just butt-lucky, and so they type into the chat box something sweet like, ‘I hate you, I hope you die!’ What does this tell you about their state of mind? It tells you that they’re angry, on tilt and ready to dump all their chips.

Can a player fake this sort of rage? Sure, but most people who vent spleen into the chat box do it to relieve the psychic pain they’re in. They’ve just suffered at your hands and yelling at you is all they can do to make themselves feel better. That’s a metatell; not a situation-specific tic but a whole roadmap to their entire (flawed) state of mind. That’s some powerful information. And there’s more…

Buy-in tells

Any time you see someone buy into any game for less than an adequate amount ($100, say, in a $1-$2 no-limit game) you should assume that he’s timid, scared, running really bad, or otherwise unwilling to put an adequate amount of money into play. Push him. Punish him for his weakness and assume that his weakness is real until he shows some backbone.

Buzz tells

If playing in a poker game is a buzz, then playing in two must be twice the buzz. Double-dippers, then, or even triple-dippers, are telling us that they’re more interested in stimulation than win rate. If you scour the sign-up lists and find that you’re playing against someone who’s playing on several other tables, too, you can guess that he’s not fully committed to playing his best. How could he hope to, when his focus is naturally fragmented among the several games he’s playing? To exploit this tell just wait until you see him involved in a big confrontation in one of his other games. At that point, you can steal from him in your game because he’ll be literally distracted by more pressing matters elsewhere. The buzz tell is unique to online poker; for obvious reasons that players can’t double-dip in real world casinos.

Pre-action buttons

As you know, every site offers you the option of planning your moves in advance. If someone has no interest in their hand, they can click Check/Fold Any, grab a drink or go for a wazz. If they have a monster, they can Bet/ Raise any and go to war with guns blazing. These pre-action buttons, of course, cause their actions to appear on-screen instantaneously when their turn comes around. You, who are paying careful attention, will quickly note which actions are thought out in the moment and which are planned in advance. This tells you much. An instant raise, for instance, says they have a hand so big they don’t care who does what in front of them. A raise with hesitation might betray a drop in confidence based on all the raises that preceded their intended one. Again, for this there is a two-point plan:

1. Use pre-action button information as a reliable indicator of how confident your foes are about their hands.

2. Don’t ever use the pre-action buttons yourself; information is power and you should never give it away for free.

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