Timing Tell Concepts
by Corwin Cole
When I began playing poker in 2005, I was spending all of my time at Casino Morongo in the Southern California desert near Palm Springs, playing $3/6 fixed limit Hold ‘Em. I was, like most beginners who feel competitive about poker, obsessed with “tells” and the idea of “soul-reading.” Needless to say, I was misguided. Where I was searching for psychic powers, I should have been looking for some lessons in deductive logic. Once I began playing online, I got a better sense for the proper place of “tells” in the realm of poker knowledge.
Playing poker online necessitates a near-flawless foundation of theory for any successful competitor. But beyond the range analysis, the bet-sizing, and the equity-versus-odds math, we have some more esoteric tools at our disposal. We can consider adjacent concepts that are not very mathematical in nature, such as “image building,” “gameflow,” and “timing tells.” It is the last of these that I will discuss today.
“Timing tells” are familiar lingo but poorly studied. In the span of my experience with online poker, I’ve come across less than a handful of important and accurate tells. In an early CardRunners video, Taylor Caby (GreenPlastic) pointed out that a quick call on the flop often indicates a weak made hand or a draw. This is probably the most well-known timing tell that has ever been discussed. More recently, David Benefield (Raptor) suggested that a fast 4-bet usually betrays a bluff or weaker all-in hand, like AK, while a slower 4-bet generally means QQ+. In my eyes, this tell has merit but is less reliable than Taylor’s. Finally, it seems the consensus that, when playing with poorer opponents, a quicker-than-normal bet or raise is usually a sign of strength. As far as I’ve explored, this simple paragraph encompasses the state of timing tells in online poker’s knowledge base.
Personally, I find this field wanting. In this article, I will propose two central concepts for the development of timing tells: first, that a player’s timing implies the ease of his decision; and second, that a player’s timing implies the extent of his planning. With these concepts in mind, I will explore some rudimentary applications of timing reads.
Concept 1: A player’s timing implies the ease of his decision
The idea here is quite simple. If a player thinks a bit before making his decision, then he has alternatives and he is weighing them, trying to determine the best course of action. On the other hand, if he spends no time at all making his decision, then he feels that he has no alternatives – the best action is obvious and indubitable. This, in fact, is clearly the key to understanding Taylor’s famous tell. When an opponent makes a quick call, he does not consider raising or folding. For this reason, the hands that best fit into the category of “obvious call, never raise or fold” are draws and medium-strength made hands. There’s no magic to it – if a player acts quickly, his decision is easy. More slowly, and his play is not so obvious.
It is important, though, to realize that “easy” and “difficult” don’t necessarily point to anything exact. Interpretation is everything. For example, I may feel that slowplaying a monster hand is “obviously” the best way to play in a certain scenario, given my read on my opponent and other factors. Because of this, I may very quickly check and/or call with my hand, which by classical understanding would indicate that I have a medium-strength hand or draw. However, my actual hand is quite different. And, more importantly, I am not trying to offer a “reverse timing tell” to my opponent – instead, I am acting quickly because my decision is easy, but I am sitting on a huge hand. At the same time, I may require careful consideration of my options with the same hand, at a different time or against a different opponent. Under other conditions, my monster hand may be played passively or aggressively, and it might be a real challenge to figure out which is better. The only information we can gather from timing is the ease or difficulty of a decision – it is another task to correctly interpret that data.
Beyond the fact that interpretation is critical, deception obviously does exist. We have probably all tried to use timing to deceive our opponents at some time. And many of us have probably made the blunder of leveling ourselves, by reading a timing tell as a deception when it was not. My best advice is to throw timing tells out the window when you suspect deception, unless for some reason you have a great understanding of your opponent’s preferred style of lying.
Concept 2: A player’s timing implies the extent of his planning
This concept is a little more difficult. When someone performs a series of bets with consistently quick timing, those bets have usually been planned from the beginning. In contrast, when an opponent makes one bet quickly and another slowly, the latter bet was often not anticipated. The idea here is really an off-shoot of the first concept. When bets are planned, they’re easier to make; when they’re not planned, they require some decision-making along the way.
Let me illustrate with an example. Many players tend to turn their monster hands face-up, by displaying the fact that they already know they want to play a large pot from the time the hand begins. So, suppose you see an opponent raise preflop and then fire out large bets on every street, rather quickly. The fact that all of his bets are rapid means that he expected to make them before he got there. And how many hands really raise preflop expecting to make a large river bet? Only the big ones.
Other players give away a type of polarization in their future decisions, by acting very quickly in a passive state. For instance, if an opponent check/calls your continuation bet on a dry flop, then checks very quickly when the turn is an ace, he is clearly either planning to call three barrels or planning to fold to a second barrel. The ace, in essence, forces an all-or-nothing attitude towards his turn and river play, and the fact that he checks, calls, and then checks again so quickly gives that away. Instead, if he hesitates before checking once the ace lands, he may have re-considered whether he will proceed with the check/call mode that he represented on the flop.
Another example may be more cut-and-dry. Poor players often plan to lead out if they hit their draws. When an opponent who seems like a bad player checks and calls quickly, indicating a draw, then leads quickly when the primary draw hits, he was obviously planning to bet out when that card came, and this almost certainly means that he hit the draw. Because they are somewhat uncommon, leading bets tend to carry a strong sense of planning. When somebody leads out, you’ll most often have a good idea whether they planned to do so or not, based on the quickness of their bet.
Applications of these concepts
As pots get larger and opponents seem more committed, people tend to give less consideration to the obviousness of their hands. Because of this, the ease or difficulty of a river decision can be used to distinguish between nut holdings and strong-but-beatable hands. If you are involved in a large pot and you seem committed to take your hand to the felt, you may realize that your opponent can get all-in with some hands that beat you and some that don’t. However, he may be unlikely to feel completely comfortable getting all-in with the hands that might lose to you. If that is the case, he will probably consider his play a little while longer before going all-in. On the other hand, if he has the stone-cold nuts, he will be unlikely to delay before shoving. If you use this idea properly, you can make a few more huge folds where a pure analysis of hand ranges and pot odds would dictate a call.
In heads-up play, and somewhat in shorthanded games, battles become personal. When you know your opponent backward and forward, and he hasn’t figured you out, you have a monumental advantage. But the mere appearance of this edge can actually create the edge itself. If my opponent seems like he knows exactly what to do against me at every step, I’m likely to give him credit for having the upper hand, whether or not he’s actually reading me well. In general, the faster somebody acts on average when playing against a certain opponent, the more comfortable the match-up feels. And this is an indicator of confidence. Somebody who seems consistently perplexed and indecisive is going to act slowly most of the time, as if every decision is agonizing. But a confident player who feels that he has the advantage is going to make most of his decisions quickly. This idea can be used to encourage you to turn up the heat and keep the pressure on your unconfident opponent, or it can signal that it may be time to play against somebody else.
Throughout the course of a single hand, the tides can – and often do – turn. When a new card causes a player to re-evaluate his hand, he will show it by changing his timing. For instance, if his hand is quite weak and suddenly becomes stronger on the next street, he may have acted very quickly to begin with but now spend some more time thinking about his actions. A common example of this occurs when players flop sets with small pairs. Preflop, they will often take no time at all in just calling – after all, setmining is an easy decision. But once the flop comes and they have hit their set, they begin trying to determine what they will do with it to extract value, and their actions on the flop will take a noticeably longer time. When a player re-evaluates, you will notice that he takes quite a bit longer to make his decision than he did on the previous street.
This short list of ideas in the realm of timing tells is only the beginning of what will likely be a consistently interesting and changing field. As internet players, we must live in the nuances and the minutiae. We can’t see somebody’s body language or hear the tone in their voice, so we must make careful interpretations of subtle data that they offer. Timing tells are one of the most important non-mathematical tools that we have, and I encourage you to understand them as well as you can.