Got third in a fairly big tournament: thoughts on poker tells

This past weekend I played a $215 tourney at Chinook Winds, put on by Deepstacks Poker. Out of about 280 players, I got third for $5,700. I feel like I’m playing my best tournament game I’ve ever played; I can literally only point to one hand of the entire 22 hours of playing where I believed I’d made a mistake. That’s a big step up for me; in most of the few bigger buy-in tourneys I’ve played ($200-400 buy-ins), I’ve frequently felt like I butchered several hands, no matter how well I ended up doing. This time I felt like I played near flawlessly, had great focus, and picked my spots really, really well.

Of course it helps to have gotten above average cards and to have a really weak player field. I got a good-size stack early thanks to some straight-up gifts from spew-y players and I maintained a strong stack for the entire tournament. There were literally only two players that I encountered who I felt were a threat at all, and I didn’t get into many hands with them.

As for poker tells (as that’s what this blog is about), there weren’t a whole lot of spots they came into play for me, although the few times they did, they helped sway some important decisions. Although I saw a lot of tells when I wasn’t in hands, I’d say there were maybe 6 spots in total where a tell changed my decision. I’ll talk about a few of them.

The most mundane spots were probably two times where I raised pre-flop and got heads-up and my opponent was giving me some rather obvious defensive chip handling/staring tells that indicated that I needed to follow up my c-bet and bet the turn, whereas with the lack of that behavior I would have checked. That happened maybe twice. Those two players were super weak, tight players, though, so nothing too impressive about that.

Most of the important tells came into play when we got to the final table, specifically the final 6 people or so, as the blinds were getting high and we all had approximately equal chip stacks. We were just trading chips around, with people making late position raises and taking down the pot uncontested. Hardly any flops. Nobody was getting too crazy with 3-bets; when someone occasionally 3-bet or shipped it, I read them for having strong hands. So I was looking for well-timed spots to re-steal a blind raise.

I’ll talk more about bet-timing tells in another post, because I have some new thoughts on the length of time it takes someone to raise pre-flop in an end-game tourney situation. But with a couple players who were unbalanced with their bet-timing, they were betting more immediately when they were raising weak and taking several seconds to raise when they had an actual hand. I only had a couple data points for this, because it was hard to collect much data because there were no hands getting shown down. But it does make sense that when someone’s in a good blind-stealing position and they are aware of this, they are going to be ready to bet more quickly, whereas when they look down at a premium hand, they may be more likely to appear to mull over the decision. It’s the classic weak-means-strong, but applied to bet-timing. And that’s not to say this is an exact science, at all; I’m just talking general tendencies that have some amount of significance, that can help you sway these borderline decisions that you have to make at some point or another anyway.

So, for example, when I’m in the big blind and a decent guy in late position raises, and he does so fairly quickly, then, if I feel like my image is fairly solid (meaning not too many raises or 3-bets lately), then I am more likely to put in a hefty 3-bet in that spot. I am just letting this information dictate when I 3-bet, because obviously I should be doing this sometimes anyway, in the absence of any behavioral information, but if I can get one more meaningful data point to base my actions on, that’s great.

So I did maybe three hefty (around a third of my stack) 3-bet bluffs or semi-bluffs at the final table based on behavioral stuff (with a few more just from pure strategic need).

Another interesting behavior I based a 3-bet on was a decent woman player who I noticed smiling slightly a couple of times when she seemed to be blind-stealing. I couldn’t be certain because I hadn’t seen any of her hands shown down, but the fact that she was smiling slightly in a few spots and not smiling in others, and the fact that I sometimes see the slight-smile tell meaning weakness, made me feel pretty comfortable using that info to throw in a 3-bet.

During the final table, I felt like I was using all of the information available to me the best I could. And I still felt like I was only absorbing a fraction of the information I could have been absorbing. I had been playing for three long days straight at that point (two days tournament and one day cash), so I wasn’t at my full observational powers. But I was still really happy with how it went down and have no regrets about any of it (well, with the exception of one hand where I made a dumb river value-bet that I should have thought twice about.)

  • The Poker Meister

    Congrats on the 3rd place finish! I look forward to your future post about bet-timing tells, because I’d love to hear thoughts about that. I think the smile tell is a worthwhile tell similar to the act strong = weak, act weak = strong tell. I’ve seen it before, though never put 2 & 2 together.

    Good post and again, congrats on the cash.

  • Daniel

    Congratulations on third!

    Interesting point about bet timing on opens. Tournament poker late game can really be dominated I’ve found if you can find some imbalanced physical tells in your opponents. I mean if you KNOW someone is opening trash and your in late position or the blinds you can 3bet or 3bet all in very aggressively when someones opens are weak. And you can 4bet light when you read their 3bets as weak. I guess I’m just stating the obvious though :).

    I haven’t thought about the bet timing tell you mentioned but it does make a lot of sense. I’ve noticed a lot online of this same sort of concept, people tend to wait a second or 2 before 3betting good hands preflop. With worse hands they tend to take longer or more quickly. It seems imperceptible, but if you’re paying attention it comes through very clearly. I’m going to look for that next time I play.

  • Bill

    You are spot on with quick raises in LP. So often it’s a good spot to 3-bet a LP raiser when he takes but a second to make the decision of raising. His range is huge and will miss the flop most of the time.

    Good blog

  • Mike

    The delayed raise bet seems to be right on in these mid buy in tournaments. I was able to 3bet from the blinds or late position on several occasions when I may have not thought of doing so. This enabled me to build a decent stack that is needed to absorb bad beats / coolers. I write this as I bubbled the borgata $100k guaranteed after losing a massive all in preflop with my Qq < a10. Thank for the observations Keep em coming !!!