Poker Tells With Dani ‘The Real Ansky’ Stern

The sky’s the limit with this guy

Dani “The Real Ansky” Stern has been playing poker professionally for nine years. You may know him from his appearance on the TV shows “2 Months, $2 Million” and “PokerStars’ The Big Game.” These days he primarily plays mid- to high-stakes PLO online, with a few trips to large buy-in live tournaments and the WSOP.

Some of his most recent tournament scores include:

  • 12th in the 2013 PokerStars Caribbean $25,000 buy-in NLHE High Roller
  • 5th in the 2013 Bellagio Cup $10,000 buy-in NLHE event
  • 3rd in the 2013 WSOP $25,000 buy-in 6-Handed NLHE event

I talked to Stern about his thoughts on poker tells. This is an edited version of that conversation.

Zachary Elwood: As someone who’s played a lot live and online, what’s your view on the importance of poker tells?

Dani SternDani Stern: Live, I think, with regards to picking up physical tells or general demeanor from your opponents, I kind of think that the sky’s the limit. You can always get better at it. There’s always a lot of information to be gained.

Let’s say, for example, somebody like Phil Ivey is the best in the world at picking up physical reads on opponents. When you think about that, it would give you such a tremendous edge. Like, if you know every time someone doesn’t want you to reraise them. Or if you know every time when someone’s looking for a call on the river.

I’m not saying that’s what Phil Ivey is capable of; I don’t think anyone is capable of knowing it every time. But it’s just clearly something that can be very important. Getting a read on someone would allow you to play hands in ways that you just wouldn’t normally be able to.

Elwood: How good, on a scale of one to 10, would you say you are at reading poker player behavior? Is it something you’re always improving at?

Stern: I don’t know; six out of 10 maybe. I guess I’m better than average. I don’t think I’m great at it or anything. I think I’ve gotten better at it. It’s not even like a conscious thing where I put work into it or study it; it’s just as you get more experience it becomes intuitive and you get more of a feeling about what somebody’s doing.

Elwood: Do you have any interesting anecdotes of recent hands where a player’s behavior changed your decision?

Stern: I don’t want to give away too much about specific players. In general, though, with a lot of weak players, it’s kind of simpler than most people think. A lot of the times, strong means weak and weak means strong, just like the old classic Caro information that everyone goes on. I think it holds up pretty well, when you’re talking about people who aren’t aware of it and who don’t play poker seriously. I’m pretty happy just using that concept alone for a lot of amateur players and it works out pretty well a lot of the time.

Elwood: It seems like bet-timing would be the only behavioral information you could get online. Would you say that’s right?

Stern: When it comes to bet-timing, most people have that on lockdown. “I’m gonna wait just before the time bank runs out and bet” and they just do that every time, for every hand. So there’s only so much information you can get.

Elwood: The immediate call seems to me to be the only bet-timing tell of much use online. When someone makes an immediate call in early parts of the hand, and the player isn’t balanced, it’s usually a medium-strength hand or draw, where they immediately ruled out raising. Compared to tanking a long time, which isn’t as useful because someone could have just run to the bathroom or be doing something else online or whatever.

Stern: That fits with what I was saying before; strong means weak and weak means strong. They call quickly to show strength but really it just means they’re weak. And as with all tells, you may be right, but you can only be partially right, you know? It doesn’t mean it’s a set-in-stone thing.

Elwood: It’s a certain percentage of likelihood, right.

 How often, when you’re playing with fairly decent players live, do you get a tell on someone that’s very player-specific?

Stern: The “Oreo-cookie tell” is exceptionally rare in poker. When you talk about reading people physically, it mostly means their breathing, their eye movement, if they’re shaking, how they have their hands moving. How heavy they’re breathing. What their posture is. Things like that.

I do know of a couple Oreo-cookie-type tells for opponents, but it’s rare. Because when they do something, it doesn’t in itself mean something. If you see someone scratch their nose or whatever, you don’t know if that means they’re bluffing or value-betting so you still have to get to the river, see it happen, see the results, see it two or three other times, and confirm it and also see them not do it with the other hand.

So that’s a pretty tough read, especially in a short period of time. But when you’re playing someone over a long period of time, you can look for stuff like that. But for the most part, when people talk about tells, they’re talking about the general energy someone’s giving off. Comfortable or uncomfortable. Is he nervous? That type of thing.

Elwood: I was talking to Amir Lehavot, who got third in last year’s WSOP Main Event. He said he thought that when you’re playing against very skilled players, if you have a little bit of behavioral information, it can make a big difference in the long run because you often find yourself in so many strategically borderline spots. Would you agree with that?

Stern: Absolutely. Every little bit helps. Certainly, if you get yourself into a really close situation, it is certainly valid to look at the guy and try to decide if he’s bluffing and have that be your deciding factor. Nothing replaces general technical analysis. But I’m absolutely for using every piece of information available.

Elwood: I’m writing a book right now about verbal poker behavior. How often does what someone says during a hand affect your decision?

Stern: Most people don’t talk during hands. I mean, if you’re playing with Negreanu or somebody like that: some people constantly talk during hands. But for the most part, people don’t.

There’s kind of two ways to approach avoiding giving off tells. Some people are just like a rock at the table; they’ve perfected not moving at all, not saying anything, the same routine every single time. Others kind of take the opposite approach, where every hand they’re kind of goofing around: “I’m just gonna move around and do whatever makes me comfortable during the hand, if they think they’re getting a tell off of me, go for it, they can try to figure something out but it’s not gonna happen.”

So sometimes when people talk during a hand, it might not mean that much; they might just talk during hands all the time. Negreanu is a good example of that.

Elwood: Does Negreanu still talk a lot? I occasionally see clips of him talking but I wondered how common that was and if he was keeping it up in a lot of different spots.

Stern: He doesn’t do it every hand. He talks during hands plenty. He’s not afraid, especially if you engage him, he’ll definitely talk. If you give him an opportunity to, he’ll say something.

Elwood: I would guess you’re probably not the type to probe people for information during a hand.

Stern: Generally, no. Unless I think they kind of suck and I think, “I may as well.” They may say something stupid that gives something away.

Or in a World Series event, where there are a lot of amateurs and not regs, I think it’s much more relevant to, for example, ask somebody on the river, “Hey, do you want me to call?”

But honestly, they don’t even let you talk anymore during hands. Like you can’t even, one-on-one in a hand, you can’t even talk on the river. You can’t talk about the strength of either of your hands.

Elwood: Really? I thought it was you just couldn’t say exactly what you had. So it’s become even more extreme than I thought it was.

Stern: I think it’s a dumb rule. Nobody cheats like that. You just happen to be at a table with your friend and you’re going to cheat by directly asking him if he has a strong hand and then answering it? It doesn’t make any sense. It’s a bad rule.

Elwood: Yeah, it seems like those kinds of rules make the whole tournament less friendly and more serious overall, which isn’t a good thing for people who are there to have fun.

Stern: Yeah, I mean, the rules should be like the absolute minimum necessary to give the game solid integrity; they shouldn’t be there to handcuff players’ ability to be creative.

Elwood: I agree.

In my opinion, Dani Stern has one of the best poker-related Twitter accounts. You can follow him at @TheRealAnsky. 

April 2014