Poker Tells … Limon on Poker Tells, PLO, and Pickles

Abe gives some insight on tells in L.A.

Abe “Limon” has been playing at mid/high stakes (around $10-20 NLHE and PLO) in Los Angeles for more than a decade. Limon is probably most known in the poker world for his long, outspoken, and popular TwoPlusTwo thread where he gave thoughts and advice on playing for a living in L.A. games. He currently plays and hosts games at the Bicycle Casino, and offers coaching to L.A. poker players. He also does commentary for the live-streaming poker show “Live At The Bike.”

Abe LimonI talked recently with Limon about poker tells and the L.A. poker scene (amongst other things). This is an edited transcript of that conversation. (The full audio conversation will be found on Limon’s podcast, found on www.CrushLivePoker.com.)

Elwood: What game are you primarily playing these days?

Limon: I host the PLO game at the Bicycle Casino. That game is $5-5-10-20 for the most part. With a “rock” (forced straddle) and a restraddle for any amount from any position. That’s the game I play the most.

I prefer PLO because it’s a psychological game. It’s not really a card game. In Hold’em you can get dealt hands. In PLO, you don’t get dealt hands, you get dealt draws. Everyone’s dealt a draw, and that draw changes on every street. There’s no way to write someone a route strategy to play PLO; you have to be able to change gears on every street. Especially the game I play in, with straddles and restraddles, where position changes constantly. Because of that, it’s psychological warfare. It’s just so much more interesting and so much more fun.

Elwood: How important overall, in the big scheme of things, are tells?

Limon: Well, you don’t need to know anything about tells to win money at poker. I play with some guys who are very, very good players. Some of them don’t even believe that tells exist. I mean, they know they exist, but they don’t think that they’re worth figuring out.

This is true for a lot of the younger, more anti-social guys coming into the game. Sometimes it’s not just that they don’t want to learn tells; but that they can’t do it. For the same reason they can’t tell that a girl likes them. There’s just a whole bunch of stuff they don’t know.

So you can win a lot of money and not focus on this stuff. But if you’re not focusing on this stuff you definitely are leaving money on the table. In my PLO game, I’m probably the biggest winner. And I’m probably not the most experienced PLO player in the world, but I think the gap where I make more money is definitely the things I notice about my opponents. I’d say it’s a solid extra, maybe 15 percent? So I think it’s worth it.

Elwood: What role would you say tells play in your poker game?

Limon: They play a lot in mine, for sure. The nature of PLO, the nuts are changing on every street; things change a lot more than in Hold’em. People’s reactions are a lot more genuine. You see a lot more gut reactions. They don’t have time to develop a game plan. If you’re familiar with the game and you’re thinking one step ahead already, you get a ton of information from people who aren’t thinking one step ahead.

Elwood: What’s an example of a tell in PLO you’ve used recently?

Limon: Well, one is, because you can only bet the size of the pot, people say “pot” a lot. And one of the first things you figure out, is when someone always says “pot” and then don’t say “pot,” you want to correlate that. Or if you never hear them say “pot” and then you hear them say “pot.” That’s like your first PLO tell; baby’s first tell.

After that it gets more complicated, but in general, it’s the same kind of stuff you wrote about in your book. There are, like, polarized behaviors. Like if you check to a guy and he grabs a bunch of chips and he doesn’t count them and just puts them in the pot; that is 100 percent a tell of some sort. And it’s usually a tell of one of two things; he’s either got the nuts or he’s bluffing.

Because you know that that’s a tell of some sort, you have to suss out whether the guy’s acting or not. If the guy puts in a bunch of chips nonchalantly and he’s acting, he will continue to try to act nonchalant. If the guy puts in a stack of chips because he has the nuts, he will not continue to act; it wasn’t an act in the first place. It was more like a sigh of relief. If he puts in the chips and has no act after it, he’s just sort of sits still or has just random eye movements or whatever, he’s got the nuts. He didn’t have an act planned out and took a random amount of chips because he didn’t give a shit.

A guy who’s bluffing has an act and he’s thought it out beforehand and he’s gonna try and do it. He has a script. A guy with the nuts doesn’t have a script; he’ll bounce around all over the place. But a guy bluffing has a script. And he’s afraid to go off-script.

The best is when a guy does something weird and then turns instantly as his food’s being dropped off and tells the server that they forgot his pickle; something like that. That guy is never fucking bluffing. Because he’s in the moment. He’s completely in the moment. He’s not thinking about acting. He notices out of the corner of his eye that they brought his ham sandwich with no pickle and goes, “Server, server, you forgot the pickle!” That kind of stuff happens all the time.

I will say that younger professional players are really good at disguising their tells in general. Most of them have watched Durrrr play and have copied the way he played. Which is to do the same thing every single time. It does make it tough because they’re not giving out much.

With that Pius Heinz analysis you did; you did a good job of dissecting some very correlatable information about how he reacted in certain spots at that WSOP final table. In real time, those are very tiny tells. But it just proves that if you play very close attention, there’s always something.

Elwood: What are you doing with Bart Hansen now?

Limon: I have a podcast on Bart’s Crush Live Poker site. It’s called the Limon Podcast. It’s on every Monday. I did one yesterday about building a poker bankroll. I’m gonna do live call-ins. People can call in and we can have a roundabout discussion. Most podcasts are some guy blathering on, so I want some more interaction with it.

Elwood: I’m working on a book now about verbal poker behavior. Do you think much about the things players say during hands?

Limon: Yeah, some guys talk a lot. In the beginning it can seem kind of daunting to correlate all the dumb stuff people say. Anyone who plays in L.A. sees a lot of this. They will say “Will you show me one?” or “Will you show me if I fold? or “Can we check it down?” If you play in Vegas you don’t hear as much of this. But you hear it in L.A., even at the higher stakes games, like at $10-20 NLHE, which is still a very big game for such juvenile behavior. It’s just something about the L.A. poker culture.

They think they have a method to their madness; they don’t do it randomly. And so you can correlate certain things. Their statements correlate very strongly to what they want you to do. But they keep doing it. It’s strange.

Elwood: One of the things I was writing about in the book is how you have different poker communities who use different slang and terminology, and how this makes analyzing some of this stuff hard.

Limon: The L.A. poker scene has a long and scummy angle-shooting tradition. I think it’s because the poker scene came out of Lowball Draw. And the way Lowball Draw is set up; it’s just ripe for angle-shooting and these verbal and physical …  not just tells, but …

Elwood: Little tricks and deceptions

Limon: Yeah, deceptions, and game-steering and engineering. That’s why all those tell books that came out were from guys like Mike Caro and John Fox — who wrote “Play Poker, Quit Work, and Sleep Till Noon.” These tell books were all out of the L.A. draw scene; it kind of created this poker culture that’s sort of skeezy.

Elwood: Because there are so few betting rounds and because the cards aren’t exposed?

Limon: Two betting rounds, every card concealed. You have to get your information from somewhere, so it revolved a lot around tells. And because it revolved a lot around tells, the people who knew what they were doing learned how to engineer the game; they went from giving off fake tells to angle shooting.

Elwood: Any kind of edge they could find.

Limon: And this culture sort of passed itself down through Hold’em and PLO or whatever; it’s just more a part of L.A. than any other poker scene.

You can follow Limon on Twitter at @limonpoker. He can be found playing PLO at the Bicycle Casino much of the time, eating ham sandwiches with no pickles. 

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March 2014