It’s World Series of Poker time, and I know many people are making the trek to Vegas right now or very soon. I thought I’d throw together a few fun hands from the WSOP that feature some generally reliable poker tells. In this email, I’ve got the following hand histories. These are all taken from my new Exploiting Poker Tells book (ebook available here, paperback available on Amazon).
- Will Kassouf’s verbal tells in 2016 WSOP ME
- Double-checking hole cards from 2015 WSOP ME
- Chip-flipping and bet-hesitation in 2011 WSOP ME
- Jamie Gold’s defensive “I’m gonna turn over my hand” tell from 2006 WSOP ME
Want to occasionally receive this kind of content via email? Sign up for my free 5-part email course and you’ll be put on my email list.
Will Kassouf’s speech play in 2016 WSOP Main Event
In the 2016 WSOP Main Event, William Kassouf received a lot of coverage for his frequent during-hand chatter. Some people found his “speech play” (as they like to call it in Europe) annoying and rude; some people thought it was fun and made the coverage more watchable. This was reminiscent of Jamie Gold’s talkative performance in 2006, with the same polarized opinions.
I found a good amount of reliable patterns in Kassouf’s talk. And these are also patterns that are common amongst amateur players, so they’re worth understanding.
First, let’s look at Kassouf’s general modus operandi. Kassouf liked to ramble verbally in many spots and most of this patter was made up of strong-hand statements. Here are some examples, which Kassouf repeated in various iterations many times:
- “I think I’m ahead.”
- “Get my money in good, that’s all I can do.”
- “I’m not bluffing.”
- “I’ve got a legitimate hand this time.”
Strong-hand statements are hard to interpret because players with both strong hands and weak hands are capable of making strong-hand statements. Bluffers understandably want to imply strength about their hand. But players betting strong hands are sometimes just very relaxed and don’t mind implying strength about their hand (and sometimes they’re purposefully trying to “level” an opponent to induce a suspicious call).
It makes sense that Kassouf’s patter, and most talkative player’s patter in general, consists mostly of strong-hand statements. Most hands played by the average, decently-aggressive player are not that strong. There are a lot of weak and medium-strength hands. So, in most spots, these players are happy taking the pot down pre-flop or on the flop. And it’s even more true in the WSOP Main Event, where tournament life has additional meta-value due to media attention and exposure. Strong-hand statements discourage action more than weak-hand statements do, so it makes sense they would be instinctually chosen for general verbal “filler” purposes.
Another reason strong-hand statements are chosen for such general during-hand talking is that they do have actual defensive value. This is because people don’t like to be fooled. People don’t like to be told by an opponent “I’ve got a strong hand,” ignore that warning, and then be shown a strong hand.
For example, when a player like Kassouf three-bets you and tells you, “I’ve got a big hand now, big hand,” even if you know such chatter from him is generally meaningless and balanced, you’d hate to shove and have him actually show down a big hand. The verbal aspect adds a little extra drama to the situation. For many players, the situation will sting more when it feels like they’ve been tricked. These things affect recreational players more than skilled players, of course, but taken as a whole, these kinds of statements do slow players down more than you’d think.
Knowing that Kassouf’s general chatter consists of many strong-hand statements, and that these can be present with both weak hands and strong hands, my analysis consisted of studying his weak-hand statements. As you probably know by now, weak-hand statements accompanying bets are highly correlated with strong hands. This pattern held up quite well for Kassouf: when he bet and his speech contained weak-hand statements, he would usually have a strong hand. And the more weak-hand statements he made, the more likely it became that he really did have a strong hand.
There were quite a few hands featuring Kassouf in that event, but we’ll look at only a couple here: a value-bet and a bluff.
The straight flush
In this hand, Kassouf turned a straight flush versus a player named Stacy Matuson. Kassouf had 9♥ 6♥ on a turn board of A♦ 8♥ 7♥ 5♥. Matuson had A♠ Q♠.
Kassouf checked the turn and Matuson bet 225K into a pot of 640K. Kassouf shoved for Matuson’s remaining 925K. He talked a lot before he raised and after. Here are a few of the weak-hand statements he made, along with comments:
- “You going to keep bluffing me?” Kassouf says this before he shoves. By implying that he thinks his opponent might be bluffing, Kassouf weakens his perceived range. If you believe your opponent is bluffing, you don’t need a strong hand to shove with.
- “I can’t call. There’s only one million in the pot you only have six or seven [hundred thousand] behind.” Kassouf says this as an apparent explanation for why he’d shove instead of calling. (Matuson informs him she actually has 900,000 behind.) When players make excuses for their actions, it will usually be a misdirection, directing attention away from the true reasons for the decision.
- “I know what she has, anyway: she’s got top pair with a heart draw.” Kassouf says this after shoving and talking to Matuson for a while. In this context, a single pair seems pretty weak on a three-flush board. Stating that an opponent has a weak hand is a goading behavior. It also, after a bet, implies comfort with the situation.
- “You playing to ladder up or you playing to win? I’m playing to win so I play for it all.” This is both goading and a weak-hand statement. Kassouf is reminding Matuson that in a tournament you have to be willing to take chances to win. And he’s implying that he’s willing to take chances, to put in his money in questionable spots, in order to try to win.
- “You’re probably ahead.” Kassouf says this a couple times. It’s rare for a bluffer to make such direct weak-hand statements like this.
- “You want to gamble, young lady? Yes or no?” He asks this before shoving. While a bit ambiguous, it seems to imply that he thinks the winner could easily be either one of them. It implies that Matuson has a shot at winning, and this weakens Kassouf’s range. This was one of two hands I saw where Kassouf used a phrase like “Let’s gamble” when betting or raising; the other one was when he three-bet pre-flop with pocket aces. In this hand he says the word gamble more than fourteen times.
“Nine-high like a boss” bluff
In this hand, Kassouf bluffs the river versus the same player, Stacy Matuson. He has 9♥ 6♣ and the river board is 5♦ 3♥ 2♣ 8♥ T♠. Matuson has Q♠ Q♦.
Kassouf talks a good amount here. His speech contains strong-hand statements and neutral statements. There are no clear weak-hand statements, like there were in the previous hand.
His speech includes these statements:
- “There’s over 600K in there, so I want you to call.” A very direct strong-hand statement.
- “If you fold, I’ll show, but I want you to call 100 percent.” Another very direct strong-hand statement.
- “Don’t want to bust out with the whole camera crew watching. That will be embarrassing.” In the previous hand, Kassouf said you “have to gamble to win” a tournament, whereas here he is drawing attention to the negative aspect of taking a chance and losing.
- “You don’t put me on this hand, I’ll tell you.” A bit ambiguous, but indirectly implies strength.
- “I’m not trying to bust you.” He says something similar several times. This is a conciliatory statement. Often bluffers, if they’re motivated to talk, will do so but in friendly, conciliatory ways. Conciliatory behavior is basically the opposite of goading behavior; it is aimed at reducing conflict and agitation.
These two hands are representative of Kassouf’s patterns, and of talkative player patterns in general:
- If his speech when betting contained weak-hand statements or goading statements, it was likely he had a strong hand. The more weak-hand statements there were, the more likely a strong hand became.
- If his speech had no weak-hand statements or goading statements—or almost none—it was likely he was bluffing.
What made Kassouf’s verbal tells so actionable was that his speeches contained multiple points of reference. If Kassouf had only said one or two hand-strength statements during these hands, it would be much harder to get a confident read. The main reason being that strong-hand statements can be said with both strong hands and weak hands, so one or two strong-hand statements wouldn’t contain much information.
But multiple clues can add up to paint a reliable picture. The more Kassouf spoke without making a weak-hand statement, the more likely it became that he was bluffing. The more weak-hand statements he made, the more likely it became that he had a strong hand.
This shows the downside of talking a lot during hands. It’s more difficult than most people realize to stay balanced and not have some sort of pattern show up when you are talking a lot, or engaging frequently in any unusual behavior.
If you’d like to learn more about Kassouf’s tells in that WSOP, do an online search for ‘Kassouf poker tells’ and you should find a PokerNews article I wrote that goes into more detail on these hands and a couple others. It also includes a video compilation.
Double-check of hole cards in 2015 WSOP ME
As with a lot of behaviors, when a person does something makes a big difference. A double-check immediately before a significant bet is much different than a double-check from a player who is waiting for the player in front of him to act.
A double-check that happens right before a bet makes it likely that the player is not bluffing. Double-checking hole cards can theoretically communicate uncertainty about one’s cards, and uncertainty is associated with weakness. Bluffers don’t want to accidentally convey weakness and make an opponent suspicious; for this reason bluffers are unlikely to double-check their cards right before a bluff.
If a player needed to actually double-check what his cards were, he would usually do so right before or after cards coming out; this is when players are generally paying less attention to opponents and why most genuine double-checks of hole cards happen at those times.
It’s worth emphasizing that we’re talking specifically about double-checks that happen immediately before a bet. Not double-checks that happen before checking. And not double-checks that happen before it’s a player’s turn to act.
Keep in mind a double-check doesn’t necessarily mean a very strong hand; it just makes a bluff unlikely. You will see it done a good amount with decent but not great hands.
In the 13th episode of the 2015 WSOP Main Event coverage, there were a couple notable hands where the same player double-checked his hole cards before a bet or raise. The player was Pierre Neuville, who went on to make the final table and get 7th place.
In one hand, Pierre Neuville raised with A♠ 2♣ and was called by Josh Beckley. The flop came K♥ 8♣ 4♠, and Beckley check-called Neuville’s continuation bet. The turn was the 2♥. Beckley checked and Neuville checked back. The river brought the 2♠, giving Neuville trips. Beckley bet and Neuville double-checked his cards before raising.
Later on in the same episode, Neuville got into a blind-vs-blind battle and four-bet from the SB with K♣ 6♣. On a flop of K♦ T♦ 7♠, Neuville double-checked his cards before betting. Again, the double-check before a bet won’t necessarily mean a very strong hand; it just makes a bluff unlikely.
Norman Chad mentioned the behavior, saying, “This is the second time tonight we’ve seen Pierre look back at his cards after hitting one of them to make sure he has what he has.”
In fairness to Neuville, it’s entirely possible that he is balanced with this behavior and the producers showed only the hands in which he did this when strong. But I think it’s more likely he was imbalanced.
Chip-flipping and bet-hesitation in the 2011 WSOP
During the heads-up finale of the 2011 WSOP Main Event, Martin Staszko was very stoic. His behavior was very consistent from hand to hand and he was, as far as I could tell, largely unreadable.
There was one hand, though, where his behavior made me very confident he had a strong hand.
Heinz raises to 3.4M and Staszko calls. The flop is A♦ 9♠ 3♦.
Staszko checks. Heinz bets 3.8M. Staszko calls.
The turn is the A♠. Staszko checks. Heinz bets 8.4M into 14.8M.
This is where it gets interesting. Staszko waits about 25 seconds, then starts gathering chips in front of him. He pulls over enough for a call, so it looks like he’s preparing to call. Then he pauses, looking back at Heinz several times, as if thinking. Then he starts to flip a chip, end over end, on top of his chip stack. He does a complete flip of the chip 14 times. Then he starts to gather chips again, this time pulling over more chips from his other stacks that were previously off to the side. He raises to 18.5M.
There are two interesting behaviors here:
- Flipping a chip before raising
- Pauses or hesitations before a bet/raise
Both of these behaviors will make strong hands more likely. Let’s look at each of them.
Flipping a chip is what some behavior analysts call a “gravity-defying” behavior. People who are relaxed tend to have more upward-directed movements that “defy gravity.” Examples of gravity-defying behaviors in everyday life include: raising eyebrows, raising arms in triumph, and bouncing legs up and down. People who are anxious are more restrained in their behavior and are unlikely to have these loose, upward motions.
When it comes to playing with chips, there will be a good amount of variety. Some players play with their chips a lot; you’ve probably played with players who riffle their chips constantly. For a lot of the more common and consistent behaviors, it will be hard to find a pattern.
Flipping a chip end over end, though, is an especially loose and playful behavior. When associated with a bet, I think it’s a generally reliable sign of relaxation, more so than the more common chip riffling. But I wouldn’t read too much into it unless I’d been able to watch a player for a while to see how it might be showing up. For example, if Staszko were constantly flipping chips before making bets or raises, it wouldn’t be likely to have any meaning.
But, as I’ve said, Staszko was very stoic. This was the first time in the match that I’d seen him play with his chips in such a way when associated with a bet or a raise. (He did sometimes flip chips in non-aggressor spots.) Because he had been so stoic and restrained in his behavior prior to this, his chip-flipping in this hand, followed by his raise, made it likely it was a small but reliable leak of relaxation with a strong hand. If he were bluffing or making a raise with a vulnerable hand, it’s unlikely he’d have this playful, gravity-defying behavior.
Let’s consider the pause in his chip-gathering.
Bluffers like to convey confidence and certainty. For this reason, they’re unlikely to have pauses and hesitations in their chip gathering. Players betting strong hands, conversely, can have a motivation to seem uncertain, which can lead to some hesitating behaviors. Also, players with strong hands may be considering the best bet-sizing, which can also lead to hesitating behaviors.
If Staszko were bluffing here, he wouldn’t want to—purposefully or accidentally—seem uncertain about whether to raise. If he were going to bluff, he’d just want to put the raise in all at one time in a neutral way. He wouldn’t want to potentially make Heinz suspicious by looking like he was going to call and then seeming to change his mind.
When I saw both of these behaviors from Staszko here, and knowing how stoic he’d been up to that point, I was very confident he had a strong hand.
Heinz didn’t have the same opinion, though. He called the raise with, as we learned after the hand, 7♣ 6♠, just 7 high, no draw.
On the river, Staszko bet 20M into 52M and Heinz folded. Staszko had A♣ 9♣, for the turned full house.
A defensive obstacle-to-a-call tell from Jamie Gold
2006 WSOP NLHE $10K Main Event, final table
On a river board of 8♥ 8♦ 3♦ 2♣ Q♠, Allen Cunningham checks with A♥ 9♦ and Jamie Gold quickly bluffs with his T♦ 7♦.
After a few seconds, Cunningham says, “You just might have a Queen. Can’t help it.”
Gold says, “You have a Queen?”
Cunningham shrugs and says, “Maybe.”
Gold says, “I’ll show you. I’ve been showing a lot of bluffs; I don’t mind showing.”
Cunningham: “I was thinking of calling it anyway.”
Gold says, “All right,” and grabs his cards as if ready to turn them over, but he doesn’t turn them over.
Cunningham: “Oh wait—I didn’t call yet.”
After a few more seconds, Cunningham does call.
In talking about the hand years later, Cunningham said: “He seemed to be telling the truth a lot. I was going to call anyway, but just for fun I thought I’d talk to him a bit, do a little dance…”
Referencing Gold’s reaching-for-cards behavior, Cunningham said, “They’re not gonna show you their hand if they have it; so that’s just a classic tell that means they’re bluffing.”
Best of luck in Vegas or wherever you’re playing.