I’ve been thinking a lot about betting motion tells over the past few weeks. The last few sessions I’ve played, I’ve been focusing on player hand movements—I’ve been wearing my baseball cap real low and watching people’s hands as they bet or raise. I’m going to devote this post and the following post to betting movements – in this post I’ll talk about general theory and tendencies, and in the next post I’ll talk about a guy I play with and his personal tendencies.
There can be multiple factors and reasons behind how a player throws his chips into the pot. It is far from the simple concept of ‘weak means strong, strong means weak’ that Caro described—in short Caro said that people who throw their chips into the pot hard or forcefully are trying to appear strong and so are actually weak, and vice versa. In reality there are many more factors at work.
The first important thing to realize is that different people have different natural tendencies when it comes to how they physically bet their strong or weak hands. Below I’ve described the two most basic tendencies you’ll see with average players. (Keep in mind that the actions we’re talking about can be very subtle and sometimes take a lot of attention to notice. Also keep in mind that I’m simplifying things a lot—these are not 100% accurate tells just because of the amount of psychological factors that affect a player’s physical movements.)
Tendency #1 – Betting Forcefully and/or Quickly When Bluffing, Gently and/or Slowly When Value-Betting
Many opponents, if you watch their hands carefully when they are betting, throw their bluffs and semi-bluff bets into the pot with more force than when they are betting a strong hand. They also may make these bets or raises more quickly. This can be very subtle; it might just involve a slightly faster flick of the wrist when betting. Their chips may travel across the table a bit farther than when they are value-betting. Or they may cut their chips out with a bit more of a flourish when they are bluffing than when they are value-betting.
The basic psychology behind this is Caro’s ‘weak-means-strong’ idea; these players want to appear confident/strong when they are bluffing, so they instinctively opt for a bit more forcefulness/quickness when they are betting with a weak hand. Conversely, when they are betting a strong hand, they instinctively don’t want to arouse suspicion and so bet very gently, slowly.
Tendency #2 – Betting Gently and/or Slowly When Bluffing, and Forcefully and/or Quickly When Value-Betting
It’s also very common to see the opposite of the above tell; players who make more forceful and quick betting movements when they’ve got a strong hand and who make more calm, thoughtful-looking, leisurely bets when bluffing/semi-bluffing.
These players may be attempting to arouse suspicion when they have a good hand; they bet quickly and throw their chips in hard because they want you to think something is weird so you’ll call. (And, as Caro pointed out, this is actually a good strategy against beginner-level players; many players are just looking for any excuse to call.) Usually, though, players who exhibit this tell aren’t thinking at that high a level; more often I think they are just so relieved to have a good hand that they think they can finally play some “macho poker” and throw their chips around a little bit. And, conversely, when they are bluffing, they bet gently because they don’t want to arouse a suspicious call.
I think the basic psychology behind these two tendencies is easy-to-understand. It’s understandable that a player might bet with a gentle motion when he’s bluffing because he doesn’t want to arouse notice. It’s also understandable that a player with a strong hand might bet with a gentle motion because he doesn’t want to arouse suspicion. It’s just as easy to understand that a player with a big hand might bet aggressively so as to arouse a suspicious/angry call, or that a player with a big hand might bet gently so as to not arouse any suspicion.
The fact that these tendencies are opposite and yet seem equally imaginable can make you wonder: what good are they then? They’re useful because most players will fall into one of the above two categories, meaning they will by-and-large perform one of the tendencies much more often than the other one. (I think that most players exhibit the second tendency much more often than the first, but some people might disagree.)
One of the things you should be observing when you watch your opponents is to correlate how they are making their betting/raising motions. How are they putting their chips into the pot? Do they toss them forward with a quick wrist movement? Do they stack them carefully in front of them? Do they stack them and then shove them forward? Do they carelessly toss them out?
There are many ways a person can bet. The most important things you can notice, though, are the speed they bet with, and the forcefulness with which they push the chips forward. You want to try to record as much as you can about their betting movements so you can play back your internal video at the end of the hand and match it up with what the player had.
In no way is this process easy. Sometimes we are talking very subtle hand movements. And there are other complications, as well. For instance, a couple complications are:
Emotion – A change in a player’s emotions can change their natural tendencies. (For example, a player who normally throws his chips in gently when value-betting may start throwing his chips hard into the pot if he’s on tilt, or against a player he dislikes.) Knowing how a player is doing emotionally will help you recognize moments when a player is doing something out-of-the-ordinary.
Semi-bluffing hands – How a player internally feels the strength of a drawing hand will alter the way they think about and bet their hand. This is why closing-action tells (the tells a player exhibits on the last round of betting) are much more important than previous round tells. In general, I tend to play my hand with fundamental strategies on the flop and turn, while my important decisions based on tells usually occur pre-flop or on the river.
Apart from these complications, though, these hand movement tells can be pretty powerful. They are a part of my arsenal in no-limit and in limit, assuming I spot a player who varies his betting movement behavior.
I had an interesting conversation with a good limit player recently. He was sitting beside me, and he was involved in a hand where he made a pretty impressive call-down with middle pair against a fairly-tight guy who raised him on the turn and bet the river. I was genuinely impressed with his play and asked him how sure he was that his hand was good. “Were you about 40% sure?” I asked. “70% sure?”
“Did you see how quick I called?” he said, with a smile. He had called very quickly.
“So you were pretty sure, then?” I said. I admit I was trying to draw him out a little bit as to his thought process.
He leaned over and whispered to me: “It’s just how quickly he bets. Watch him when he’s bluffing; he bets quick. Don’t tell that to anyone; I wouldn’t tell that to many people.”
He’s one of the better players and I felt flattered that he’d share that with me. It was also the first inkling I’d gotten in a long time that people in this game were paying attention to such things.
For practice studying this tell, I recommend wearing a baseball cap to hide where your eyes are looking, and just spend a good portion of one session studying how one specific player throws his bets into the pot. I recommend just studying one guy, and maybe pick the loosest guy at the table so you can see him in a lot of pots. Assuming the guy is an average player, I guarantee you that you’ll start to pick up some patterns. When I first started becoming attuned to these tells, I was amazed by how much correlation it was possible to make.
So, if you take nothing else away from this post, just remember that people are watching you, even if you’re not watching them. Even if you’re not going to pay attention to these tells, you should practice having a standard, uniform way of putting your chips in the pot. If you’re playing $15-30 limit or higher, there’s a decent chance you’re being studied by someone.