The following is a guest blog post from Jonathan Little. Little is a two-time WPT champion with over $5,000,000 in career earnings. He is the owner of the training site FloatTheTurn.com and is the author of numerous best-selling poker books. You can follow him on twitter @JonathanLittle. Jonathan is running a series of live seminars during the 2014 WSOP with poker tells author Zachary Elwood. Check out FloatTheTurn.com/seminar for info.
Whenever I am in the middle of any sort of reasonable downswing, I make a point to study the technical aspects of the game as much as possible while also seeing if anything else is going wrong with my game. Around a year ago, I was down around $400,000 from my highest career profit peak. While this sort of downswing should be expected when playing $10,000 tournaments on a regular basis, I was not particularly happy about it. I made a point to brush up on some of the fundamentals (I suppose it is worth mentioning that “fundamentals” for me likely means something totally different than what it means for the vast majority of players) and decided to start working on actively paying attention to physical tells at the table. I made a point to study my opponents diligently but eventually I lost interest when nothing really came of it.
I recently did a webinar with Phil Hellmuth, who simply must be one of the best readers of tells. He seems to instinctively know how to react to the tells as well as how to sway his opponents into doing what he wants them to do. In our webinar, he discussed using physical reads to his advantage when winning the 2012 WSOPE. This got me thinking a bit more about physical tells. I knew I was going to run a series of live seminars during the WSOP and I wanted to find a tells expert to present with me, mainly so I could learn from him. I had read the book “Reading Poker Tells” by Zach Elwood and I was confident he was the man for the job. (Zach also just finished work on his new book Verbal Poker Tells.)
Everything came together and I recently did my first seminar with Zach and Elliot Roe, a hypnotherapist who works with numerous high stakes poker players to essentially keep them sane both at and away from the table. Take it from me, staying sane is DIFFICULT. Anyways, I made a point to learn as much as possible from both Zach’s and Elliot’s presentations. I am still, and will always remain, a student at heart. (For more information on Zach’s poker tells presentation, read this interview with PokerNews.)
The next day, I was set to play a $1,500 WSOP event. While all tournaments are important to me, in the grand scheme of things, a $1,500 event isn’t too relevant. I decided to approach that tournament with one goal in mind. I was going to find and exploit a physical tell. The first part of my problem of having a difficult time finding tells is that I have constantly struggled with actively paying attention at the poker table. I have no problem following the action but quite often, I will “wake up” at the end of a hand and have no clue what happened. Other times, I will watch a person without actively quantifying in my head what I am seeing. This also leads to poor results. I have found that when I vocalize in my head what I am seeing at the table, I both spot more differences in my opponents’ physical mannerisms and I remember them better.
On this particular day, I was playing with two players who I perceived as “excellent” and one player who was blatantly bad in an overly aggressive way. I decided to spend most of my conscious mental energy finding tells on each of them. Against one of the good players, who I knew to be fairly loose and aggressive from playing with him in the past, I noticed he typically threw out his bets like this:
I will call this Figure” A”. After around an hour of play, I noticed him throw his chips in like this:
I will call this “Figure B”. While I was not sure what the difference meant, it likely meant something. A little while later, his chips went in the pot again in the Figure B manner and he showed up with AA. This, of course, led me to believe that Figure B betting was likely a premium hand. I decided to test this out by reraising him as soon as he put out a Figure A bet, which happened an orbit later. His snap fold to my reraise provided me infinite giddiness.
Over the next few hours, I witnessed him display this same chip pattern over and over. Finally, when everyone got short stacked, which is guaranteed to happen in fast-structured small buy-in WSOP events, a loose, aggressive kid raised to 2 big blinds from middle position and the guy who I had the tell on reraised Figure B style to 5 big blinds from middle position. I looked down at my cards and found the beautiful Ah-Qh, which is normally a premium hand, given I only had 15 big blinds. Without much thought, my Ah-Qh quickly found a home in the muck pile. Luckily my read was justified when both players got all-in, with the guy who was “obviously strong” in my mind scooping a nice pot with K-K. Paying attention at the table and studying from Zach just saved me around $1,500 in equity, which is WAY more than the $499 cost of the seminar. I fully expect to see returns much larger than that in the long run.
Since that day, I have been making a point to focus on tells with a decent amount of success. I recently cashed for around $14,000 in the $5,000 WSOP PLO event thanks to making a few (what were hopefully correct) big folds and one hugely optimistic call for a ton of chips with a marginal made hand on the river when I was correctly confident that my opponent had a hand he thought was weak. Despite these successes, I still have a major problem focusing. I have found these three tips help me pay attention to the actions that matters:
1. Keep my phone in my pocket. Although I have a ton of business things going on at all hours of the day, I must keep my phone in my pocket when I am at the poker table. The real world can wait. If you are constantly on your phone, watching TV or reading a book, you are guaranteed to miss important action.
2. Silence the music. I have a difficult time keeping my eyes turned on while I am listening to music. When listen to podcasts or audio books, I might as well have my eyes closed. It is amazing how, at least for me, using my ears turns off my eyes to some degree. The music also makes it difficult for me to actively quantify what to do with the information I observe.
3. Stay still. I have found that when I shuffle my chips, my brain turns off. Although shuffling chips is strongly ingrained in me as something “I always do” at the poker table, I have been making a point to stop. So far, when I am using my mind to watch the poker instead of play with my chips, I pick up more reads.
All of this is to say that the information Zach gives is invaluable. I am excited to continue learning from him and applying what he teaches. While I can’t read people as well as Phil Hellmuth yet, with diligent practice, I hope to get as good as him some day.
For more information about the seminars I am running with Zach, check out FloatTheTurn.com/seminar