Live No-Limit Hold ‘Em Games
Part II of II
by Corwin Cole
Common “tells” you will find in live games
In the last installment, we learned that live games provide you with a lot more information than online games. Namely, you get to read people’s body language and facial expressions. However, we also learned about the problems of interpretation and acting. If we make some read about a player’s emotions, it still doesn’t tell us his cards, or if we observe some particular countenance, we can’t be sure whether our opponent is acting or not. Overall, we have to not only balance the way we use physical information, but also develop tricks to make reliable, useful reads that don’t lead us into traps.
The best way to start building a powerful talent for people-reading at a live game is to learn about some reliable, easy-to-spot tells that players have. There are a few I know that are almost never incorrect, and are very easy to pick up on. You can take these with you to your local casino or home game and immediately begin to bulldoze competition the way RaiNKhAN bulldozes final tables.
1. The “what?! OF COURSE” look, offended with a furrowed brow
When people have a strong hand, they try to trick you into paying them off. They think that the best way to do so is to act like a jerk, being confrontational and behaving almost like they want to pick a fight with you. If they make you angry and threaten you, they think you will respond by looking them up. For this purpose, they employ a very particular look. It is one that people make when they are offended by a question you asked them, and they reply, “what?! Of course!” It’s a look that is somewhat angry, and is marked by heavy furrowing of the brow. It seems to say, “well if you wanna fight, let’s fight then.” This is a clear indication of strength, because it is intended to provoke you.
I learned this tell from Daut, and once I saw the following hand, it made perfect sense. I was playing $5/10 live NL at the Commerce Casino in Los Angeles, and Daut was sitting next to me, observing. One hand came up where a player raised a bet on a 655 flop, and was called. When the turn brought a 4, he shoved, and his opponent was contemplating a call. The player who pushed all-in looked directly at his opponent and gave a glance like the one I described, and immediately Daut chuckled. I turned to him, and Daut told me, “wow, that guy has like, a five” in a very confident tone, as if it was the most obvious thing in the world. Sure enough, the player showed down T5 and won the pot.
2. The paralytic face
Another way people approach getting paid off with huge hands is quite different. For some people, instead of trying to provoke you, they just try not to scare you away. So they will attempt to look as unintimidating as possible, taking every care to hide any scary expressions from you. When people do this, it looks as though their face has become paralyzed. Suddenly, all of the muscles that usually convey looks of joy, sadness, disappointment, or anxiety stop working. Their body continues to move, their hands put chips in the middle, but their face remains completely still.
This tell is very strongly exemplified in episode 1 of the third season of High Stakes Poker. In one hand, Shawn Sheikhan picks up QQ in the blinds, and there has been some action in front of him, particularly from Mike Matusow. As soon as Sheikhan looks at his cards, his face, which is normally casual and expressive, becomes relaxed and deliberate. You will notice an immediate change in his expression once he realizes that he’s picked up QQ, because he will no longer have any expression. Go back and watch this if you didn’t notice it the first time.
For people who have this tell, its absence does imply the contrary read. If you notice that a player tends to relax his facial muscles when sitting on a monster, you should try and get a glimpse of him when he is unaware that you’re looking, and observe whether his face has any expression. If it does, he doesn’t have a monster.
3. “Oh no, that’s my card, look away!”
Along a similar vein as tell #2, sometimes when people don’t want to scare you, they instinctively pretend to be disinterested in the cards on board. As soon as they see cards they like, they look away from them, deliberately glancing upward and around the room. The “upward” part is very important here, because some people always glance away from cards that actually disinterest them, but they usually look around the room in their normal fashion – just side-to-side. There is nothing interesting on the ceiling! But that’s where people who hit the board like to look.
This tell is particularly useful against opponents who usually pay a lot of attention to the game. When somebody is very interested in your table, and is generally looking at it as much as possible, then it will be very easy to spot when they start looking away. This one is a bit tricky, though, because it is only highly reliable when the player who does it is doing something out-of-character. So, if you see somebody glancing away from the cards when a possible draw completes, and it strikes you as odd and you don’t think he usually does that, then you can be pretty confident he just hit his draw.
4. Acting upset or disappointed in a very blatant fashion, then betting strong
This tell is fairly self-explanatory. People like to pretend that they missed their hand when they hit, or that they put somebody else on a completed draw when they are in fact holding the completed draw. Whenever somebody makes a blatantly disappointed or angry exclamation or expression, and then bets like they have a real hand, they have a great hand. This is always a sign of significant strength.
5. Folding out of turn
Many people will just fold out of turn if they are certain you're going to bet. In live games, there is a bet line, behind which you can count out your chips before actually committing them to the pot. You can use this line to gain information before bluffing. If you are not sure whether to bluff, then count out your chips behind the line, very quickly and confidently when it’s your turn. Do not look at your opponent before you've counted out an amount. Now, fumble a bit with your last stack as you try to get the correct amount, and count your chips to make sure it's right. While counting, look over at your opponent. Did he muck his cards out of turn? Are his cards in his hand as if he's about to muck as soon as you bet? If so, your bluff is almost guaranteed to work. If not, then this player either does not have that tell or is not going to fold, and you can fall back on the pure strength of your hand to determine whether a bluff/semi-bluff is appropriate or not.
Managing your table relationships
When you are playing a live game, it is important to know how you are viewed by your opponents. The way people perceive you can be very beneficial – or very harmful – for your winrate. In general, we as good players are going to be able to exploit any image we develop, but sometimes it will clearly be more profitable to develop one image as opposed to another. To determine what is best, we will have to examine the types of players we are sitting with, and how we can cause them to make the most mistakes.
Essentially, there are a few major descriptors of your opponents’ feelings about you. Namely, you can be feared, loved, hated, or an idiot. What do each of these mean?
- When your opponents fear you, they genuinely think that you have a good hand, or that you are such a good player that they don’t want to get involved in a pot with you unless they hold a monster.
- If people love you, they have no problem losing their money to you and they enjoy playing pots with you – you bring them the entertainment they are paying for.
- Hatred generally puts you into one of two categories – the target for slowplaying monsters, or the target for big bluffs. Weak, timid players will slowplay monsters; aggressive, dominant personalities who ”won’t be pushed around” will run big bluffs.
- Finally, if your table mates think you’re an idiot, they will call your bets too thin and they will always believe that you hit draws when you bet on scare cards, or you missed draws when no scare cards land.
Different environments are best for different images. To put a feared image to its best use, you want to be at a table full of people who don’t mind getting run over. They are the type who are patient, tight players, and who seem to revere your aggressive, confident play. It seems as if they are satisfied being able to go home and tell somebody the story of “this kid who was running the table over.” But, if you have a feared image and there are also some people at the table who are too stupid and dense to see past their own cards, you need to exercise great caution and pick your spots carefully. Dance around those who don’t fear you, and don’t utilize your image against them, because they don’t perceive you the way others do.
Being loved is best at a table full of gamblers, those who like to play tons of hands and who are very focused on making that big score – the one to take home and blog about. When gamblers hate you, they don’t want to lose money to you, and it becomes very personal. They will avoid you and pay somebody else off instead. Be happy, funny, and gambler-friendly when your table is full of people playing big pots and shouting “one time, dealer!” If you are losing, take it well and congratulate people on making their big hands. If you are winning, sympathize with people who complain about missing every draw, and try to tell your own stories about times when you ran badly. Make stuff up. Whatever makes you “one of them,” you’ll get paid off.
You would prefer that aggressive, dominant, insecure players are the ones who hate you. These players have highly volatile personalities and will tilt easily. They are confrontational and enjoy getting into bluff wars. Anyone who really does not want to take guff from you – give them just enough guff to really irritate them. Try to spend as little money tilting them as possible. Instead, give them dirty looks when you play a hand. Berate their play at the table. Constantly call out their hand, as if you made some immaculate read, but make sure to claim that they have something they obviously don’t hold. If you are not only getting under their skin, but they see you making incorrect claims, you will get huge action on your good hands, and they will bluff you constantly. The best strategy will be a delicate mixture of a small percentage of rebluffs coupled with a high percentage of super-aggressive lines with big hands.
Lastly, looking like an idiot is best at a table where people are mildly competent, tight players, who also are not very aggressive and are focused heavily on playing their opponents. These people love to make reads – it’s what they live for. They want to tell their friends, “this guy obviously had blah blah, so I folded blah blah. Cool right? I’m very good at poker because I make big laydowns.” It also does not need to be expensive to look like an idiot – play one hand in some terrible fashion, like some complete garbage out of position, and show it down however possible. It would be great to limp/call something like 73o, lead out on the absolute worst flop in the world (like AKJ), and then check/fold your hand face-up on the turn, saying something like “aw man, ya caught me.” It’s cheap, and you look stupid. In this game, you will be able to bluff scare cards with very high success, and trap with big hands when it looks like you’re drawing.
As a general precept for image development, it’s a good rule of thumb that you would rather be the type of player who everyone likes, not the player who everyone hates. This is because only a small percentage of people are the over-aggressive personalities who pay you off best when you’re hated. You also put yourself at serious risk of starting a fight or being robbed. More importantly, dealers tend to become very uncomfortable when the table is full of tension, and if you are causing the tension, the dealer will be very quick to make decisions in somebody else’s favor. Lots of things can go wrong in live games, and you want the dealer on your side.
Tips for improving your live game
The most important thing you can do to improve your live game is obviously to gain some experience. Just play live, put in a lot of hours, and pay close attention to what type of player has what type of personality. At first, you should play as straightforward and basic poker as you can, and just pay very close attention to all of your opponents. Figure out what makes them tick, look at their expressions, understand their motivations. Spend 50 hours or so doing nothing but observing and playing an A-B-C game.
When you’ve seen a lot of faces, watched a lot of hands moving chips, and observed a lot of mood-changes based on results, you’ll have a strong database from which to draw your reads. You will be able to spot the gamblers at the table as soon as you sit down. You’ll also notice who looks very patient and calm, signaling a tight, conservative style. From there, work with one concept at a time, until you’ve mastered it. Pick a particular tell you want to seek out, and spend your next 50 hours just trying to identify it and use it. Try to spot it even when you’re not in the hand, and then verify whether you were correct at the showdown. Next, choose a certain personality type you want to try and dominate, and spend another chunk of time isolating those people who fit the bill.
Take it slowly, and never try to bring a whole arsenal of information to the table when you are learning. To aid the learning process, and maintain your sanity in the meantime, you’re going to have to move at a reasonable pace. There is a metric $%&@-ton of information available in a live game, so you will be overwhelmed trying to process it all. Don’t be a hero, be a reasonable poker player who is willing to accept the possibility of a mistake here and there when the odds just aren’t great.
Work on your nerves as well. As I explained in the first part of this article, it is important to remember that every poker situation is just a play with some attached EV. Playing an enormous pot with a huge hand is no different, emotionally speaking, from playing a tiny pot. Do not let the amount of money at stake, or the hand you have, or the betting that occurs, get the best of your feelings.
One technique you should do is the following. First, play some live games – a few hours should suffice. You will almost certainly notice that your heart rate increases dramatically during an important hand, such as when you are dealt AA. This is something you need to learn to control. What you should do, then, is get yourself a deck of cards at home. Take two aces out of the deck and set them down in front of yourself as if you had been dealt them at a casino table. Now, pull them up and look at them just like you would if you were in a real game – hands covering them and everything. Do it over and over and over until you experience complete numbness. Practice seeing the AA and having no immediate thoughts about them. Once you can calm your nerves, you will be much more observant, alert, and difficult to read in live games.
Pick up some books on tells as well. Read them with a grain of salt, though, and try to sort out which type of personality will have which tell, and whether a particular tell means different things for different people. Personally, I recommend two books: The Ultimate Guide to Poker Tells by Randy Burgess and Carl Baldassarre, and Caro’s Book of Poker Tells by Mike Caro. Some of the tells in the latter book are antiquated – you should be able to sort them out. But both of these works contain some extremely informative tells, and the former also contains a lot specific to no-limit games.
When you are learning about tells, you should practice making the expressions yourself. Go back to the section above, about specific tells in live play, and try to make those faces I described. If you don’t get it, ask somebody you know whether they understand, and see if they can do it for you. When you make an expression, even if it is fake and deliberate, you will still have an idea of the feeling behind the expression. And once you know the feeling, it will be much easier to perceive when actually sitting at the table. You should become very good at making the common tells you see, so that you could explain them perfectly to somebody you know.
The “big picture” contrast to online play
Live games are a completely different beast from online games. Furthermore, live pros are very different players from online pros. In a live game, there is a lot more information at your disposal, and therefore there are many more specific points of strength that will allow you to become a winning player. Live opponents also tend to be far worse players than online ones. Even some of the best live players in the world are often quite bad in contrast to second- and third-tier online specialists. So, live play lends itself to a lot more – and a lot easier – success, on a hand-by-hand basis.
Unfortunately, the most important downside to live play is the extremely small number of hands dealt per hour. While you can easily multi-table up to 1,000 hands per hour online, you can hardly get 40 hands per hour in a live game, if you’re lucky. That kind of discrepancy means that you need to have a vastly higher win-rate in live games, to compensate for the difference. On the bright side, anyone who is a winning online player will be a hugely winning live player at comparable stakes.
Overall, the main question is: should I be an online player or a live player? The bottom line is that some people can make a killing live and just aren’t cut out for online play. Many famous live pros, such as Daniel Negreanu, are perfect examples. When playing with people, he is one of the foremost experts in making reads and manipulating mediocre opponents. He has extremely strong people-playing skills. But his understanding of strategy is probably nowhere near the necessary level to beat even mid-stakes games online, such as $3/6 or $5/10 on PokerStars. Nonetheless, his skills in a live setting allow him to be a multi-millionaire, and one of the most successful professionals of all time.
Most likely, you should be a mixture of both a live and online player. The depth of strategy you need to beat online games will help prevent mistakes in live games. The psychology you pick up on playing live will help you to understand some online players better. Whichever avenue has the most profitability for you is the one to which you should dedicate most of your time. Everyone has their own strengths, and it is up to you to determine where you belong – at the felt or the keyboard.