Excerpt from Verbal Poker Tells: General verbal behavioral tendencies

The following is an excerpt from my book-in-progress, which will be called Verbal Poker Tells. This is not the final version and is still being edited and is subject to change. Any comments and criticisms on these general ideas are very much appreciated.

There is a lot of complexity in verbal poker behavior. Anyone who’s played a lot of poker knows there are many factors that can lead someone to talk or not talk in any given situations. In many poker situations, there are not strong, clear factors influencing how someone talks and what they say.

For example, a player making a standard continuation-bet on the flop can be easily imagined to talk or stay silent with a wide range of hands. Because his bet is small and because his hand strength is not well-defined, we can observe players in this situation to have a lot of behavioral variety. Many poker situations are similar: the factors acting upon the situation are not strong enough to allow us to draw meaningful conclusions from observed behavior.

On the other hand, there are some situations where verbal behavior is much more likely to be meaningful. For example, a player who makes a large bet on the river and then who proceeds to talk for a long time, in a flowing, seemingly relaxed manner, is seldom bluffing. (We will take that as a general assumption for now and get into the specific reasons later.) The reason this is likely to be a more “significant” situation is because: a) the bet is much larger, leading to polarization in relaxation or anxiety, b) the bettor’s hand strength on the river is well-defined and he (almost always) knows whether he would like a call or not.

To best understand poker behavior we have to find those situations where behavior is most likely to be meaningful. The table below is an attempt to define those situations where an average poker player (and poker players as an entire population) is likely to be imbalanced in their behavior. Before moving on, I recommend studying the table for a little bit. The most important patterns are highlighted in yellow.

The most meaningful situations are those where there is an imbalance in how most people act in those situations. We will look at these different situations and what leads to the imbalances.

Non-aggressor behavior
Let’s look first at non-aggressor behavior. The non-aggressor is the player who a) is not the last bettor or b) has checked or called as his/her last action in the hand.

A non-aggressor with a strong hand can also be said to be slowplaying. A slowplayer has an instinct to be quiet; they do not want to set up any obstacle to an aggressor continuing to bet. For example, a player with 99 calls a pre-flop raise, in position, and the flop is A92 rainbow. This player is unlikely to say anything that might dissuade his opponent from continuation-betting. If this player calls the flop, he is also unlikely to say anything to discourage his opponent from betting on the turn. He is “setting a trap” and has an instinct to be quiet. He does not want to set up any sort of obstacle to his opponent continuing to bet.

A non-aggressor with a strong hand also has reason to genuinely consider the situation and think about how best to play his hand to get maximum value. The player who has flopped a set, for example, knows he is continuing in the hand and knows it is to his benefit to consider the best way to play his hand.

Compare this to a non-aggressor with a weak hand. A non-aggressor with a weak hand has no real instinct to be quiet. In fact, a non-aggressor with a weak hand often has a desire to slow down the aggressor. One way to slow down an aggressor is using verbal statements. For example, a player with TT calls a pre-flop raise, in position, and the flop is JQA. As the pre-flop raiser gets ready to bet, the non-aggressor says, “How’s big your ace?” The non-aggressor doesn’t want the aggressor to bet. He would love to get a free card and maybe hit his straight or a set. Because he knows he is likely folding to a continuation-bet (or, at most, calling a bet but folding to a turn bet if unimproved) this player has nothing to lose by trying to set up an obstacle to his opponent’s bet. (Compare this to the motivations of the player in the last example who flopped a set and did not want to set up any obstacle to the aggressor’s bet.)

Also, a non-aggressor with a weak hand (assuming he is not contemplating making a move on the aggressor) has no strong reason to genuinely consider the situation. He knows it is unlikely that he will continue far in the hand and, again, has no real reason to think in depth about the situation. (Compare this to a player who flops a strong hand and who will have a tendency to think hard about his best options for playing his hand.)

The difference in the two situations above lead to polarization in the amount and types of non-aggressor verbal behavior. This is why most talking from non-aggressors will be found to be defensive in nature and why there is a general imbalance in the overall poker population.

For many medium-strength hands, though, behavior will have more variety. Because there is not a polarization in feeling one way or another about a hand, there will be more uncertainty. For example, a player with AJo calls a pre-flop raise, in position, and the flop is AT7. This player knows he is calling a standard continuation-bet and doesn’t yet have a good feeling one way or another about whether he likes the situation. He doesn’t have any particular motivation, one way or the other, to talk or be silent; it could easily go either way. (This is why the middle column in the table, representing middle-strength hands, has ‘A lot of behavioral variety’ for most of its entries.)

What meaningful conclusions can we draw from these overall tendencies? The main conclusion is:

  • Non-aggressors who are talking are unlikely to have strong hands. This is especially true for statements that seem intended to put up an obstacle to an opponent’s action. 

Behavior from players making small bets
Now let’s look at players who make small bets in situations when small bets are normal (e.g., standard pre-flop raises and 3-bets, standard continuation bets, smaller turn bets). Small bets into large pots are fairly rare and we won’t consider those for now.

A player making a small bet with a strong hand is similar to a non-aggressor slowplaying a strong hand; this player does not want to set up any obstacles to getting action. For example, a player raises pre-flop with 99 and gets one caller. The flop comes K95 rainbow. The pre-flop raiser makes a standard continuation-bet. Most players in this situation have an instinct to stay silent before and after making this bet. He doesn’t want to “scare off” his opponent.

A major factor in this general tendency is that the pot is still small. Because there is not yet a decent-sized pot, the player is genuinely anxious that he will not get action. It would be a “waste” of a huge hand if his opponent folded for one small continuation-bet. When pots become larger, different motivations can take over. (For example, a player with the nuts making a big bet on the river might goad his opponent a bit; because the pot is already significant, he is not as anxious about building the pot. He may talk due to genuinely being relaxed or because he thinks it may help him get a call.)

Similar to non-aggressors, hands that are more towards the medium-strength range will not result in behavior that is very meaningful. For example, let’s say a player makes a continuation-bet with A9 on a flop of AQ8; this player could easily talk or not talk. He doesn’t have a strong feeling about getting called; his hand strength is not well-defined at this point. He doesn’t much care if he gets called or doesn’t get called.

What meaningful conclusions can we draw from these overall tendencies? The main practical conclusion is:

  • If a player making a small bet (when the pot is also small) talks, it is unlikely that the player has a strong hand. This is especially true for statements that seem to present an obstacle to opponent action. 

Talking equals weakness?
The tendencies discussed so far are the main reasons why you can sometimes hear experienced players say that talking during a hand equals weakness. Here are a couple references to this:

  • In High Stakes Poker, Season 4, Phil Hellmuth 3-bets with pocket nines and talks a bit. Then he says, “I’m talking, and when I talk, they usually put me on a weaker hand. So I’m talking, so the rest of the table, instantly they put me on a weaker hand. Right?”
  • Later in that same game, Hellmuth says, “I talk half the time when I have a strong hand.” Bob Safai asks, “Didn’t you say that, earlier? That when they talk, that’s part of a tell?” Hellmuth responds: “Everybody thinks people are weak when they talk. Everybody.”

These Hellmuth quotes are not meant to prove anything. (There is admittedly the possibility that Hellmuth is “leveling” his opponents and the viewing audience and that he actually doesn’t believe what he is saying.) But these Hellmuth quotes are similar to other things I’ve heard experienced poker players sometimes talk about over the years.

This concept, however, goes against the well-known concept of the “speech” being correlated with a strong hand. (I will discuss that concept in a little bit.)

I would argue that the concept that “talking means weakness” applies primarily early in a hand, when the pot is small. The main reason for this is for the reasons discussed; players with strong hands, when the pot is small, have the following tendencies:

  • They are focused on thinking about their hand and the best way to play it.
  • They don’t want to say anything that might present an obstacle to their opponents giving action.

A few examples of how these tendencies often play out early in a hand:

  • A player calls with 99 on a flop of A87, while talking jovially the whole time about something unrelated to the hand. He’s decided he’s going to see what happens on the turn; either fold to another bet or either bet or fold if checked to. He has no real reason to be quiet on the flop and doesn’t mind talking because he doesn’t believe it affects anything.
  • This player might act the same way continuation-betting his 99 on an A87 flop; he knows he’s going to continuation-bet, his hand is decent (neither strong nor weak), and he doesn’t have to think much about the situation.
  • Compare this to a player who has flopped a set on the flop, whether he’s the aggressor or a non-aggressor; this player suddenly becomes very focused on the hand. He knows he should think hard about the situation and figure out how to best play the hand. He doesn’t want to put verbally discourage his opponent. Because he knows he is in this hand for the long-term, he also is mentally occupied with thinking about the best way to play the hand; he is less likely to talk in a relaxed way.

Now we will look at bigger-bet situations where the general motivations seem to change a bit from small pot situations.

Behavior from players making significant bets on the river
Now let’s look at players making large bets. Let’s look first at the most significant spot where a bettor’s behavior is likely to be meaningful: a large river bet. How does the behavior of a player making a large river bet differ from the behavior of non-aggressors and the behavior of players making small bets?

On the river, a player’s hand strength is much more well-defined than on earlier streets. There are no semi-bluffs to be made. A player who makes a big bet on the river almost always knows whether he is bluffing or value-betting. This player almost always knows whether he wants a call or doesn’t want a call. (Contrast this to pre-flop bets; most pre-flop hands have undefined hand strength. With most hands they raise pre-flop, players will feel genuinely ambivalent about whether they are called or not. This applies even to many large bets and raises pre-flop.)

With this polarization in hand strength comes a polarization in emotion. A player making a big bet on the river with a strong hand is more relaxed while a player making a big bluff is more anxious.

A player making a big bluff generally does not want to be scrutinized; anything a bluffer says will be studied by an opponent. Bluffers generally want to “hide” until their opponent either calls or goes away. It will generally only be experienced players, or verbally tricky players, who are willing and able to talk when making a big bluff.

On the other hand, a player making a big river bet with a strong hand will not have this same fear about being observed. There’s nothing an opponent can do to cause him to lose the pot (or so he believes). This player might talk just due to being relaxed and carefree, or he might get creative and talk to try to induce a call.

One common example of how these tendencies play out is the player who makes a big river bet and talks in a goading way to an opponent. For example, a player bets $400 into a $500 pot and then says, “I knew you were weak. I knew you didn’t have anything.” He has decided to try to goad his opponent into calling: this might either be from pure relaxation and not caring as much about his own behavior, or it might be because he enjoys taunting his opponent when in a position of power, or it might be because he thinks his talking is more likely to gain a call.

The “speech” accompanying large bets generally means strength
Earlier I said that players with strong hands, when the pot is small or when they are the non-aggressors, are likely to be quiet. Then why do I now claim that most significant-bet talking will come from players with strong hands?  

The main reason for this change in behavior is the size of the pot. When a player with a strong hand makes a large bet on the river, the pot is almost always a good size. Even though this player may have had an instinct to be silent in the early stages of the pot, when he was anxious that he wouldn’t get action, that part of his anxiety is over; he has built a decent-sized pot and “knows” he is going to win it.

Also, as the pot and the expected bet-sizes grow larger, and as hand strength becomes more defined, the tendency of bluffers to remain silent overtakes the tendency of players with strong hands to remain silent. Keep in mind that we are talking about the large trends of the entire poker population as a whole; this isn’t necessarily pointing out the specific tendency of a single person (although it often will also be a player-specific tendency).

Another way to paraphrase these ideas is:

  • The large majority of talking heard from players making big river bets is heard from players with strong hands.
  • The large majority of talking heard from non-aggressors or players making small bets is heard from players with weak and medium-strength hands.

The “speech” is a well-known concept amongst poker players; this is when a player talks either before or after making a significant bet. For example, a player says, “How much did you make it? Only $50? Okay, I’ll go $200.” A “speech”, especially one related to the hand or the bet itself, is generally associated with a good hand.

The difference in pot-size is how these two opposite concepts about player talkativeness can be reconciled.

Manipulative language is more likely to be meaningful
Manipulative verbal behavior is more likely to be meaningful than other types of verbal behavior. Most of the tendencies talked about thus far will apply to all types of verbal behavior but will apply especially to manipulative verbal behavior.

Manipulative talk is talk that seems intended to influence an opponent’s decision. For example, a player says, “Be careful” as the pre-flop raiser considers a continuation-bet. This is a manipulative statement in some way. Is this player genuinely saying this defensively? Or is he saying this with a strong hand as a trick? We don’t know; but the point is that it seems intended to have some sort of influence on an opponent’s action.

Almost any statement a player makes about his own hand-strength or his opponent’s hand strength is likely to be manipulative. This is the main way we can define manipulative verbal behavior. For example, a non-aggressor says, on the river, “Don’t bet, I can’t call.” He is making a statement about his own hand strength and his statement seems intended to have some sort of reaction (whatever it is). For another example, a player makes a big bet on the river and says, “I don’t think you have anything.” He is making a statement about his opponent’s hand strength, so this is a manipulative statement.

More social and irrelevant chatter will still be subject to the tendencies mentioned, but the correlation will not be nearly as strong. For example, a player makes a big bet on the river and then looks at the TV and says, “What’s the score?” Or the player bets and says, “That was an interesting card.” Neither of these statements can be clearly seen as manipulative; neither of them could be said to relate in any way to the hand strength of the speaker or his opponent. For this reason, this kind of talk will be less meaningful overall.

But keep in mind that there can still be a lot of meaning in non-manipulative, more casual language. For example, a player makes a big river bet and then proceeds to try to ask his opponent about his job and where he lives; this player’s verbal behavior will still be likely to be meaningful for the reasons discussed, but it will be less meaningful than if the bettor were, for example, talking to the opponent about his hand.

Large bets on earlier streets: pre-flop
Large bets on the river are the most likely situation to see meaningful behavioral tendencies. Large bets on earlier streets can be meaningful but are less likely to be.

Let’s look at pre-flop situations first.

Most hands pre-flop are not well-defined. Most players, even with many of the strongest pre-flop hands, don’t have a strong feeling either way about opponents folding or calling. Even a hand as strong as JJ is not that far ahead of many hands that are likely to give it significant action. A hand like AKs, even though it is a top tier hand, is basically even-money against a low pair. The few hands that all players love action with are AA, KK, and maybe QQ. All other hands, no matter how strong, are still mainly defined on the flop.

Because hand strength is so undefined pre-flop, there is seldom much valuable information to be gained from a player’s behavior. This is especially true for small bets (because all small bets are less likely to result in meaningful behavior), but it is even true for large bets. Large bets will be more likely to result in meaningful behavior, but it will still be much less meaningful than a similar-sized bet on the river.

For example, a player 3-bet shoving with AK in a tournament is easily capable of wanting a call or wanting a fold. He is happy taking the pot down but knows he is most-likely even-money even in a worst-case scenario. He could easily talk or easily be silent; he is genuinely ambivalent.

This is true for most hands in a pre-flop raisers range, even for large bets. For example, that same player could be 3-bet shoving with 22. He could easily feel that he is in a coin-flip situation and genuinely be relaxed and willing to either talk or be silent.

There is still a tendency for players making large pre-flop bluffs to be more silent than players with strong hands. And there is still a tendency for players making large pre-flop bets and raises with AA and KK to be more relaxed and thus more likely to talk. For example, a tournament player 5-bet shoving with 46o will still usually be anxious and not likely to talk; whereas if he had KK, he would be more likely to be relaxed, with a greater chance of him “opening up” and talking. But due to most hand ranges being quite undefined, these tendencies are not nearly as meaningful and don’t lead nearly as often to practical conclusions.

One way a polarization in hand strength can occur pre-flop, though, is when there are multiple raises. The greater amount of action there is pre-flop, the more likely the behavior will be meaningful. For example, a player who 6-bets all-in pre-flop in a tournament will usually have a polarized range; he will either have a huge hand or be bluffing. He will either usually want a call or want a fold. Conversely, a player who has 3-bet pre-flop could be doing that with a wide range; the situation has not yet become significant.

Large bets on the flop and turn
For reasons discussed, large pre-flop bets and raises are unlikely to yield valuable, actionable information. Large river bets are the most likely situation to find meaningful information. In between are the flop and turn. The more hand strength becomes defined throughout a hand, the more likely we are to find practical polarizing tendencies.

The flop defines a player’s hand strength a lot, but it also creates new draws. Tendencies will be more pronounced than pre-flop, but not much more. For example, a player can easily feel relaxed making a large bet or raise with a very good draw; his hand strength is not well-defined yet. Conversely, a player with an overpair on a board with lots of possibilities has no real idea yet where his hand ranks; his hand strength is also relatively undefined.

The turn cuts down lots of draw possibilities. A player betting a draw in this situation will no longer be as comfortable. As we’d expect, large bets on the turn are more likely to yield meaningful behavioral than those on the flop but are not as likely to be meaningful as large bets on the river. 

These are general “baseline” behavioral tendencies
It is worth remembering that all of the tendencies discussed so far are general tendencies. They will not always be player-specific tendencies. They are meant to describe an overall tendency of the population, most of which are recreational players. They are meant to give a behavioral baseline for examining specific and complex real-world behaviors. Understanding what is “normal” verbal behavior for an average poker player will better allow you to understand deviations from the baseline and better figure out what may be player-specific tendencies.

These tendencies discussed so far will underlie many of the specific verbal patterns I will discuss in this book. When I analyze behavior from real poker hands in the coming pages, it will be with an eye towards either confirming how that behavior adheres to these general patterns, or trying to figure out how and why it differs from these general patterns.

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