Verbal Poker Tells

You can learn a lot from what people tell you at the poker table. In extracts from Verbal Poker Tells and his new ebook, Zachary Elwood reveals how loose lips can sink chips

Indicators of truth telling

Some hand strength statements are more likely to be true than other statements. The following are some indicators that a player is telling the truth:

Specific hand strength statements

The more specific a hand strength statement is, the more likely it is to be true. For example, if a player bets the turn and tells you, ‘I’ve got a set,’ you should be more likely to believe him than if he says, ‘I’ve got a good hand.’ He could be lying or telling the truth in either case, but the directness of the first statement makes it more likely to be true than the second.

Negative hand strength statements

Statements regarding what hands a player doesn’t have (i.e. negative statements) are more likely to be true than statements regarding what hands a player does have (i.e. positive statements).

For example, the statement, ‘I don’t have pocket Fives,’ is more likely to be true than the statement, ‘I have pocket Fives.’

One reason for this is that negative statements only barely define a player’s range. A player can comfortably say something truthful like, ‘I don’t have pocket Fives,’ without worrying that it restricts his perceived hand range much at all. Whereas saying something specific like, ‘I have pocket Fives,’ restricts his range to one specific hand.

Usually negative hand strength statements will be heard as a result of someone asking a player about specific hands. For example, a player asks, ‘You might have pocket Fives.’ His opponent responds, ‘I swear I don’t have pocket Fives.’

Promising or swearing about hand strength

If a player ‘swears’ or ‘promises’ that he’s telling the truth, he usually will be. The more excessive this promising is, the more likely it becomes that he’s actually telling the truth. This is because the player is taking more personal ‘outside-of-game’ responsibility for his statement.

Most players, experienced and inexperienced, don’t want to be perceived as unethical. If a player makes an emphatic statement like, ‘I swear to God I have a set and want you to fold,’ and he’s found to not be telling the truth, he’ll be remembered as someone willing to emphatically lie to achieve his goals. Most players don’t want this reputation. Even amongst players who regularly practice deception, they only want to lie enough to achieve their goals.

A bluffer may make an untrue statement like: ‘I have a set, you should fold.’ His goal is to get his opponent to fold. He doesn’t want to be perceived as the guy who ‘swore on his mother’s grave’ to sell a lie; he just wants to deceive his opponent enough to get the job done.

In short, when a player makes an emphatic show of promising something about his hand, you should usually listen.

Factors affecting willingness to lie

There are some factors that make it more likely a person will tell a lie.

If a person believes that a lie will never be discovered, this makes it more likely that the person will tell a lie. For example: a criminal has covered his tracks perfectly and doesn’t believe that anyone will ever be able to contradict his alibi. He will be more likely to directly lie about his alibi than will a criminal who knows his lie could be discovered.

What does this mean when applied to poker? It means a player is more likely to lie about his hand strength if he believes no one will ever discover what his hand was. A player in a hand, who’s competing for a pot, knows that his hand may be exposed at showdown.

If he’s like most players, he’ll be unlikely to directly lie because his lie may be exposed. If, however, he knows he’s folding or if the hand is already over, he’s more likely to lie, because he knows his lie will never be exposed.

Another factor that seems to increase a person’s willingness to lie is if someone else has lied to him. When a player finds out that an opponent has directly lied to him, he’s more likely to lie to that opponent in later hands. When a direct lie is found out, it can often lead to increased verbal ‘jousting’ between the two opponents. (This can be done playfully or angrily.) The first liar essentially breaks the ‘taboo’ against lying, which gives the other person permission to try to verbally deceive the first person. Lying, like other behaviour, can be contagious.

Ambiguous language is preferred over lying

When poker players do lie, they will generally choose ambiguous, indirect techniques. The following are good examples of players using verbally vague, ambiguous, ‘tricky’ statements to attempt to deceive opponents.

Poker After Dark, high stakes NLHE cash game, S2 E52

Alan ‘Boston’ Dvorkis is very short- stacked, with only $5,000 in front of him. He raises to $1,400 with Q♠-T. Jamie Gold raises Boston all-in. Boston considers.

Boston: ‘I’ve got Queen-high if you’re wondering.’

Gold: ‘I got King-high. So I win. I win.’

The two talked some more. Gold insisted several times that he had King-high; he got more specific and twice said that he didn’t have K-Q. He even showed another player his cards and asked him if he had K-Q; the other player said, honestly, ‘Nope.’ Boston said that he was getting the right price to call if Gold had A-K. Gold said, ‘I said I have King-high; I don’t have Ace-King.’

Boston calls and Gold turns over K-K, saying, ‘The highest card in my hand is a King.’ Gold didn’t technically lie. He used ambiguous language to trick his opponent. He could’ve said, very directly, ‘I have King-Nine,’ but he didn’t. Gold was known for being verbally tricky but it was still rare for him to make a statement that was untrue. Like most players, Gold didn’t want to be perceived as a liar, even when attempting to deceive.

Also, direct hand strength statements aren’t likely to be trusted and so have limited usefulness. even if Gold were willing to say, ‘I have king-Nine’ here, such a direct statement would be unlikely to be trusted by his opponent. By using a more subtle, ambiguous deception, Gold attempts to exert more control over how his language is interpreted. It’s at least conceivable that Gold would truthfully tell his opponent that he only had King-high, whereas it would be unlikely for Gold to tell his opponent he had a specific hand, like K-9.

$2-5 NLHE cash game, witnessed by author

A player three-bets pre flop. The first raiser asks, ‘Can you beat Jacks?’ and the three-bettor says, ‘Yeah, I can beat Jacks.’ Results: the first raiser folds. the three-bettor shows T♣-T♠ and says, ‘I could beat Jacks. If I flop a set, I could beat Jacks.’

The three-bettor was playing with language. He wasn’t technically lying; he could theoretically beat Jacks. This player could have chosen to say, ‘I have Queens’ but he didn’t. Such a direct hand strength statement would be uncommon from a deceiver.

Sky Poker Cash Game, £5-5 NLHE, S1 E1

On a board of J♠-9-9-Q-5♣, Colburn Tomlin bets £200 into a pot of £410. His opponent, Robert Yong, considers.

Tomlin: ‘What do you think I’ve got?’

Yong: ‘You might have a Nine. Have you got a Nine?’

Tomlin shakes his head: ‘No, I haven’t got a Nine.’ He puts slight emphasis on the ‘a’.

Results: Yong calls with Q♣-5. Tomlin has 9♠-9♣, for quads. Tomlin was technically telling the truth; he didn’t have a single Nine. He had two of them (or four of them, if you prefer). When Tomlin turned over his hand, he said, ‘I said I didn’t have a Nine,’ showing that he was conscious of his phrasing.

These examples are meant to support the idea that even verbally tricky poker players don’t like to directly lie. Even when given a chance to tell a direct lie, most players will use ambiguous and indirect statements.

The following is an excerpt from Zachary Elwood’s newest ebook, Reading Poker Tells in $1-2 No-Limit Cash Games: An Examination of 35 Hands. It’s available to buy on Kindle here for just $9.99.

Hand #23

A young guy limps in middle position. I raise in the small blind to $12. He calls. He only has about $100. I’ve played with him for about an hour. My read is that he’s very loose pre flop, willing to call with a lot of hands. but he’s also not betting much; I haven’t seen him make any big bets at all. Admittedly it’s a small sample size, though.

The flop is K-J-8 rainbow. I bet $13. He immediately shoves for $85. The overbet and immediate shove make it very unlikely he has a set, A-K or top two pair. With clearly strong hands, most players take a couple of seconds to think about the situation (or pretend to think about it). Most people want to maximise their big hands, which often requires a couple of seconds thought. Also, they usually don’t want to lose value by chasing an opponent off with a big, immediate bet.

Often in cases like this, when an opponent makes a big flop bet or raise and you’re confident you can rule out the strongest hands, he either has a weak-hand/bluff or he has a vulnerable two-pair hand, usually bottom two pair. Bottom two pair on the flop is a hand that many recreational players feel is more vulnerable than it is, so they play it strangely; you will see a lot of players overbet with bottom two in a way that can seem very bluffy.

In order for this to be the case, though, the player has to be pretty inexperienced and the kind of player who bets big because they ‘want to take the pot down now’ and don’t want to face tough decisions later.

That’s not the case for a lot of players who would rightly hold two-pair in higher regard and who would want to get value. So it’ll be a player-specific read.

When I see this guy, who I’ve already pegged as pretty inexperienced, shove here, my initial thought is: He’s either got bottom two-pair, or he’s bluffing with a straight draw or an underpair or an Eight. Mathematically, there are many more bluffs and weak hands he can have here than combos of J-8. Also, J-8 is an unlikely hand to call with preflop. So at first I’m very sure I’m calling, but I want to give it a moment or two before I decide.

I ask him, ‘What do you got?’

He says, ‘Two pair. I’m not lying.’

The first thing to consider is that players who try to deceive you generally won’t make a big point of swearing that they’re telling you the truth.

Poker players are capable of lying to you, of course, but when they do they generally don’t like to ‘swear’ or ‘promise.’ They generally only want to deceive you enough to get the job done; they don’t want to make a big production out of it. This is mainly because they don’t want to be seen as hardcore liars if they get called and have to show their hand. People generally don’t want to be known as hardcore liars.

So when he says this, I start thinking there is a chance I can get away from the hand after all.

I tell him, ‘I’ve got Ace-King.’ I think it’s possible this might get a reaction from him. If he were to suddenly clam up and seem uncomfortable in some way, that might be a sign he was on the weaker side. But he keeps talking, seemingly unfazed.

‘Two pair,’ he says. ‘I swear.’ Again he makes a promise. I ask him, ‘Jack-Eight?’ He says immediately, ‘Yeah. I’ll show if you fold.’ He says ‘Yeah,’ which, for what it’s worth coming from him, is confirming that he has J-8. He seems very relaxed.

One indicator of this is his immediate response to my questions. More nervous players generally want to think more about what they say in response to questions because they don’t want to say the wrong thing and get a call.

Offering to show a hand if an opponent folds is often thought of as weak behaviour, but in many cases it’s said by players who are relaxed or who are happy taking the pot down now.

This would fit in with the theory that he thinks bottom two-pair is vulnerable and he’s quite happy winning the pot now. At the same time, he knows he’s ahead and doesn’t much care if I call; that relaxation accounts for a lot of the unusual things you’ll find bettors with strong hands saying.

I say, ‘Really? Why so much?’ He shows his neighbour his cards. His neighbour nods. I ask his neighbour, ‘Does he have it?’ His neighbour says kind of animatedly, ‘I can’t say. You play your hand. I can’t say anything.’

I think the neighbour seems very relaxed, too. I’d predict if the kid showed him a bluff or weak hand, the neighbour would feel obligated to not give anything away and would be more stoic. Only a small bit of information, though. Finally the kid says, ‘I wouldn’t lie.’

Mathematically, if he has J-8, I’m 24% to win the pot, which means I’d need 3:1 to call. I’d have to call $72 to win $124, so am getting less than 2:1. Of course that’s assuming I’m certain he has J-8, which I’m not. But I think it’s highly probable. I fold and the kid shows J-8 and says, ‘See? I’m not lying.’

Hand #32

I make it $8 early with Q♣-Q. I get five callers. The flop is 9♣-7-6♣. I bet $30 into $48. Four players fold. A young guy who is pretty loose-aggressive and talkative raises all-in for $80 more. My first thought is that I should be calling considering I’m getting about 2.4:1 and there are a lot of weaker hands he could be shoving with, including T-9, 9-8, 8-7, A-9, a lone Eight, and club draws.

Considering he’s been pretty talkative I decide to talk to him.

I ask him, ‘What do you got?’

He says, “Aces. I’m afraid of these two.” He points to the Six and the Seven.

This is interesting and could be seen as a weak-hand statement. Aces aren’t that strong on this board, and most players betting weak hands don’t like to say anything that implies weakness about their hands. He’s also said he’s ‘afraid’ of the two lowest cards, which implies his hand is weak in some way.

I ask him, ‘You really got Aces?’

He says, ‘No, I don’t have those. I’m on a draw.’

Again, these are both weak-hand statements. Pocket Aces is still a decent hand, if not a super-strong one, and he’s now retracted that he has them. He’s also said that he’s on a draw; that’s also something a bluffer doesn’t want to do. A bluffer wouldn’t want to accidentally make me suspicious and get a call.

My read is that he’s super-relaxed and that all strong hands, including sets and straights, are easily in his range. I could imagine him acting this comfortable with a very strong draw like A♣-8♣, but even with draws like that he’s a favourite.

If he did have a set or a straight, one factor in his willingness to talk and potentially discourage action would be the extremely draw-heavy nature of the board. If he did have a set or a straight, and the board didn’t have so many draws possible, I’d predict he’d be more stoic and less talkative. But with the board the way it is, it makes some sense that he’s probably happy to potentially discourage action and take the fairly large pot down.

I ask him, ‘Show if I fold?’ He says quickly, ‘No.’ There usually isn’t much information you can get from responses to the often-heard ‘Show if I fold?’ question. But the one exception is when players act confrontational in some way. Players who are willing to be perceived as rude or confrontational are very likely to have strong hands, mainly because players with weak hands or bluffs don’t want to accidentally provoke an opponent into calling. So when someone quickly and slightly rudely turns down such a request, it’s highly likely he’s relaxed. I fold and he shows T-8, for the nut straight.

All of Zachary Elwood’s books are available now on Amazon and on his website

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