Wednesday, September 8, 2010

Timing Tells

Before the Internet (yes, there was such a time, I’ve been told), poker was a game where your continuation bet frequency and VPIP/ PFR (voluntary put into pot/preflop raise) meant nothing.

In those days of yore, when Hellmuth was king (and didn’t just think he was), the strength of your opponent’s hand was not weighted on a carefully analyzed range based on statistical tendencies — it was judged by the way he smoked a cigarette, the uncomfortable fidget of fingers on felt, the twitch at the side of his set lips.

Caro’s Book of Poker Tells was the definitive poker volume before PokerTracker and online play came along. Most players now judge tells as relics of a bygone age — who needs nervous tics and subtle fluctuations in body language when you have a 12,000-hand sample and extensive notes that tell you this turn check-raise is a semi-bluff?

Well, I’m not going to argue with that. However, tells are not dead — anyone who has ever played a live game is familiar with that gut feeling that you’re up against a bluff or a monster. They’re real, and just because your opponent is a faceless collection of pixels on a computer monitor that doesn’t mean you can’t make a thin call or a massive bluff based on subconscious signals.

Caro says that the second a player sits down at the table you should judge his appearance to ascertain hints of his character. A smartly dressed opponent will be tight, whereas someone who stacks their chips in unordered and huge piles or doesn’t iron their shirt is likely to be loose.

Well, I don’t know how true that theory is insofar as that I look like shit 87 percent of the time, but I’m very OCD about my chip stacks.

VPIP: 26 PFR: 24 - you be the judge. Well, that aside, there’s a man who knows a lot more about this online poker malarkey than I do. Actually there are several thousand, but this guy is one of the best ones. Promise.

Hunter Bick is founder and CEO of the highly recommended video training site, Drag The Bar, and coaches alongside such names as Dusty “leatherass” Schmidt. Evidently, having an awesome name is a requirement to be a Drag The Bar coach. A heads-up specialist, Hunter has made more money from timing tells alone than many people can hope to see at a poker table.

Hunter concurs that tells are still alive, well and exploitable, even in the online game. Whether playing at a full-handed table or playing mano-a-mano, the timing of your opponents’ actions can often be a clue to their cards.

A weak player insta-calls

You raise before the flop and a fish calls from the big blind, as fish do. The board is 7♣9♦2♥, and he checks. You fire out a decent sized continuation bet, and he calls before your chips have reached the middle. What does this mean?

“This tell is fairly common, especially among weaker players who are not aware of it,” says Hunter.

“Most decent players are more careful about it these days, but it’s useful nonetheless. Basically, it signifies that the player that insta-calls has a medium strength hand or a big draw, usually something decent but not great, [that he is] trying to get to showdown with. Why would he hit the call button automatically without thinking about it? Basically, he is somewhat nervous and very anxious to just see the next card as soon as possible.”

In this example, it’s likely that our opponent holds a hand like 7-6 or 10-8, maybe even something as weak as A-2. If the turn and river cards are paint or aces, then it’s a great spot to fire a second and third barrel to try and take down the pot.

A good player insta-calls

Even the regulars aren’t immune to giving away more information than is necessary by their timing. Say you’ve reached the river with deep stacks against another regular in your games who is solid. Say you decide it’s a good spot to bluff — do so and get called — it doesn’t necessarily mean it was a bad bluff.

However, if your opponent called you instantly with a weak hand, that held up at showdown, then he’s telling you something. He’s telling you that your bluff had not a snowball’s chance in hell of working, which puts you at an advantage. You know, now, not to do it again, and that’s bad for your opponent.

Reverse the situation. If you insta-call a bluff with a weak hand then you might as well just type in the chat box: “Bad bluff, mate. Don’t do it again, very obvious bluff line.” The idea of doing that is insane, as you want him to keep making bad bluffs.

It’s difficult, because when two strong players are in the pot, they’re often thinking streets ahead and have narrowed down ranges before it is their turn to act. Just give yourself a few seconds’ breathing room before you make your descision to call that obvious bluff with king-high.

Hmmm… what should I do? Er… uhm… all in!

Everyone has seen this timing tell – a player reaches the river, which completes a flush draw, and requests time. He ponders, ponders and ponders some more before reaching his decision – he’s all in!

Fold your set, he just made the nuts.

“This one always cracks me up, and you see it from players of all skill levels,” Hunter says. “If he was bluffing, he would not have thought about it so long. Everyone who is running a huge bluff wants to look as confident as possible, and do you really accomplish that by using up 75 percent of the time bank? No, of course not, no one does. The entire point of tanking down before shoving the nuts is to look unconfident, and that’s exactly why it’s a very reliable, strong tell. They are trying to send us a fake timing tell, but in reality, it’s fairly transparent, because no one ever does this on a bluff.”

The insta-shove.

This tell is essentially the opposite of the one above. If a player reaches the river, especially if it’s a scary card, they go all-in (or make a huge bet) barely before the card has hit the felt. As you might expect, this tell means the opposite of the “Ponder’n’Shove” – they have nothing.

“When someone just goes instant pot bet, pot bet, pot bet on the flop turn and river, they are not taking the time to think about any of these, they are just trying to look as strong as possible and as intimidating as possible. They want you to fold, so call them down,” Hunter advises.

Think about it — say the river of a board is really scary for both players — it completes a straight and a flush, and it’s an overcard. If your opponent goes all-in straight away, then they’re likely on a bluff. If they had a made hand, they’d have to think about how that scare card affected both your hand and their own. If that scare card made them a hand, they’d have to consider checking to induce a bluff or how much to value bet.

How deep is your stack? (Is your stack, how deep is your stack…?)

That was a Bee Gees reference. Anyway…

One major advantage of playing online is that you know exactly how much is in the pot and in front of each player. No more squinting at piles of multicolored ceramics and trying in vain to guess a number.

Just as you can, according to Caro, find tells in live, literal chips, you can find out what kind of opponent you’re facing by the dollar figure in front of him. Remember, earlier I said that if someone buys in for 62BBs, they’re probably a bit of a dribbler? That is a very reliable indication that a player is a fish as soon as he sits down. If you’re at a $5/$10 table and someone has more than $250 but less than $900 or so, then start licking your chops.

“There are two types of winning ring game players,” Hunter says. “There are the ones that play full stacked and always have the auto-rebuy feature enabled, so they are automatically topped up to a full maximum buy-in. Then there are the shortstackers who buy-in for 20BBs and leave when they double up. So what this means is that when you see someone playing with more than 20-25 big blinds, and less than 100 big blinds, then they are probably a fish.”

This is a great sign of fishiness when players are at the table, but you can tell if they’re a fish or not the minute they sit down. If you see them buy in for, say, $20 at a $0.25/$0.50, table, then you know they’re a bit on the donkey side. However, if you see them buy in for $22.38, then you know something more — not only are they a fish, but that’s their entire account balance.

“No one decent is going to show up to play and either A) bother to type in the 38 cents, or B) choose to play with less than a full buy-in. This guy is probably a weak player simply because good players don’t put their account balance on the line at a single table,” Hunter affirms.

In this situation you have an extra advantage — the player in question is likely on tilt and trying to double or bust, especially if you’re playing at a table with reasonably high stakes. If they’re not going mad trying to double up, then you can take advantage of them and put them to the test with big bets — they’re not going to bust their account by calling you with bottom two pair on a scary board.

So, now you know — timing tells are the nuts. Well, not quite. Like any tell, they’re not 100 percent reliable, but Hunter assures me that the above tells are likely right more often than not.

So bear this in mind in your own game — don’t only try spotting them in others, but make sure you don’t give anything away yourself. On a site like Full Tilt, why not let the time bar go down two-thirds of the way on each decision, for example? That way, the big decisions and easy calls or folds will appear the same.

Poker is a game of incomplete information. The less you give away, the better.


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