One of the more obvious behavioral tells you can see in any poker game is the “I’m calling you” move, where a player is ready to shove their chips into the pot, or in some cases actually does shove their chips into the pot before the bettor. There are several ways this tell can be displayed, and it means different things depending on a player’s tendencies and the situation, but in limit games this tell can basically be split into two main categories (which are very rough and which I’ve just now tried to define):
The almost-definite call, where a player basically has his chips lined up next to the betting line, ready to go in, or in some cases even beats the bettor into the pot. In limit, on the river, this is almost always displaying a real intention to call, although occasionally there will be a player who might do this defensively and then fold to a bet.
The less-definite threatening-to-call, where a player just holds his chips in a slightly threatening way, as if to say, “you better think about betting; I might call”. This instance is more likely to be a half-hearted attempt to prevent an opponent from betting, and is more likely to be a fold if the opponent does follow through and bet.
This psychology seems strange at first glance. Why in the hell would players make it obvious they’re going to call someone’s bet? You would think that the more extreme behavior of a player looking like they’re most definitely going to call would be more likely to be a deceptive act, and that those players would actually be quite weak, just like you would think that the more subtle act of making a slight threat to call would be more likely to be strength. “Weak means strong” and all of that. So what’s going on here?
For one, because it’s limit, most players, when they get a decent hand, like top pair top kicker for example, have made up their mind they’re calling down. Because it’s limit, and the game seems very straight forward, many players don’t see any advantage in hiding their intention to call. Frustration definitely plays a big role in this psychology. When you get top pair top kicker or an overpair, and someone raises you on the turn, your thought process is often similar to: “fuck, I’ve got to pay this off, the pot is pretty large and my opponent is aggressive, and they could have a draw”. This can lead some players to making it super-obvious they’re going to call a bet on the river, and in some cases just throwing the bet in prematurely in frustration, as if to say “if you got me you got me, but you don’t intimidate me, and I’m calling your ass.” It’s partly an ego thing, to communicate a player’s lack of fear and their frustration.
The second, more subtle version of this tell, when a player is just slightly threatening to call with his hands on his chips or his chips held in his hands, can come from players with a mediocre hand, like 2nd pair or 3rd pair or something like that, who want to try their best to prevent a bluff in the hopes they won’t have to make a tough decision and that their hand will turn out to be good. If their opponent bets on the river and they exhibit this tell, they may either call or fold (in a typical limit game, I’d say it’s about 50%-50% whether this more-subtle tell leads to a call or a fold, but it will be much more meaningful for specific players who have certain tendencies), but they are almost certainly not raising.
Notice I say ‘on the river’ here, because you will occasionally find people who perform this act on the turn and end up raising, sometimes with a semi-bluff, but on the river people’s hands are more defined to them and you just will hardly ever see a player threaten to call and then raise in limit on the river. Most players with big hands on the river put on an innocuous act, where they play dead and look innocent, hoping to induce a bluff. They don’t try to prevent a bet, because they want a bet. Of course, skilled players will occasionally reverse this tell, but I have hardly ever seen this happen.
If you know anything about poker, you might wonder, “why the hell would anyone give this information away?” It makes no sense, I agree, and I am constantly amazed by how often I see it happen.
In the most extreme case of the tell, seeing a player beat you into the pot will obviously make you abort a bluff attempt, which is good for you, and obviously it will make you follow through on your value bets, which is also good for you. And if you know your opponent well, you might be able to discern when he is obviously calling you and when he may just be posturing. For instance, there are some limit players I play with who are quite decent otherwise, but when they have their chips in their hand ready to call on the river, they are definitely calling you and not posturing. This is mainly because physical deception is not really their thing; they are just acting in frustration and on auto-pilot. If you know that about these players, you have the same advantage as if they were beating you into the pot.
In the more subtle cases of the tell, it will still allow you to have a huge advantage against these players, because you know that their range consists of mediocre hands on the river and not strong hands. So while the threatening-to-call action may not give you perfect information, because you don’t know if it means a call or a fold in a specific river situation, you still can value-bet your strong hands knowing that you’re most probably ahead, and also make some thin value bets knowing you almost assuredly are not going to face a raise. This can make a lot of situations that would usually call for a check when played in a vacuum into a mandatory bet.
If you still don’t understand why this tell is so, so bad to exhibit, think about it like this: when you are telegraphing that you are going to call, this ensures that your opponent is primarily only going to be making value bets against you and will give up on many bluffs. If you just decided internally that you were going to call and didn’t telegraph it, your opponent, when he bets, will have a lot more bluffs in his range than he otherwise would. Basically, by setting up a barrier to his bet, you have made his betting range include vastly more value-bets than bluffs.
Like I said, you will see some very good players exhibit this tell. The player named Chang who I wrote about in the last post is one of the good players I’m always astounded to see display this tell. He’s very good, and very solid, and has a great sense of people, and is probably one of the best players in this particular limit game. At the same time, I have seen him recently several times beating people into the pot on the river, which is just crazy to me, considering his skill otherwise.
He’s so good in general, I even started to wonder if there was some hidden psychological benefit to the maneuver that I wasn’t seeing, and started wondering if it might have meta-game value in preventing people from bluffing you. Like if you only did something like that early in a session or something against one of the maniacs, it might make you less bluffable. I thought about it a while and eventually had to discard that idea. There’s just no way around the fact that this is a horrible thing to do. My final conclusion was that he’s been running bad lately and just frustrated, which explains why I’ve seen him doing it lately and never noticed him doing it before. (Just goes to show that everyone has different leaks. I may play too reckless sometimes in limit, but I would never do this! Also one of the reasons everyone thinks they’re a genius at poker; they see other people’s flaws but don’t see their own.)
Finally, it’s also astounding how many players are clueless of this tell and don’t even seem to be watching their opponents at all. Usually once or twice a session I see someone beating someone into the pot (by which I literally mean placing their chips in the middle of the table) and their opponent still makes a bluff. The betting player is making a bluff into a call that’s already been made! (One of the reasons for this, by the way, is that bluffers have a tendency to look down at their lap or their chips when they bet, thus missing out on any information that is happening with other players. This is due to a liar’s tendency to avert his eyes from the person he’s lying to, and is a very useful tell against certain players.)
That’s the obvious cases; there’s always plenty more cases where a player misses an obvious bet against a player who’s doing the threatening-to-call thing.
In summary, understanding the psychology behind this poker tell will give you many small edges in limit. In no-limit, this tell is exhibited much differently, with a lot depending on the quality of player, and I’ll probably write more about that soon.