Poker Tells … They’re broadcasting

Your opponents are telling you everything

The following is a preview of a chapter from the soon-to-be-published book “Verbal Poker Tells,” by Zachary Elwood. Pre-orders are available on the author’s website.

Immediate Verbal Responses

Shut Up and ListenOne sign of relaxed speech is that it flows freely, without hesitation. Anxious people are more likely to think before speaking; they have a reason to be concerned with how an opponent might interpret their speech. For this reason, a player who has made a significant bet and responds im­­mediately to a question or statement is more likely to be relaxed and have a strong hand.

The more complex and potentially meaningful a verbal response is, the more an immediate response points to relaxation. Smaller and simpler responses, when said immediately, are not as meaningful as more complex responses said immediately.

For example, a player goes all-in on the river and is asked, “Do you want a call?” He responds immediately, “Maybe.” Because this is an ambiguous response that doesn’t contain much information, the immediacy of response in this case isn’t very meaningful.

For comparison, let’s suppose the bettor had answered immediately: “I definitely want a call.” Because this statement contains a more complex idea and could theoretically contain information about the speaker’s hand strength, it is unlikely that a bluffer would make such an immediate statement; a bluffer would first want to consider, at least for a second, what the consequences of such a statement might be. A bluffer doesn’t want to say the wrong thing and trigger a call. If this player had paused a second or two before responding “I definitely want a call,” his response wouldn’t be as meaningful because the player would have had time to consider whether saying such a thing was a good idea.

An immediate response is more likely to indicate relaxation the more times it is exhibited. One immediate response isn’t as meaningful as several quick verbal responses in a row, as will sometimes happen in a back-and-forth conversation.

Here are some examples of this behavior from actual poker hands:

“High Stakes Poker,” high stakes NLHE cash game, S2 E8, ~3:00

Brad Booth has 8♦ 9♦ on a river board of T♦ J♦ 4♣ Q♦ 8♥. Negreanu bets $16,000. Booth raises $30,000 more.

Negreanu says, “I thought you might have had the flush. I had the straight.”

Booth replies immediately, “I got a straight flush.”

Booth’s immediate response is a strong indicator of his relaxation. If he were bluffing, he would be likely to consider for at least a second how such a statement might impact his opponent’s decision.

The immediacy of Booth’s response doesn’t mean he’s necessarily telling the truth; it is just a general indicator of relaxation and makes a bluff unlikely.

$2-5 NLHE cash game, witnessed by author

On a river board of 6♣ T♥ 4♥ 4♣ A♦, a player has 66 for the full house. She bets $100 into a pot of $200.

Her opponent asks her, “You have a full house?”

She immediately replies, “No.”

The immediacy of this player’s response makes it unlikely she’s bluffing.

$2-5 NLHE cash game, witnessed by author

On a river board of J♠ 3♥ 7♠ 4♦ Q♦, a player bets $80 into a pot of $120. I ask, “What do you have? You might have queen-jack and you hit that queen.”

He says immediately and agitatedly, “What do you have? That’s the question. I can’t figure that out for the life of me.”

Results: I fold and the player does show Q♥ J♥ for top two pair.

When I asked him what he had, this player answered immediately. If he were bluffing, he would be very unlikely to do this.

(Also interesting; he showed agitation, which most bluffers avoid. His voice also had a lot of modulation, which bluffers’ voices generally don’t have.)

$1-2 NLHE cash game, witnessed by author

It’s a heads-up hand. The turn board is Q♥ T♠ 6♠ 5♠. The aggressor goes all-in for $80 into a pot of $130.

After a few moments, his opponent asks, “You got pocket kings with the king of spades?”

The bettor says immediately, “Be a pretty good guess.”

Results: The bettor’s opponent folds. The bettor shows K♠ K♣.

His opponent’s length of time in considering the bet probably put the bettor at ease that his hand was best. His immediate response was likely a result of two things: him being relaxed enough with the situation to immediately respond, and his being impressed with the accurate guess.

$2-5 NLHE cash game, witnessed by author

There is a raise pre-flop and five players see a flop of 2♣ 3♣ 7♠. A player bets and the pre-flop raiser goes all-in. A talkative opponent, who the all-in player finds annoying, says, “I think I have you beat.”

The all-in player immediately says, “No, I don’t think you have me beat.” There are still two players left to act when he says this.

Results: Everyone folds. The raiser shows A♣ A♥.

2009 WSOP NLHE Main Event tournament

Andy Black raises pre-flop to 24,000. Scott Buller goes all-in, which would be 143,000 more for Black to call.

Black: “Would you like me to call, sir?”

Buller (quickly): “You know, it doesn’t really matter.”

Black: “It doesn’t matter cause it’s late in the tournament or it doesn’t matter because-”

Buller (cutting him off): “No. No. We’re just getting started.” Buller smiles.

Black: “On a scale of one to ten, how would you rate your hand?”

Buller shakes his head dismissively to that question.

Black laughs, looking at Buller for some sort of reaction. “I’ve got a big hand here, you know?…Give me something.”

Buller is quiet.

Results: Black calls with A♥ J♦. Buller has A♠ K♥.

Buller’s immediate responses and his willingness to cut Black off mid-sentence are strong indicators of relaxation. (Pre-flop situations will generally be more ambiguous and less meaningful because hand strength is very undefined.)

Zachary Elwood is the author of the book “Reading Poker Tells,” His website is at His book “Verbal Poker Tells” will be published by May 2014. 

May 2014