Poker trip to Los Angeles, observing verbal behavior

I spent a week in L.A. at the end of February, playing poker and appearing in a couple episodes of the live-streaming poker show Live at the Bike. I played primarily $5-5 and $5-10 NLHE cash games. I haven’t played much at all in the last few years, so it was an interesting and educational trip, getting back into playing all the time and seeing how people were playing at these stakes.

I’d also never played in Los Angeles at all. I’d played for a week once in San Francisco but had never been to the most famous California cardrooms: the Bicycle Casino and the Commerce Casino.

During the time I was there, the LAPC (Los Angeles Poker Classic) was going on, so the games were much better than usual, because the LAPC attracted a lot of amateur action. I kind of wish I’d gone at a different, more normal time, because I was really curious what the L.A. games were like at a more normal time.

Because I’m in the process of finalizing my book on verbal tells, I took a lot of notes on any interesting verbal behavior people had when I played. One of the reasons for taking a trip down there was to see if a lot of the stuff I’ve written in my book over the last few months held up pretty well in practice. The following hands are a few of the more interesting spots where people said something that seemed to give valuable information about their hands. (I have a few more and might write a second post.) Remember that these patterns will mainly be useful for players you’ve already pegged as recreational and “non-tricky”. (Also, if you plan on going to L.A. to play poker, I recommend AirBNB for renting some fairly cheap rooms, as long as you don’t mind sharing a space with roommates. I found a place a few minutes from the Bike and Commerce.)

$5-5 NLHE cash game at the Bike Casino, stacks around $1,000
The pre-flop raiser bets $56 on a flop of 7h 9h Qc. His lone opponent laughs a bit and says “Fifty six?” 

Expressing any verbal surprise, especially laughter, on early streets, when the pot is small, is generally a sign of weakness. This is simply because players who flop big hands tends to instinctually be silent and to be more intently focused on the situation. If this player had a set, or KK or AA, or even AQ, he’d a) be more likely to be silent to not dissuade more action, b) tend to want to focus on the situation because they know they are most likely continuing far into the hand. 

Players with weak hands have neither of these instincts or urges; this is why so much of verbal behavior on the early streets comes from players with weak hands. (This is less true when the pot grows bigger and the action is almost over; players making big bets with big hands will be more relaxed and show more verbal variety in general. This is because the pot is big and because the hand is nearly over; there is less reason to be focused on the best way to play the hand or to maximize value.)

Results: This player called the flop bet and then folded to another bet on a blank turn. If I was the pre-flop raiser, I’d feel very good about betting into this guy again with nothing.

$5-5 NLHE cash game at the Bike, stacks around $1,000
On a river board of 5c 7d 3h 8h 8s, the aggressor in the hand bets $200. A very crazy woman was his opponent; she’d been talking a lot in previous hands. She raised $350 more and said, “If you got the full house, you deserve it. I’m all in! If you got the full house, you got it, nothing I can do.” 

I felt she was being very truthful about implying she had a strong hand and only being afraid of a full house. She’d shown evidence of being truthful in past hands with her talk. Here, her talk was probably due to having a strong hand and being somewhat relaxed and letting off some steam in the event she did get snap-called by a full house. If she were weak in any way, she’d be unlikely to make a “weak-hand statement”. Implying she can’t beat a full house is essentially weakening her hand range, this is something that bluffing players basically never want to do.

Results: The man called her raise and she had 6-9, for the turned straight.

$5-5 NLHE cash game at Commerce, stacks around $500
The flop is 4h 4s Js in a 4-way pot. The pre-flop raiser bets $70, another player calls, and a third player goes all-in for a big overbet of his entire $500 stack. This all-in player was very recreational and very fishy; one of the worst players I’d seen in my time in L.A.

Immediately after shoving, the all-in player stands up and says loudly, “Whoo-hoo! Pay me!”

Most recreational players are very unlikely to show strange behavior like this when making a significant bet unless they are very strong. Also, the “pay me” statement is a goading statement; goading statements are also highly correlated to strong hands.

Results: The other two players fold. He shows a 5s. But I was friendly with the player and got him to tell me privately, before he left the table, that his other card was a 4. He told me he “didn’t want to see any more cards.” (Considering the situation and his skill level, I think it’s very unlikely he was lying to me.)

$5-5 NLHE cash game at Commerce, stacks around $500
In a four-way raised pot, the flop is 999. The pre-flop raiser is second-to-act and checks. As the player last-to-act is distracted by a server, the pre-flop raiser says “Check, check, everybody checked, come on.”

Impatient statements like these are usually from players without hands who want to hurry the action along and get to the next hand. The more statements like these can be seen as obstacles to action, the more likely it is that the speaker does not have a hand. This will especially be true for recreational players. In this case, the last-to-act player had only been distracted for a few seconds, not a long enough time for anyone to truly become irritated. Also, the speaker’s statement that “everyone checked” seems to desire a check.

If the pre-flop raiser had AA or KK or a 9 in this situation, he would be unlikely to express impatience or to say something that would make an opponent less likely to bet. Players with huge hands in this spot would have an instinct to not do anything to dissuade action.

Results: The speaker folded to a bet on the turn.

$5-5 NLHE cash game at the Bike, around $1,000 stacks
The pre-flop raiser bets $30 on a flop of A-Q-8 rainbow. His lone opponent raises him to $90.

The pre-flop raiser immediately asks, “How much is that?” He then calls rather quickly. 

When a recreational player is bet into or raised and immediately asks, “How much is that?” he usually holds a good but not great hand. His immediate (often irritated) question “How much is that?” is a release of genuine frustration because he knows he is likely continuing in the hand but also knows that there is a very good chance he is behind.

If this player had flopped a set or two pair, he would not be likely to show this pattern. He would be more likely to instinctually be silent while he thinks about the best way to play the hand. (This goes along with the general pattern of players with weaker hands talking more on early streets, when pots are small.)

Also, a player with weaker hands (like second pair) would also be unlikely show this pattern because he knows there is a good chance he is folding, even if he does end up continuing in the hand. The quick response in this pattern is the clue that they have something decent. Sometimes, depending on board texture, this could be a strong draw.

Results: This player had AJo. Any sort of AK, AJ, AT hand would fit this pattern on this board. 

$5-5 Pot-Limit Omaha at the Bicycle Casino, stacks around $1,500
I played a little PLO with pro-poker player Limon (click here for a post I wrote about Limon and his 2+2 poker thread), just to mainly watch for a little bit, since I don’t know the game.

Limon was the aggressor throughout this hand. On a river board of AK7QA, Limon’s lone opponent says, “Interesting card” right after the river arrives and before Limon acts.

These kinds of statements are usually said defensively. This is mainly because players with strong hands are unlikely to say anything to present an obstacle to action. Most waiting-for-action statements fit this pattern; the main exception are for verbally tricky/talkative players who like to switch up these patterns. But for most recreational, non-talkative players this will usually be said defensively.

Results: Limon bets $200 into the $250 pot and his opponent shows 77 and folds.

I asked Limon afterwards what he thought about that guy’s statement. Limon said “Yeah, he’s never calling a bet when he says that.” 

$5-5 NLHE cash game at the Bike, $1,000 average stacks
The pre-flop raiser bets $40 on a flop of A-A-T in a four-way pot. As he bets, he exclaims “Jackpot coming up!” He is referring to the bad beat jackpot, which at the Bike is aces-full-of-tens getting beaten.

It is very unlikely this player has a big hand when he says this. A player with AT or AK, or even AQ, in this situation, would be unlikely to draw attention to the fact that these hands are possible. This fits with the general pattern of players drawing attention to the board being unlikely to have strong hands. It also fits the general pattern of talking when the pot is small generally indicating weakness/defensiveness.

Results: The bettor gets one caller behind him and folds to a turn bet. 

$5-5 NLHE cash game at Commerce, stacks around $700
I raise with A2o and get one caller. I bet $35 on a K-6-3 rainbow flop and he calls.

The turn is an A. I bet $50. The player says “I just call. I’m a generous soul.”

This player is recreational and this statement will almost always be a defensive one made with some sort of made-but-vulnerable hand. It is a misdirection; a statement made to attempt to distract attention away from the real reasons for an action. In this case, he is implying that he could raise but chooses to just call. 

A player with a draw is also unlikely to make this kind of statement. This is because this statement is intended to slow me down on the river. But a player with a draw will either be folding or raising me on the river; if he hits his hand, he doesn’t want to discourage a bet.

On this board, I can feel very comfortable ruling out draws, sets, and two-pair. His most likely hand, because he called the flop, is a king.

Results: The river is a 7, which would normally make me a bit wary because he could have been drawing with 4-5. But in this case his statement made me quite certain he had a king so I felt good making a small value-bet of $50 into the $200 pot. He makes a crying call with KJ.

$5-10 NLHE at Commerce, stacks around $1,500
I raise pre-flop with KQ and get one caller. He checks dark, which I don’t notice.

The flop is T-J-6. After a few seconds, I ask whose action it is and he says, “I already checked before the flop.” 

These kinds of small clarifications will often clue you into a player’s strength. In this case, the player is clarifying that he checked before the flop. Why is this important? If this player had flopped a very strong hand, like a set or top two, he’d be unlikely to emphasize that his check (a sign of weakness) came before he knew what cards were out. If he was very strong, he’d be more likely to just be quiet or just say “I already checked.”

The opposite pattern is more common and probably more understandable; a recreational player bets dark pre-flop and hits his hand huge on the flop. When given a chance, he emphasizes to his opponent that “I bet dark! I bet dark!” He is indirectly implying “I bet dark, so I could have anything; no reason to respect my bet.” 

Players usually want to draw attention to things that would indicate the opposite of their hand strength. In this case, this player drawing attention to the fact that he checked before the flop would seem to imply strength; it is essentially saying “I checked before the flop even came, so watch out, I could have anything.”

This is admittedly subtle and are not a very strong pattern. But these small things do make me feel more comfortable continuing a bluff when I otherwise wouldn’t. 

Results: I bet the flop and he calls. With his statement and dark check, I think a small pocket pair is likely. The turn is a blank and I bet again. He folds. 

$5-10 NLHE cash game at Commerce, $250 effective stacks
A weird, quirky kid is my opponent in this hand. He’s pretty bad and already lost about a grand playing pretty bad in the last hour. He’s only got $240 at this point.

I raise to $35 from middle position with AJo. He calls in the big blind.

The flop is 6-6-3 rainbow. He checks and I check behind.

The turn is a 5. He bets $40. I look to clarify the bet and he’s real keen to immediately tell me “It’s 40.” (Small pattern but this fits in with players with weak hands in early situations being more vocal.) I call.

The river is a 7, putting a gut-shot four-straight on the board. He fairly quickly shoves his remaining $170 or so in the pot.

I say, “You got the four, huh?” He nods very slightly, almost imperceptibly.

If he had a full house or a straight in this situation, this player would almost certainly not want to dissuade action. (This is a much more certain pattern on the river than it is on previous streets when recreational players will often not mind telling opponents about their strong hands because they don’t want to face tough decisions later.) Because his communication was subtle, it was also more likely to be a first-level, strong-means-weak deception. I would feel less confident of this read if he had said something like “I got you. I dare you to call. I’ve got the straight.” Because those kinds of statements are often truthful, goading statements. But the fact that his behavior was subtly implying strength, I was more likely to believe that it was an attempt on his part to actually represent strength.

Results: I call and he shows A9o, for ace-high.

Obviously, from a fundamental perspective, he has very few 4s in his range from his call pre-flop so I probably call anyway. But his behavior was still interesting and could have been important in a bigger pot.

$5-10 NLHE cash game at the Commerce, $1,000 stacks
A recreational older player in a four-way pot bets $70 into a $100 pot on a 2d 8s 7s flop, leading into the pre-flop raiser. As he says “Seventy”, he lets out a big, loose exhalation of air.

Loose exhalations coming from bettors are generally indicators of relaxation and big hands. Bluffers or players betting vulnerable hands are more likely to be anxious and to restrain their breathing. I always listen for loose exhalations coming from bettors.

Results: The player gets two callers and follows up with a $300 bet on an A turn. The two players fold and the bettor shows 88, for a flopped set. 

Update: Verbal Poker Tells is now available on Barnes and Noble and other online book sellers. The ebook is only available for sale on this site.

  • Alex

    Very good post. Short, precise, intelligent and most importantly quite useful conclusions.

  • tony

    really? i often make statements like this with a total bluff–to make people think im strong.

    If she were weak in any way, she’d be unlikely to make a “weak-hand statement”. Implying she can’t beat a full house is essentially weakening her hand range, this is something that bluffing players basically never want to do.

  • tony

    well written article though–i studied it well and reread it thru more than once–why not come to the nugget tomorrow night at 7pm when all my friends will be there and introduce urself?