(Apologies; it looks like the YouTube video I linked to for this post and the following post has been removed. I will try to remedy this in the future.) This post is about the most significant poker tell that I saw at the Final Table of the 2011 WSOP NLHE Main Event. It involves Pius Heinz and the amount of eye contact he would make with his opponent in different situations. In a nutshell, Heinz’ tell was that he would make very little eye contact with his opponent when he was betting a strong hand and wanted a call. This tell surfaced in situations where the bet was significant and when Heinz knew he wanted a call.
I should preface my posts about the WSOP by saying that all of the final four players (Heinz, Lamb, Staszko, and Giannetti) on this year’s final table were great. They were just all fundamentally strong. I say that because I don’t want to give the impression that me talking about the tells of Heinz means I think he’s a weak player; I have a lot of respect for him.
Also, if you don’t already know my stance on poker tells, I don’t think that tells are very important when playing against strong players. I recommend reading my last blog post about how unimportant tells usually are in matches between decent players. It should give you a good primer for my own personal philosophy on tells and what role they play in games like this.
I watched the final table coverage from the final four players all the way to the end. One of the few reads I was very sure of occurred when Heinz and Staszko were heads-up and Heinz got pocket AA (click here for the video link). Staszko was on the button and raised with KQ. Heinz 3-bet with his AA. Staszko called and the flop came 2d 4h 5d. Heinz bet out and Staszko folded.
You can see Heinz’s primary tell in this hand very well, and it’s a good one to start with before watching the other hands I’ve linked to below. You can see how he avoided looking at Staszko while he made his bet and after making his bet.
This tell is what I call a “during-action” tell and a “post-bet” tell, meaning Heinz is exhibiting this behavior during the moment of the bet, and after he makes a bet. What he does before he puts out the bet isn’t as reliable; sometimes he will stare at his opponent, sometimes he will not. What’s significant is how he’s acting when he’s in the moment of placing the bet and how he’s acting after placing the bet.
Also, he has a related tell in that when he’s value-betting, his eyes are more relaxed, even disinterested, almost as if to say “I don’t care about this hand.” His eyes in most hands are more alert and more open.
With the links to videos below and the accompanying pictures, I’ve tried to compile a good sample of significant situations that show these tendencies. The first four videos show him in situations where he’s bluffing, and his high level of eye contact with Staszko will be very apparent. Staring at his opponent was Heinz’ baseline behavior; it was something he tried to do consistently. With these videos that show him bluffing, it’s very obvious to see this tendency. When he had intermediate strength hands, or hands where he wasn’t sure of the value, he would still engage in staring but it would not be as extreme as the ones where he knew without a doubt that he was bluffing. I give you the video of him bluffing first, so you can establish a baseline for his behavior.
The next four videos show him when he’s value-betting pretty strong hands, and betting for significant amounts. You will see how decreased his amount of eye contact is. He looks toward the table, not at his opponent. These are tells where he knows that he wants action.
Below the embedded YouTube videos of the specific video I’ve given some still snapshots from the hands, trying to capture the moment of Heinz betting and the moment a few seconds after betting.
Hands where Heinz is bluffing
Heinz 4-betting pre-flop with 79. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Bi–6nmVakY&t=8m10s This is from when they were heads up. Staszko 3-bets to 11.5 million. Heinz 4-bets to 20 million with 79 offsuit. Watch how Heinz stares at Staszko during and after the raise.
Heinz 3-betting pre-flop with 63 offsuit. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Bi–6nmVakY&t=59m59s This is from later in the heads-up match. Staszko raised to 4.25 mill and Heinz 3-bets to 10.4 mill with 36 offsuit. Again, notice how much eye contact he gives Staszko in this spot.
Heinz makes bluff raise on flop. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=zGTr28qoho0&t=5m12s In this hand, Heinz had raised pre-flop to 3.4M with J5 offsuit and Staszko called with Q3. The flop came Kd Qd 9c. Staszko bets out 4M, Heinz raises it to 11.2M. Again, notice how much he stares at Staszko after the bet.
Heinz makes big bluff on turn. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=zGTr28qoho0&t=9m54s In this hand, Heinz raises from the button to 3.4M with 67 offsuit. Staszko calls with A9. The flop comes Ad 9s 3d. Heinz bets 3.8M. Staszko calls. The turn comes with another A. Staszko checks, Heinz bets 8.4M. Again, you’ll see Heinz staring down Staszko pretty hard. (I’ve linked you to the turn bet, but Heinz’s demeanor on the flop bet is also similar. However, I tend to discount most potential tells unless the bet is significant.)
Now that you’ve probably noticed a pattern in Heinz’s demeanor with the above videos, watch some ones where Heinz is value-betting and his eye contact is greatly diminished.
Hands where Heinz is value-betting
Heinz 3-bets with AA and bets flop. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Bi–6nmVakY&t=81m In this hand, Staszko had raised pre-flop to 4.25M and Heinz 3-bet to 10.4M. On a flop of 2d 4h 5d, Heinz bets 10.5M. This is the hand that clued me into Heinz’s tendencies. Notice just how much he looks down at the table at the moment of his bet and after it, instead of his usual staring at Staszko when he’s betting/raising light. Also, notice how relaxed Heinz’s eyes are; he has a much more disinterested appearance when he has a good hand, whereas when he’s bluffing/weak his eyes are open, more alert, more intense. Even in the spots where Heinz does look at Staskzo, this difference in his eyes sets this apart from the more intense staring that Heinz is liable to do when he’s betting weak. One more interesting thing to note about this hand; notice how Heinz doublechecks his hand on the flop, before betting. This is another weak-means-strong action that I only saw Heinz do once, maybe twice, and usually only pre-flop, when the situation wasn’t significant.
Heinz flops two pair, calls flop, bets river. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Bi–6nmVakY&t=55m15s In this one, Staszko has the button and just calls. Heinz has J5 and checks. The flop comes 4h 5s Jc, giving Heinz two pair. He checks to Staszko and calls Staszko’s bet. The turn is checked through. On the river Heinz makes a bet and Staszko folds. From the flop to the river, you can see how different Heinz looks in this hand compared to the hands above when he was bluffing. He barely looks at Staszko and looks completely disinterested in the hand.
Heinz flops two pair and bets flop. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=fZUxJxicH-s&t=6:26 In this hand, Heinz is on the button with J6 and raises to 3.4M. Staszko calls. The flop comes Jc 6c 3c giving Heinz two pair. Staszko checks and Heinz bets 3.8M. Again, see how Heinz looks down when placing his flop bet, and doesn’t give Heinz hardly any eye contact.
Heinz rivers trips and raises. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=m-ARf0O9lWA&t=20s This is hand from earlier in the coverage, when the table was 6-handed (I think). Collins is in the small blind and Heinz is in the BB. Collins raises to 2.2M, Heinz calls with AJ. The flop comes 2h 8c Jc giving Heinz top pair. Collins bets 2M and Heinz calls. The turn comes a 4h. Both players check. The river comes a Jh, giving Heinz top trips. Collins bets 3.3M. Heinz thinks a really long time and raises to 10.1M. You can see he hardly looks at Collins while making the bet or after.
Heinz’s tendencies adhere to general “weak means strong” theory. Heinz’s default is to behave “strongly”; staring down his opponent with alert, intimidating eyes. He wants to let his opponent know that he is interested in the hand. But when he has a strong hand, one he knows he wants actions with, Heinz has the tendency to appear weak and unthreatening by looking down at the table and avoiding eye contact. He doesn’t want to intimidate his opponent out of giving him action by staring at him. Also, his relaxed, half-closed eyes seem to be stating, “I’m only half interested in this hand.”
Mike Caro, in his book, put these under the category of “Tells from Actors”, but I think this is the wrong way to think about them. Heinz is not consciously trying to fool Staszko. These tells of his are unconscious. They are ways his mind is unconsciously trying to deceive his enemy. You can think of it as the same way an animal that is threatened tries to puff himself up in the face of an adversary. Or the way a predator might make himself smaller and unassuming when near potential prey. Mostly unconscious stuff.
Also, it’s important to note that I don’t usually see people with this specific tell. While a good number of people will act this way, in my experience the opposite tendency is more common; for a player to engage in more eye-contact after betting with a strong hand. This is because most average players don’t wish to engage in eye contact wars in general, and they will be even less likely to want to engage in eye contact when they’re bluffing and under the microscope. I point this out so that you won’t think that this behavior is a universal tell. As with all tells, you need to observe a player for a while and see which tendency is more prevalent; it can vary a lot amongst people.
While I think I’ve stated my case pretty well with the above examples, I don’t want to exaggerate how useful this information is. For one thing, in this specific heads-up match, most situations were not significant enough to produce these tells in Heinz. Most pre-flop raises and flop bets in a short-handed game are done with hands that don’t have clearly defined hand strength (like raising QT or A7 pre-flop, or betting a flop with overcards or third pair), so in the large majority of Heinz’ hands I saw no tells. The tells I noticed in Heinz only occurred in spots where Heinz was betting a significant amount AND his hand strength was clearly defined as either a bluff or a strong hand. This does not happen very often pre-flop or even on the flop; it’s usually something you’ll see on the turn or river, when hand strengths are more defined.
Also, I wouldn’t claim that this tell is 100% for Heinz. I could actually show you a couple hands where Heinz avoided eye contact in a significant spot and was still bluffing, or stared at Staszko and was strong. (I have more thoughts on some of those spots. For instance, if Heinz started the hand with his head on his hand, looking downward, he would usually stay that way for the duration of the hand, so the tell wouldn’t be meaningful. I could go into it some other things, but I don’t want this post to be ridiculously long.) But based on the footage I’ve watched, I’d say this tell I’ve mentioned was useful about 80% of the times I noticed it, which is more than enough to make it useful information and to make it sway a decision. If I was Staszko and I had noticed Heinz’ tendencies at the time, that might have allowed for the possibility of some aggressive bluffs over the top of some of Heinz’s bets, knowing that it was probable he did not want a call.
Also, it should be noted that these kinds of eye-contact tells are more easy to spot when players are sitting across from each other. If Heinz and Staszko had been sitting side-by-side, as Heinz and Lamb had been earlier in the final table, these tells would not have been as easy to see. (Although I did notice some interactions between Heinz and Lamb that related to the tendencies I’ve described, and I’ll try to write a post about these later.)
I think Heinz did a great job for someone who’s relatively new to live poker (as did Staszko.) I think he must have prepared a lot for the final table. He obviously knew the value of keeping his behavior balanced, because I think he could have been a lot more egregious with the information he was giving away. I’ve seen other, more experienced live players give away a lot more info. I also wonder if someone told Heinz about this tell toward the end of the heads-up match, because I thought he was much harder to read in the last 30 minutes or so of the match than he was earlier. In any case, I don’t think we’ll see Heinz giving away this much info in future games.
I think the main moral of this story is that if you’re going to be staring at your opponents, as Heinz apparently wanted to do, you need to be completely balanced in your behavior or you shouldn’t do it at all. (Ben Lamb is an example of a player with balanced staring behavior; he stares at his opponent evenly at all times, and his consistency makes it very hard to gain information from him.) Heinz, if he wasn’t absolutely sure his behavior was balanced, would have been better off just staring at the table in every post-bet situation; he would have kept his behavior completely balanced and been more unreadable.