Thursday, March 29, 2012

When is a Spade a Spade?

" . . . I have a strong hand . . . you should fold . . ."

" . . . Will you show if I fold . . .?"

" . . . If you fold, I'll show . . ."

Live games involve lots of supposed tells.  Some are physical . . . some are verbal . . . and some can be gleaned from the manner in which the hand itself plays out.  When it comes to interpreting tells, perhaps the first question is: "am I really seeing what I think I'm seeing?

                                          Scott Seiver - Master of the "anti-tell"

Take the following example: A third heart hits the board on the river and:

(a) Player-A winces.  Is this an involuntary reaction to a bad card or an academy award effort from a player who just hit his flush and wants action? 

(b) Player-A gives a speech, e.g., "You hit your flush, didn't you?"  Is Player-A actually worried that you made your hand or his he trying to convince you that he was not drawing to the flush?  

Here's another over-simplified example: 

Suppose I bet a coordinated flop and Villain makes a quick call.  Now, its often thought that a quick call is indicative of being on a draw.  Therefore, I should consider the possibility that Villain is on a draw.  But, what if Villain knows what a quick call is suppose to represent (and thinks that I am good enough to know what a quick call is suppose to represent), so he actually snap-called with a made set?   What, if anything, can I (or should I) attempt to take away from my opponent's action?

The so-called verbal tells, such as the examples quoted above, provide perhaps the most stark example of the dilemma.  What does it really mean when a player asks, "will you show if I fold?"  What is he telling you?  What information is he trying to get from you?  Should you answer at all?  And, if you do, what's your response?

About six months ago, I was playing $1/2 NL at Harrah's AC on a Friday evening.  I had driven straight from work and had not changed clothes.  I was playing TAG and don't think I had said a single word at the table.  About an hour in, I get involved in a hand with a full blown poker superstar.  Kid was mid-twenties . . . hoodie . . . sunglasses . . . big headphones.  Talked a lot.  He was an insanely good player . . . He must be, just looking at him . . . And, by contrast, I'm sure I appeared to be dead money through his poker superstar, sun-protected, eyes . . .

I flop TPTK, but the board devolves . . . turn puts out a straight draw, and the flush hits on the river.  I'm out of position on the hand, but have been the aggressor throughout.  Ultimately, I turn my top pair into a semi-bluff and bet out approximately 3/4th the pot . . .  Poker superstar tanks and starts in with his best Daniel Negreanu impersonation: 

"Do you have x/x . . .?"

"If you had y/w, why would you have bet the flop . . .?

"I don't think you would have played the hand that way . . . "

"Your line makes nooooo sense . . ."

Finally, Superstar asks The Question:

"Will you show if I fold . . . ?"

Now, I knew the general gist of this question.  I mean, it didn't take 24 months on the WPT or an advanced degree in psychology to understand the point of the inquiry . . . at least at face value.  If I say "yes," it supposedly means I'm weak and I don't want a call.  If I say "no," it represents strength.  Nowadays, when people ask "the question," I give my best Scott Seiver and just stare forward and keep my mouth shut (I'm not that good a salesman or actor).  But on this occasion, I gave a response:  a simple, one word, "No."   Poker superstar pressed me further, but I invoked my fifth amendment right to STFU and did my best to ignore him.

Having gotten the information he ever-so-stealthily made a play for, poker superstar informed the table --  "that means he has it . . ." --  and proceeded to make a "brilliant," face-up, fold of his winning two-pair . . . (I resisted the urge to show my second best . . .).

The point of the story is this:  How does one make any sense of these types of comments?  When is a verbal tell really a reverse tell?  And is there such a thing as a "reverse-reverse tell?"  Isn't that just a form of so-called "level four thinking," i.e., what does my opponent think I think he thinks I have?  

For instance, I know that if I say, "I have a monster," that I am representing strength, which really means I'm weak.  But, what if I know that representing strength signals weakness, so I give the speech when I am strong?  And, what if I give the speech when I am actually weak, because I think that my opponent thinks that I know that the speech is suppose to represent weakness, so by giving it I must actually be strong?  You get the point . . . 

Going back to the poker superstar example above, while the hand was being played out, in my head I was thinking:  "does this little f*ck think I'm an idiot . . .?"  But, then again, I thought:  "wait . . . what if he doesn't think I'm an idiot?  What if he thinks I know what he's actually getting at?"  This is why I don't answer The Question any more.

When it comes to interpreting tells,  perhaps the first question that must be answered is simply, "when is a spade actually a spade?" 



  1. And that is why it pays to know your opponents.
    The more you play with someone the more convoluted the information actually becomes.

    The less you know, well - you're really not sure how you're going to be interpreted or how to interpret the other player.

  2. id have made the same mistake as the kid