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Tells in Online Poker
This article was a contribution made by our user "tthmb" for the competition entitled "Online tells".
The term "tell" is ambivalent and (unlike many other elements of Hold´em) impossible to comprehend mathematically. That's what makes the topic so exciting, but also complicated. There are hardly any bits of information or premises available that can be said to be "objectively correct" when it comes to this topic (unlike with the principles of outs and odds, for example).
In view of this it can not be claimed that the following statements are complete or entirely correct. This is all the more the case because I am almost entirely basing them on my own personal thoughts and experiences. The books I have read up till now only skim the surface of the topic at best. One exception -as far as I have seen- is Matthew Hilger's book "Internet Texas Hold'em", pp. 266-270. I hold this book in high esteem; the information it contains on tells, however, is sometimes contradictory and does not always agree with my own experiences in many ways (more on that below).
2. Definition and Relevance
Tell is defined as the betrayal of the value of a hand unconsciously. All statements made about tells tie in with objective circumstances in this way. These circumstances (i.e. tells) need to be identified and are listed and reviewed individually below.
3. Individual Tells
In online poker, only betting behaviour (in general or with respect to a particular player) is usually considered a suspected tell. In my experience, however, there are also many other tells, which I now wish to examine more closely:
3.1 The Name of a Player
The first piece of information I have on a player is his (or her) name. This name may reveal a number of things to me. If it does, then this information is fundamental, as it allows me to draw conclusions about the general attitude of the player.
For example: Steve Davis, the leading snooker player of the eighties, had the nickname "The Machine" because of his cool, calculating and unemotional style of play.
If I were to come across a poker player called "The Machine", I would immediately associate him with the above mentioned characteristics, i.e as being dangerous to me. Matthias Wahls, for example, plays under this name and if he plays anything like the way he posts comments (and I have no doubt about that!), then he plays poker like Steve Davis plays snooker. A real tell, that I would take into account when playing, if I didn't already know who was sitting opposite me.
Another example: On this and other poker websites there is a player called 'Schnibbel' (literally meaning 'whittle'). The German verb 'schnibbeln' is also a term used in the German card game 'skat', when a player tries to catch, i.e. cut out or indeed whittle, the 10 cards held by the opponent with an ace.
'Schnibbeln' therefore means using many tricks in a game and being risky. I've been observing Schnibbel on one of the websites for a while now and I believe that Schnibbel really does play using lots of tricks and with an unconventional style. So my impression, based solely on the name, was right again here, and I can adjust my game according to it.
One will of course often see names that make reference to poker terminology. My experience here is that the name often indicates the opposite of what the name would suggest. So Rocks are rarely tight, and Donks or Maniacs are often tolerable players.
But: Who wouldn't fold KK more often when the flop comes ace, when playing against an "Aceholder"? And what if you play against an "Imonabluff"?
3.2 Joining the Table
You can also draw conclusions from the way a player joins the table. I keep seeing players who sit down at a table and set "auto post blind" as one of their pre-select options, even if they are UTG. That is an indication of not having much tightness. On the other hand, I have more respect for a player who waits for the BB even after the button has dealt the cards.
The same goes for returning from a toilet break while sitting out: in my opinion a good player would never post BB + SB (dead) in early position. It's something one sees repeatedly though and one can draw their conclusions from it.
3.3 Leaving the Table
Sometimes players announce that they are playing the last round before they want to leave the table. That often happens after the player has had a series of bad beats or good wins, i.e. is feeling either frustrated or communicative.
In both cases I've noticed that players like that conspicuously tend to want to play a last hand. Perhaps to win with a bad hand for once, perhaps because it's all the same to them, as they've already won good money.
These last hands (UTG or UTG + 1) often end up being easy prey; it's worth calling raises or to reraise and attack on the flop in position. That is especially the case with No Limit games.
4. Online Chat
The chatroom is a real treasure trove. Not so much in terms of its actual content (which is not unconscious and therefore not a tell) but rather the manner and style of chat.
4.1 The 'Chat-a-lot'
The Chat-a-lot, who does what the name suggests, is generally a loose player. He (or she) lacks the needed alertness, and can often be forced to fold on the flop or turn. If, however, the Chat-a-lot places a high bet in a No Limit game, or raises in a Fixed Limit game or even plays check-raise, it generally means he has a very strong hand. This is because he rarely bluffs, because he is not concentrating on the game. Bluffing successfully depends on the situation, however. The circumstances that might allow for a successful bluff are not noticed by a Chat-a-lot; he doesn't even look for those circumstances. In other words: be careful if the Chat-a-lot places a high bet!
4.2 Behaviour after a Bad Beat
The way a player behaves in the chatroom after a bad beat is often an indication of whether that player believes bad beats are an unavoidable part of the game and knows how to deal with them, or whether the player feels crushed by all the injustice in the world. The first kind of player should be respected, the second kind often ends up going on tilt very quickly. That is an important tell.
4.3 Analysis of Hands and Leaving Comments
Sometimes one can identify strong players by the fact that they analyse hands very accurately without being asked. That goes for both their own hands and the hands they were not involved in.
Of course the same applies in the opposite case. At the low level one often sees comments from which one can gather that the player is not familiar with the basic rules of the game. Make a note of this and use it to your advantage!
4.4 The Greenhorn
Occasionally players reveal the fact that they are new to the game by leaving comments in the chatroom (like "I never thought poker could be so much fun"). Make a note of this and use it to your advantage!
4.5 The Sheriff
This goes for No Limit games. The Sheriff checks the flop out of position for example, and reraises all-in against a small steal-bet, making a comment like "stop trying to steal" after the opponent folds. If he then shows pocket pairs after a preflop raise shortly after this, then you know what sort of player you're dealing with and can win nice pots off him, especially if you cheer him up or stimulate him by leaving a little comment in the chatroom.
You might even want to call a small pot with a trash hand or use a 'mini-bluff' in an unsuitable way (this doesn't have to be against the Sheriff, it can be done against any other player). You know you're going to lose and you show your weak hand (you must show the hand!). The Sheriff will notice this and will attack with high bets as soon as he gets a good opportunity to do so. That will then be highly appreciated.
4.6 "Too many shortstacks here"
This goes for No Limit games. A player announces that he is leaving the table, because, according to him, there are too many players with short stacks at the table. I take note of that immediately. It may be an indication that this player likes to bluff against big stacks, knowing that big stack players don't call as often as smallstacks.
4.7 Comments on the Flop
If a player makes a comment about the flop (usually expressing some kind of lack of understanding if there haven't been any high cards on a number of successive flops), one can draw the conclusion that this player usually only plays high cards and rarely small suited connectors.
5. Betting Behaviour
Betting behaviour is traditionally given the highest importance, especially the moment in which the bet is placed. In my experience, however, the betting moment only plays a small part. I find other indicators to be more relevant. I prefer playing No Limit games, so my experiences are obviously based on this variant of the game.
5.1.1 As a Rule:
Speed is not really important in my opinion.
As I've mentioned, I personally do not attach much importance to the betting speed. The speed of betting usually has nothing to do with unconscious actions that betray anything about the player.
Players play at various tables, so that, from the outset, one is unable to deduce much from the betting speed. As one can see from the answers given in this competition, speed is often used to consciously deceive opponents. A player once summarised this accurately in the forum when he said: "OK, I now know that strong betting is the modern form of slowplay".
Additionally, when playing No Limit games, one must indeed think about whether one ought to bet and if so, how much to bet -also and especially when bluffing. Speed therefore is even less important here than in Fixed Limit games.
These statements on speed are based on the general tell "strong means weak and weak means strong" (Hilger, ITH, p. 266).
For example, if a player waits longer than usual before checking, this shows weakness. If, on the other hand, he bets after waiting longer than usual, that ought to show strength. In most of the online forums no definitive statements can be found about this. Thinking a long time before checking is interpreted as weakness in 50% of the cases, and as strength in the other 50%.
Hilger explains on p. 268 of his book how hard it is ascertain any of this. He even writes in bold that a player is usually showing weakness if he checks quickly but strength if he then reraises. So according to Hilger both quick and slow checking can be a sign of weakness. This is a statement that does put quite a lot into perspective nonetheless. And a check-raise is indeed usually an indication of an opponent's strength.
5.1.2 An Exception:
According to Hilger, a quick raise or a quick bet on the turn and river generally is an indication of strength. I share the same opinion, but with some reservations.
If a scare card that would especially complete a straight or a flush appears on the turn or river, quickness generally means that the scare card has not hit. If the opponent thinks a long time before placing a bet, on the other hand, this usually means he has hit the flush or straight, as feared.
Especially in the case of No Limit games
Someone who presses the Raise button (= Minimum Raise) immediately on the turn or river, without considering whether to make a higher raise, will generally not have the nuts, but will have a strong hand.
A sudden change in speed, i.e. when a player who is usually slow to act suddenly plays quickly, is generally the indication of a very strong hand.
Players like to consciously turn the general rule "strong means weak and weak means strong" on its head (see Hilger p. 266). This is understandable, as betting speed is mostly known as an apparent unconscious tell. Once one has realised this, the general tell can become a very valuable individual tell!
6. Pre-select Options
Unlike betting speed pre-select options are very helpful in my opinion. They usually represent the hand corresponding to the action. Call BB is an average hand, raise any is a very strong one.
When playing No Limit (low level) games I've hardly ever seen a player bluff if he had set Bet Pot as a pre-select option. That seems logical. Successful bluffing depends on the situation. These pre-select options cannot include situational circumstances within their scope. In other words, pre-select options tie up with objective circumstances (so also the strength of the hand).
You need to take care when Check has been set as a pre-select option, as one never knows whether this means check-call or check-fold. If Check has been pre-selected this generally is an indication of weakness, however, especially on the BB preflop. If the player bets in this case, he is strong; if he check-raises even, then he's flopped a monster.
Another thing about the big blind: Someone who folds the BB against a steal-raise by the cutoff or the button after having given it a lot of thought is usually only trying to convey the impression that he is folding before the raise and not according to the start chart out of respect, to make future blind defences easier (especially steal-reraises).
6.1 Fold out of turn
Someone who folds on the flop or turn even when they could check is outing themselves as a bad player, and often as being frustrated or on tilt in my opinion. Someone who, on the other hand, folds on the river without checking should be respected (doesn't want to show the hands he's got and how he deals with them, and does not out himself as a bad player at least).
7. How many tables are the other players playing?
Hilger recommends you find out how many tables the other players in the game are playing, to make it easier to assess their tells with regard to their speed. In my opinion that is a fanciful and unmanageable suggestion. At least when it comes to the two players on my left and right. My analysis of tells is concentrated on these players anyhow, as I find it hard to analyse any more than that at various tables - that's why I'd rather analyse the players I often play against in a hand closely.
8. Personal Tells
It should be obvious that one ought to avoid personal tells and that one needs to plan one's game accordingly. That's why I do not want to explain any more about this at this stage. The important thing is to not fall into certain habits or rhythms.
But just one more example: I have been successful with the following "tell": waiting longer than usual before the fold on the button, in cutoff position or on the small blind. The opponent then believes you are thinking about steal-raising. If you do that a number of times, the probability is high that you will get through with a quick steal-raise.
Poker is primarily based on the value of one's own hand and the ratio between odds and outs. If you base your game on that, you are playing with positive expectation.
This positive expectation increases, when one is able to estimate the strength of the opponent's hand. Tells help you do that. Tells are an aid in making the right decision. That's why one should never make a decision based just on tells one thinks one has recognised, and especially not start bluffing because of a tell, without there being other favourable circumstances to make the bluff successful. Tells are just too ambivalent for that.
Many mistakes are made when a player overvalues his own hand because he has interpreted his opponent wrongly. I've seen players write "Thought you were on a draw" often, because they were surprised by a hand only marginally better than the small pair they were holding.
I would be very happy if a small discussion were to be started. The topic is very exciting and there is certainly a lot more that could be said about it.
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