I played in a $180 buy-in tournament the other day. I got knocked out in 18th out of 85 or so (JJ against AQ and AK all-in pre-flop). I think my observational skills play a big role in me consistently doing well in tournaments (although honestly I haven’t played in many decent buy-in ones). I spot a lot of body language stuff when the stacks get low in proportion to the blinds, when people are in shove-or-fold mode. One thing that has always helped me is keeping an eye on the players directly to my left, to spot if they’re giving away intended actions.
I realize there are a lot of poker players skeptical about the value of poker tells. But I guarantee you that you can make or save a good amount of chips just by keeping an eye on the player directly to your left. If that person is a relatively inexperienced player, they can give you a lot of information. I’ve spotted these intended-action tells in $5-10 NLHE cash games and tournaments up to $400 buy-in (largest I’ve played), so I know they’re probably present in most games. And it really doesn’t take much observational ability to pick up great information.
For example, in that tournament I played, almost everyone was engaged in blind/ante stealing in late position, as we all should have been doing. Most of the table was pretty passive, though, except for these well-timed shoves; no one was being very aggressive. In one hand, it folded to me and I was on the cutoff with K9 suited. I only had about 10 big blinds at this point, and with the antes, there was probably almost 3 BB in the pot. This is always a +EV shove here, considering the money in the pot and my stack size and the fact that it’s a tournament. The guy on the button was playing very passively and had less chips than me, and that meant I was up against the two blinds, and they were both in waiting mode, too. I wasn’t likely to get a call is what I’m saying.
I was prepared to shove, but then I saw how the button was acting and this info made me fold instead. The button then shoved for his remaining 8 BB or so. So let me tell you about him and what I saw.
Most of the times when this guy looked down at his hole cards, he did so very slowly, and he would hold the cards up for a few seconds, staring at them. This meant that he had nothing special and it would almost always lead to a fold or at most a call.
Also, after he was done peeking at his cards and put them back down, he would leave his arms out on the table, in the same position, just above his cards. Trying to look involved in the game, I guess; that’s the natural unconscious attempt when you’re vulnerable/weak.
But in this instance, when I was considering the shove with the K8, I looked around and noticed he had a chip protector on his cards and he had his hands in his lap, leaning back a bit. He was also very still; unnaturally so. I’m not saying he would usually be moving around a lot usually, but there is the typical chaotic motion that most people have when they’re sitting still. Their fingers tap, they adjust their posture, they move their arm, they scratch their head. So when I say this guy was ‘still’, I mean he was lacking these usual little movements that many people under normal circumstances have, and which he usually had.
This was all very different than his normal stance, and it had only been a few seconds since he’d gotten his cards. So although I hadn’t seen his immediate reaction to his cards (which probably was a very quick glance and then look-away because this is what a lot of people do when they first see strong cards) I knew he was differing a lot from his usual behavior. What this told me was that he had made up his mind about his cards and that he would be shoving, and I was right in this case.
Some people say that poker tells are bullshit because proponents of tells only like to talk about tells of weakness, like the people who say after-the-fact, “I knew he was weak because he (insert some random behavior here)”. But I attribute a lot of my poker success (as uninspiring as it is) to reading when people are strong in spots like this, or at least telling that they’re intending on getting involved.
Of course, my decision was fairly easy because folding in such a spot is never that wrong a decision anyway. Shoving is probably a near-neutral EV play anyway, but necessary in my opinion because of the structure of a tournament. If I’d had a hand like 8’s or AJ, I can spot his intended action and know he’s going to shove and then what do I do with that information? Then it would come down to what kind of player do I think he is? Has he made up his mind he’s going to shove because it’s super-strong or just because it’s a pocket pair or something like AT suited? How’s my hand play against his range, knowing that he wants to shove? Those are the kinds of questions you’d be facing. And knowing what kind of player he was, I guess I probably would have laid down a lot of hands to him with that information. I might have even folded 99 or lower based on this information, just because of how tight I knew he was playing.
So, yeah, I put a lot of stock in watching the players directly behind me, especially pre-flop when players are less careful about guarding information. They are less careful about guarding info because the pot is not yet large and because no one is specifically focused on them. I usually focus most of my attention pre-flop on those two positions, because they are the ones with the most power to hurt you, and because they are easier to keep an eye on.