A guy emailed me about a hand where he tried to give a false poker tell of strength (showing his neighbor his cards) to get a guy to fold to his all-in flop bet. He described himself as playing in a high-stakes home game. His email led to a discussion about how smart it is to try to influence your opponents in such a way.
The original email from the guy, whose name is Michael B:
I had an interesting hand in a 5/10 NL game that got me thinking.
Long story short–I flopped a good flush draw and check-raised someone all-in on the flop. I read the guy for top pair and he went in the tank. I made a big overbet and was hoping the guy would fold because the pot was already huge.
He was on the border between calling and folding. One thing I’ve noticed in these situations is that when I see someone about to do what I do not want them to do, I try to make a very subtle change to the situation that can sometimes makes the villain reconsider (this has to be very, very subtle).
As he was teetering on the edge between calling and folding, I decided to show my neighbor my hand. For some reason I thought this would add strength to my hand to get the guy to fold. The guy practically snap called after I showed my neighbor. (By the way I hit the flush on the turn).
The real question is whether you have any experience with people exposing cards to their neighbor–is this classic strong or weak–or is it too situation-dependent to mean anything. Your thoughts would be appreciated.
I wrote back:
One thing Mike Caro wrote a long time ago and that I agree with, is that people can have a ‘calling reflex’, so if they see anything out of the ordinary about you after you’ve bet, this can trigger them to think ‘oh, I see something weird, it must mean he’s bluffing’, because people have a natural tendency to look for excuses to put money in the pot. It doesn’t mean somebody read you correctly, or that you did something wrong. It usually just means that that person was looking for anything out of the ordinary to give himself an excuse to call.
In most cases, the best thing to do is just sit still and neutrally and wait for the villain to go away. This might seem weak, because this is what bluffers tend to do, but actually it’s best because you shouldn’t be varying your behavior anyway. It’s possible this guy noticed that when you had good hands you just sat there and didn’t do anything, so when he saw you do something weird like that, he thought it was strange for you. I’ve been in similar spots before, where I felt like doing something specific would influence a decision. But I’ve learned it’s just best to stay neutral and stoic (and do that when I’m strong, too).
Caro said that showing a neighbor your hand is strong. But his book was geared at playing super low-level players who are completely clueless. In this case, you are more advanced and were trying to use this tell as a false tell to indicate strength. You were operating on a higher level than the players Caro described. It points out the weakness in Caro’s book, because he was describing completely clueless players who think on the level ‘my hand’s good, check it out!’ It is possible, if your opponent knew you were a thinking player, he might think something like ‘why would this smart guy, who’s never shown anyone his hand tonight, suddenly want to show a very good hand to his neighbor? Could he be bullshitting me?’ Just saying it’s possible; also equally possible he just was looking for any excuse to call and there was no thought process.
Michael wrote back:
Excellent thoughts, Zach. I think you are right that I triggered his calling reflex. One thing I have found that can induce calls is to do something mildly idiosyncratic. Something very subtle that creates a little curiosity (at least on a subconscious level).
I think an important area related to tells is trying to influence villains to call or fold. It would make an interesting essay what techniques one should used to encourage a fold or a call. Obviously it is very villain-specific, but I’m sure there are general themes.
Then I wrote back:
I wanted to add this: Yes, you can influence some weak villains to call by triggering their calling reflex. For instance, against very weak opponents I will sometimes do something odd when I’m trying to get a call; usually some reverse tell that I think they’d be likely to interpret as weakness.
But I think the caveat is that you should only be trying this against very weak, predictable villains. What can happen is that you can use a false tell when you’re strong and trying to get them to call, whereas when you’re bluffing you’ll be more likely to sit there stoically until they go away. But if your opponent is at all observant, he can easily notice that you are more likely to do something “weird” when you’re strong and sit there stoically when you’re weak. So in this way, if you’re not careful, your false tells can become your actual tells. This is why I generally interpret “weird” behavior as strength, because it’s a very common pattern for someone to “act” when they’re strong but not when they’re weak.
I see lots of people who think they’re being smart do these kinds of things. They see their ideas work a few times and think it’s a good strategy. But if you’re playing against even somewhat moderately observant opponents (okay, there aren’t actually that many of them luckily, but at the higher stakes there are), these opponents will notice this stuff.
Michael, if you’re reading this, I hope I didn’t sound like an ass towards the end. I wasn’t lumping you in with the players who “think they’re smart” and all that. My point was just that if you’re going to try something a little tricky, you should have a pretty good idea of how that specific player is likely to interpret your act. And most of the time, against most opponents, I think we don’t have an answer to that.
Oh, and I should mention that I have a section in the book about the best places to use false tells. In a quick synopsis, I recommend using them primarily against strangers, because strangers won’t know whether you’re a fish or a good player and will be more likely to think you’re an obvious fish. (And because getting into false tells with regulars can lead to weird physical psychology wars where you don’t know where you stand. And because false tells with regulars have diminishing value the more you use them.)
And I also don’t recommend “going uphill” with false tells; meaning, I don’t recommend trying to rely solely on them to make someone make a big decision. Instead, they should be used as an extra little influencer in a spot where you think you’re making a strategically-sound move anyway.
An example: you decide you’re going to bluff the river in a NL game in which you have a very rock-solid, nitty image. When the river card comes you subtly shake your head for a moment, like you’re sad. Then you bluff. Shaking your head is a common tell that, from a beginner, means great strength. A somewhat-experienced player (who doesn’t know you or your game) might pick up on that and make the most logical assumption; that you’re just a fish. This kind of thing can be very hard on a decent opponent, because even if he has a slight suspicion that you’re bluffing, it’s just so rare to see someone pull a false tell in such a way like that, and he’s got to come to the most likely conclusion; that you’re just obvious, not that you’re pulling an elaborate act.
So even though I don’t think false tells are a good idea, I occasionally do find spots where I like to use them, but it’ll always just be to add a slight selling point in a hand I would have played that way anyway, and where I think the downside to having my false tell misread will cause me minimal harm.