Ultimate Guide to Poker Tells
by Randy Burgess and Carl Baldassarre
First of all, there is nothing “ultimate” about this book. It’s bad and I wouldn’t make that statement lightly.
While reading this book, I went back and forth several times about how much blame should be directed toward the authors. On the one hand, they are self-proclaimed micro-stakes amateur players, and don’t try to act like they’re professionals. Also, they sound like they really do enjoy poker and seem to believe that they are contributing something meaningful to the community. All of this should count in their favor.
On the other hand, their description of poker strategy and poker tells is very ignorant. While reading this book, I was constantly shaking my head, scrawling margin notes that basically said, “WTF?”
Eventually I decided that the authors should be blamed a bit just because of the amateur nature of this project. They could have consulted with real-life poker players to make up for their own ignorance. They could have tried their darnedest to make it a valuable book. But they didn’t try very hard, I don’t think.
I don’t have anything against an amateurishly written book, but I don’t think it’s cool when such a venture is packaged as something “ultimate”, and when the content of the venture will lose people money if they falsely think they are armed with useful knowledge.
While there are a few decent observations in this book that anybody who’s read Caro’s Book of Tells already knows, the mis-steps and mistakes are far too numerous to ignore, and taint any potentially good information. I will catalogue a few of the more egregious mistakes/ambiguities I found in the book. There are many more strategy-related mistakes than I will describe here; I’ll concentrate primarily on the ones about tells and psychology.
At the end I’ll give one nice thing I took from the book.
1 – Ridiculous Limit Strategy
In a chapter called ‘Telegraphs with Starting Cards’, the authors talk about spotting a tell that someone behind you is going to raise pre-flop. They recommend, if you have Aces or Kings to limp with the intention of re-raising. This is in a limit game. I’m going to give them the benefit of the doubt that this was a typo and should have been a no-limit game, but it is a recurring problem in this book that the strategies they talk about make you wonder if they’re even describing the right game. Okay – that’s it for strategy nit-picking.
2 – Hesitation Before Checking
In a tell they call ‘Glancing at chips’, they describe a player who’s first to act in a three-way pot. They say, “The big blind hesitates, glances at his chips, then taps the table.” Their explanation? “The big blind wanted to bet—hence the glance at his chips—but held up after thinking about it.” They recommend being cautious, because that player could have a decent hand.
In fact, as most of you know, someone who acts like they want to bet and then doesn’t is probably weak 90% of the time. They want to make you think they almost bet, which means they care enough about the hand to feign interest, but they will fold to a bet most of the time, or else call with a draw or a weak made hand.
3 – Betting Immediately After a Card Comes
In a tell they call “Too quick to be true”, they describe a heads-up hold’em hand where a third suited card hits on the river, making a backdoor flush possible, and your opponent bets immediately into you. They state that this is a probable bluff, because “most players who actually do backdoor a flush here will spend at least a few seconds considering whether they should bet or go for a checkraise.” Their response is that “if you read this tell right, folding isn’t an option…”
Actually, in my experience, anyone who bets immediately after a new card arrives, (and by immediately I mean in a fraction of a second) is usually strong. Unless you’ve observed someone betting immediately and being weak, you should assume they’re strong. The reason for this is simple: betting immediately is a strange thing to do. It calls attention to the person that does it. People who are bluffing do not want to call attention to themselves. They might bet quickly, but it won’t be immediately.
Also in this chapter is a weird, illogical description of a hand played between T.J. Cloutier and Paul Phillips, where Phillips has pocket Queens and Cloutier has a pair of Jacks on a Jack 6 2 flop with two clubs. Phillips bets and Cloutier calls. Turn comes a 9 of clubs, and Cloutier takes control of the hand by betting out (immediately according to the authors, although I can’t find the video – has anyone seen it?). Phillips makes a stupid fold. You can read a description of the hand here: http://www.worldpokertour.com/Shared/Tournaments/Seasons/Season_2/The_Bicycle_Casino_Legends_of_Poker.aspx
The authors describe this action as follows:
T.J. immediately sits up, glares at Phillips, and bangs out a $200,000 bet, representing a made flush instead of the lousy pair of Jacks he really holds. The acting job so impresses Phillips that he folds the best hand and the best draw…
The comical part is that they give T.J. credit for knowing he was bluffing there, despite the fact that AJ in that situation is a strong hand, and not “lousy”.
4 – Betting Out of Turn
They describe a player who has caught a seemingly harmless card in 7-stud and who then proceeds to bet out of turn, apologizing and pulling his bet back. Their interpretation of this?
Almost certainly this player has improved his hand; the question is to what? Would he bet out of turn with two pair? Not likely. You’d have to give strong consideration to his having caught a third Jack to go with pocket Jacks he was calling along with, especially if his body language betrays excitement in some way.
Got that? Next time a player bets out of turn, seemingly accidentally, you should give them credit for the strongest possible hand and fold your hand.
In my experience, anyone betting out of turn, or almost betting out of turn, is either genuinely confused, or else trying to make you think they’re strong. I’ve never played in a game so amateur that players who hit a hidden set get so excited that they just bet without thinking whose turn it is. Maybe back when I was playing for nickels, but even that’s a stretch.
Right after their explanation they say:
In a variation, the player checks out of turn rather than bets out of turn. It’s not as easy to interpret as the bet out of turn, but could mean he wanted to check-raise and got too eager.
That has to be one of the weirdest statements in the book. I don’t think you’ll be seeing any of these tells in any game.
5 – A Shaking Leg
They describe a shaking leg as more indicative of someone bluffing than of having a big hand. The shaking leg, they say, is a sign of nervousness. This is not true in my experience. People who allow their legs to shake are comfortable. People who are bluffing are most likely to become still. I’ve never seen someone with a shaking leg make a bluff. (Read my post about a player with a shaking leg here.)
6 – Slumping
In a tell they call ‘Missing a draw and slumping’, they describe a player on the river who sees the river cards and immediately slumps down in a defeated way. Their explanation for this is that he’s missed his draw and his slumping is a genuine display of disappointment.
But more likely, someone who is subtly slumping and looking disappointed is one of the main tells I regularly use to spot people who are happy with their hands. This goes against the authors own copying of Caro’s “Weak means strong” philosophy.
The authors also advise the following strategy:
If you spot the slump and read it as real, you’ll generally want to bet if you’re head-up… [If] you hold a decent hand, you may as well value-bet it. An advantage of not getting called by the busted draw is that you don’t have to show your hand…
So despite already deciding that the slump means the player missed a draw, they advice betting into them with a hand, despite the fact that the opponent will just fold if they actually hold a missed draw and call/raise you when you are beat. A lose-lose situation. The only way to play this hand (assuming the slumping actually means weakness, which, again, you won’t see too often) is to check it to your opponent to hope they bluff. That is pretty basic poker strategy.
7 – Intuition
The authors say you need to “recognize and respect your intuition”. This seems to be a common myth; the idea that intuition and feeling play a large part in great poker play. They compare the intuition of good players to the art of jury-selection. Actually, though, jury consultants and lawyers have extremely concrete and statistical reasons for the decisions they make. (Read Grisham’s The Runaway Jury for an entertaining look into some real-world jury-selection processes.)
Similarly, good poker players do not often rely on something as flimsy as gut-feelings or intuition. They would rather rely on tested observation and conscious experience. A good player might use his feeling when these other conscious tools have left him in a situation he feels is 50-50, but for the most part, good players have no use for intuition. (Although I will admit I am biased because I myself have very little “gut feeling” and have had to make up for it with conscious observation.)
8 – Angle-Shooting
The authors go into their fears of angle-shooting. With them it seems to be a real phobia. The angle-shooting they describe is of the simplest variety, and nothing I’ve seen very often at any level about 4-8 limit or 1-2 no-limit.
It lends credence to my belief that only amateur players worry at all about angle-shooting. I am okay with virtually any activity at a poker table that doesn’t involve active cheating or collusion. Angle-shooting, as most people describe, is stuff that doesn’t break the rules but that is immoral. I don’t have a problem with any action that doesn’t break the rules and that can be just as easily done by anyone else at the table. Anyone with a moderate amount of experience playing live will never fall prey to the common angle shoots.
The one good idea I gleaned from this book was the idea of practicing putting your chips into the pot in a uniform fashion. This experiment got you to focus on the deviations you would inevitably make away from the set manner. If you could start to notice your own patterns, then you could extrapolate your mannerisms out to other players. I’m a big fan of self-study to gain insight into other players, but I’d never thought to do this one, and I still plan on trying it.
It wasn’t good.