Louder Than Words

During any poker game, players will be carrying on several conversations at once. More often than not, we’ll be talking to each other as we play — chatting about current events, what’s going on in our lives, or perhaps using clever words to try and trick each other into revealing information about the strength of our hands. That’s one. We also, either consciously or unconsciously, communicate our feelings to each other through body language (gestures, facial expressions, and tone of voice). That’s two. As a result of all this, an incredible wealth of poker information is constantly passing back and forth between the players while the game is going on. Some of this information is valuable, some of it is absolutely meaningless, and some of it is dangerously deceptive. It’s up to us to sort out which is which.

But it’s the third conversation that is really the source of the most useful information. And it’s this silent conversation, more than any other, which demands that we must listen very carefully if we want to figure out what our opponents are thinking. The third conversation is what we say to each other with our bets. In a game where lies and deception are commonplace, the messages that we send to each other via our betting actions are ultimately the most truthful. Words are cheap, but chips are not. And it’s the one conversation that never, ever stops. Voices may fall silent, but the chips will always keep moving across the table as long as the game is still going on.

Oftentimes the chip chatter will amount to nothing more than banal conversation. Like actors reciting lines from to a worn-out script, many of our betting actions are ordinary and “expected.” A preflop raise that says, “I like my hand.” An open-raise from late position that says: “Well, it looks like nobody here has anything, so I’ll take a stab at stealing the pot.” Or a continuation bet that announces, “I don’t care what cards fell on the flop — I still like my hand.”

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Beyond that, however, the bet conversation can get more complex and enlightening. Let’s say your opponent openraises preflop from under the gun. The clear message here is: “I really like my hand,” with a faint trace of a threat: “Enter the pot at your own peril.” You three-bet from middle position with pocket jacks (“Oh yeah? Your hand might be good but mine is even stronger.”) Everybody folds to Mr. UTG, who then caps it (“My hand is still better than yours, sucker.”) The two of you see the flop, which comes down Q-9-4 rainbow.

Leading out on the flop is almost mandatory for him under these circumstances, so that doesn’t really tell you anything. Technically he is telling you: “I have a queen, or maybe an overpair,” but really his bet here is the poker equivalent of “Good morning.” Depending on your read of his playing style, you can then respond by folding (“I’m scared of the overcard, go ahead and take it.”), calling (“Maybe you have a queen, but I’m not sure and the pot is big.”) or raising (I’m not afraid of you — I think you were raising with A-K and the flop missed you completely. So take that!”)

Here’s another example. Before the flop, three players limp in before the action gets to the button — a solid player — who raises. Okay, so, he likes his hand from late position. The big blind and limpers call. Five players see the flop of AJ- 4 rainbow. Everybody checks to the button (“We’ll wait for you to bet, cause we know you’re going to.”) who of course bets the flop (“I have the ace!”) and gets three callers. With their calls, these players are each telling the button: “I have something.” That something might be an ace with a bad kicker, a jack, a weak draw, or any number of possibilities — but each caller is letting the button know that he cannot push them out with his supposed pair of aces.

Now let’s say a harmless seven falls on the turn, and it’s checked to the button (“I really do have the ace, people.”) Call, call… and now Limper # 3 decides to check-raise. At first blush, it certainly looks as though Limper # 3 has just announced: “I’ve been slowplaying you with a monster hand, mwa-ha-ha! Now pay me off, suckers.” And in the context of this particular betting conversation — check-raising into a solid preflop raiser, into multiple opponents where calls are very likely — it’s no empty threat.

And therein lies the real trick of interpreting bet-language. Just as with any other type of conversation, every “sentence” must always be put into context before you can understand the exact meaning. First and foremost: Consider the source. While it may be true that the language of poker — bets, raises, checks, bluffs, etc — is universal, it’s also true that different types of players will speak in vastly different dialects. Usually, you’ll have to work at interpreting the precise meaning of somebody else’s bets. The language of a calling station can be gibberish to a maniac, and the language of a maniac is often gibberish to, well, everybody. (More to the point, the maniac really only knows how to say one thing with his chips — “I love putting money in the pot!” — and he just repeats that same phrase over and over and over again.)

Of course the easiest players to understand are the straightforward, unimaginative ones. When you know that a check from them always means “I have nothing,” and a bet always means “I’ve got the goods.” But with most opponents, interpreting their bet-speech takes a little more work. A scary bet which appears to proclaim: “I’ve got the mortal nuts,” may in fact really be saying: “I’m an idiot who thinks that top pair with a crappy kicker is the mortal nuts.” Or, if you’ve been folding a lot lately, that very same bet can mean: “I’ve pegged you as a weak-tight player so I’m going to steal the pot away from you.” Bet conversations can be nuanced and laced with double meanings. So put everything in context.

One key to understanding an opponent’s betting language is to listen for those few moments when he just might vary the standard phrases ever so slightly — or even more importantly, those times when he falls silent. A preflop raiser who doesn’t lead out on the flop. A maniac who declines to raise for once. Or a player engaged in a heated raising war, who suddenly backs down and merely calls. In a game where aggression is prized so very highly, where bet conversations often drop down to the level of primeval chest-thumping (“My hand is better!” “No, my hand is better!”) a sudden moment of silence can scream louder than a dozen all-in raises.

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