The following is on a topic that people ask me about fairly frequently. Essentially: “Why do so many players, including many skilled players, try to verbally manipulate their opponents in ways that can seem so predictable?” Related to this is the question: “These players must perceive an advantage to this behavior/manipulation or they wouldn’t do it; what is the advantage they perceive?”
This was from a conversation I had with Daniel Turk on TwoPlusTwo.com poker forum. His question was as follows:
Your books deal primarily with interpreting tells for what they actually mean, which is great information to have obviously, but while I was reading Verbal Poker Tells and seeing examples from guys like Phil Hellmuth and Daniel Negreanu etc., I kept thinking, why are these guys employing well-known tells? Engaging in table talk and revealing information about their hands, etc.? They must believe it helps them manipulate their opponents, regardless of what the tell reveals about their hand strength.
It’s made me wonder about another psychological aspect of poker–manipulation of opponents. If speaking in a relaxed manner is associated with hand strength, for instance, why do professionals and experienced players do it? Are they just making mistakes? Because I’m guessing they must see some benefit to engaging in table talk and other manipulations.
I guess what I’m wondering is how often certain behaviors succeed in deceiving their opponents, irrespective of what the behaviors actually mean. So for instance, a bluffer acts strong by engaging in some physical or verbal behavior while his opponent considers calling. Your works detail what this behavior actually means, but I’m wondering how often a specific behavior would yield the desired result (a fold or call)
As an example, suppose the SB goes all-in on the river on AJ956 and the BTN considers.
After about 20 seconds, the button asks, “Did you hit the flush?”
The SB says “I did not hit the flush.”
As I understand it, the BTN should rarely have a flush here after failing to snap call and then asking SB, so by removing flushes from his range the SB is weakening his own range trying to induce a call (perhaps with 87). So that answers the question of what the speech actually means, and that SB is actually probably fairly strong here given that the BTN did not snap call. But how often does the SB removing strong hands from his range (clubs) actually help him get called by worse hands?
Or more broadly, people making goading statements to get a call–while it’s clear this is usually a strong hand, how often do these statements actually work? And if they never work why are they so commonly used?
I realize this is a really broad question and answering it could probably take another book, but have you studied this kind of thing with your databases? I.e., the success rate of various physical and verbal manipulation techniques in getting the desired action from villain, rather than their apparent meanings?
My answer was as follows:
Yes, you make a very good point, and I think I address that at some point in Verbal Poker Tells: just because we can recognize patterns in good poker players, it doesn’t mean they are imbalanced; they could be and often are purposefully deviating from being balanced to try to manipulate opponents. Negreanu often does this; he risks an opponent making a read on him because he feels in some spots that his opponent is not going to get information from that spot.
I think it is still valuable to examine these spots from good poker players because a) the ways good players use tells are similar to the ways tells happen in general, because they are all tied to deception/manipulation in general. The main difference is that good players are more aware of how to use it and to use it mainly when they’re playing against players who are likely to be clueless. Whereas some mediocre/bad players may do the same things, but not realize they’re up against better players.
I do think a lot of things that I describe/list as patterns do actually work against a lot of people. To take one example: defensive verbal behaviors. People do (mostly the worst players) actually slow down when you tell them you have a strong hand (or do other defensive, threatening things) because nobody likes to feel they’ve been tricked and made to feel foolish. So yeah I think a lot of these things are employed exactly because they do actually work.
Same with a player who removes a strong hand from his range when he’s betting with the nuts. He knows that it’s possible someone will believe that he’s telling the truth (which he usually will be) and that may actually make calls more likely against some players. But more experienced players will often recognize he’s trying to manipulate them. Basically, efforts at manipulation may work, but they are only likely to work when up against less-skilled competition; better players are likely to be a level or two ahead of the opponent and figure out what that player’s trying to accomplish/imply.
Hope that makes sense. It’s a very good question and I can’t actually recall how much I talked about it in there. I have written before about how my including good players in that book is not meant as a criticism, because I do believe they wouldn’t do such things if they were up against tougher competition.