Poker Tells … Silence & Stillness

Behavioral obstacles to an opponent’s impending call or fold

Lance Bradley

One important category of poker tells are those exhibited when a player believes his opponent is getting ready to call or fold to his bet. Bettors in these situations have an incentive to present an “obstacle” to their opponent’s action. These behaviors will typically only be observed in action-ending situations (i.e., river bets or all in bets).

A couple fairly common examples of how these behaviors can show up:

  • A player bets the river. His opponent stacks up chips, preparing to call. In response, the bettor holds his cards out as if preparing to flip them up. For most players, this will be a sign of a weak hand. If the bettor had a strong hand and wanted a call, he’d be unlikely to do something that “gets in the way” of his opponent’s action; he’d just let him continue calling.
  • A player bets the river. His opponent considers for a bit and then takes his chip off his cards, obviously in the process of folding. The bettor says, “I could be bluffing, you never know.” For most players, this will be a sign of a strong hand. If the bettor were bluffing, he’d be unlikely to do anything to get in the way of his opponent folding; he’d just let him continue his action.

These are fairly obvious. If you’ve played a good amount of poker, you’re probably already quite familiar with these behaviors.

These behaviors are admittedly of limited practical use, though. This is because they will usually only be observed when the bettor’s opponent has already made up their mind whether he’s calling or folding. Most of the time, these behaviors will only be a last-second indicator that make you feel you are indeed making the right decision.

These behaviors can be very useful, though, for players who go out of their way to pretend like they’re calling or folding in order to elicit these behaviors. I don’t want to give the impression that I am encouraging pretending to call or fold. This is a touchy subject and many players consider this an “angle-shoot” or slightly immoral. I myself don’t consider it immoral to do these things and have no problem with people who do, but I can understand the points of view of people who don’t like it.

Even for people willing to engage in this trickery, there are downsides to using it. One downside is that it has limited usability. Once you fake a calling or folding behavior and it’s obvious that you were trying to gather information, your opponents will be careful to not give away information in such spots in future. Also, these kinds of tricks will, over time, make your opponents more on-guard and self-aware.

The other downside to these maneuvers is that it would be very annoying and time-consuming if a lot of players were constantly trying to get responses when facing a bet. While it’s always possible to justify fishing for behavioral information when in an important, borderline situation, it’s bad to substantially delay the game by trying these maneuvers frequently. And the less we encourage other players to do such things, the better it is for the game.

But back to the behavior … There are also some subtle behaviors that can fall into this last-second-obstacles category. In fact, one could extrapolate these types of tells to make a more general rule: any out-of-the-ordinary behavior performed in response to an impending call or fold will tend to indicate that the player is attempting to discourage that action.

In writing my book “Verbal Poker Tells” (published earlier this year), I noticed this pattern show up a lot with verbal behavior. One common way it would show up: a player makes a decent-sized, action-ending bet. His opponent gives some indication of wanting to call. This might be the stacking of chips or it could just be saying something like, “I don’t think I can fold this” or something similar. The bettor, apparently feeling the need to display some confidence or relaxation, says something in response.

In the large majority of these cases, the bettor was bluffing. The content of the speech wasn’t especially relevant; it was just the mere presence of the speech. This makes logical sense because, if the bettor were value-betting, he’d have no incentive to want to say anything that might change his opponent’s mind. This is especially true when we remember that silence is often associated with anxiety; a value-betting player, when facing an impending call, is even more likely to stay silent because he has an incentive to appear nervous.

When I started really paying attention to this, I noticed that it was also often true for many kinds of physical behavior. For example, a player makes a big river bet. His opponent says, “I think you got me but I don’t think I can fold this.” The bettor then picks up his phone and starts to study something on it. For many players in these situations, any sort of behavior, physical or verbal, will be an indicator of a desire to put up an obstacle, however slight, to whatever they believe their opponent is getting ready to do.

This can be very powerful when you’ve already made some player-specific correlation. If you take notes on opponent behavior (which I recommend), you’ll find you can get a sense of an opponent’s general tendencies. For example, I’ve played with several players lately who I’ve noticed are likely to be agitated and talkative when they’re bluffing or semi-bluffing and someone studies them or questions them. Because I know this about those players, I am more likely to try to elicit information from them in borderline spots.

This type of behavior got some attention recently in the PartyPoker Premiere League, season 7. Here’s how the hand went down: Phil Laak limps with Qs 7s and Brian Rast raises on the button with Ac 8c. Laak calls. The flop and turn are 6s 4d 3d Tc and both players check it through. The river is the Td, pairing the 10 and making the flush possible.

Laak shoves all in for an overbet of 302,000 into a pot of 36,000. Brian Rast considers for a couple minutes and asks Laak a lot of questions, fishing for information. He seems genuinely and understandably on the fence. Laak remains unresponsive throughout. Rast says several times that he’s on the verge of calling. Toward the end, he stands up and talks about how he’s ready to call, finally saying, “I kind of want to do it.” He puts his hands on his chips as if on the verge of shoving them forward, but he pauses. At this moment, Laak casually reaches for his water bottle and takes a swig. Rast then calls.

Antonio Esfandiari starts berating Laak, saying, “You’re such a fish. You gave it away at the end, 100 percent. He was about to call and he didn’t call and you stopped movement and went to go for a sip of water. If you wanted him to call, you wouldn’t have done anything to change the course of action.”

In this case, I find it hard to believe that Laak would actually be so imbalanced that this would be important information. I’ve studied Laak a good amount and find him to be behaviorally well-balanced. (And to me, this is impressive, considering how much unusual behavior he has been known to exhibit during hands.) I think he’s smart, experienced, and behaviorally tricky, which all adds up to meaning that he’s capable of a wide range of behavior in this spot. Also remember that Esfandiari and Laak like to needle each other on TV; this was probably a major factor in Esfandiari’s comments.

But I do believe that Esfandiari’s comment does show that experienced live players are indeed trying to pick up on such behavioral patterns, however subtle they might be. Esfandiari’s comments in this hand can be seen as supporting evidence that these kinds of behaviors are important enough for us to be paying attention to.

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November 2014