Indicators of Strength in Live Poker
Live poker is a unique game because there are many ways that you can win hands without even having the best cards. While this could easily be said about online poker as well, it would not be fair to say that online will afford you the opportunity to gain insights that you are privy to in a live environment. If someone bets out on the river on the internet, you are left with hand histories and the hand in question. They could be saying "fold, fold, fold" out loud and you would never know it. It's easy to let your emotions run wild when you are playing behind a computer screen, and the face to face confrontations that you encounter in brick and mortar poker will give you plenty of opportunities to make use of your instincts.
Indicators of strength come in many different shapes and sizes. Some players will wear their emotions on their sleeve, albeit inadvertently, while others will do their best to throw you off. Being able to see through the façade is what will enable you to make reads with remarkable accuracy. If you are taking your opponents actions at face value in live poker, you are going to be destroying your win rate in the end. You need to not only determine how someone is acting, but how their actions fit into the hand in question. Is this easy to do? Well, no, not necessarily, but there are certainly many tips and tricks that can be used to aid in your decision making processes.
Bet sizing is greatly understated when it comes to creating sound reads on opponents. A lot of live players think that physical tells are the most reliable way to pick up on reads, but this isn't always the case. There are a lot of dead giveaways that occur within normal gameplay that you might not have considered before. If someone is taking a strong line that appears believable, there's good reason why you are afraid. Live players aren't usually able to make their bluffs as deceptive as they would like.
If a player is bluffing, they are likely to be betting very large, often times so large that it almost seems as if they want a fold. Now, if a player wants a call, they are still going to be betting a fair amount, but they also aren't going to bet so much as to scare others away. An easy way to analyze bet sizing is to think about what you would do in the same situation. If you had a big hand, how would you have played it in an effort to extract maximum value. If you had nothing, how would you have tried to force your opponent into a fold. You might be pleasantly surprised to find out just how often this will work in assessing where the other player stands. If bet sizing seems fishy, it may very well be. If a player seems like they are gunning for a call, they probably are. Believe it or not, often times it's just as simple as that.
Subtle Physical Tells
Subtle physical tells are usable, but they shouldn't be heavily relied upon. The problem with these small tells is that they can easily mean different things in different players. For example, a player who is breathing very hard might be bluffing or they might have a big hand. An example of a tell that's more reliable would be someone who is trying to stop their breathing altogether. Players will do this in an attempt to conceal as many giveaways as possible. If a player is breathing normally, there's an increased likelihood that they actually have a big hand.
Another example of a subtle tell would be when a player rests his head in his hand or his hand over his cards. These are ways that players try to calm themselves down, whether they are thinking about it or not. A player who is bluffing is going to be running through an array of emotions, so the natural reaction is to try and act calm and collected. If a player seems like they are trying unnaturally hard to remain calm, don't be surprised if their heart is actually beating out of their chest.
Obvious Physical Tells
Obvious physical tells are usually reverse tells. Players who are working hard to act like they don't care much about the pot at hand are frequently doing so because they want it to appear as if they are disinterested. To some players, disinterest would indicate weakness, but this is seldom the case. Why would a player casually toss their chips in the middle if they really were weak? Not only is this obvious, but it also invites calls (theoretically).
There are a number of different ways that players try to act as if they aren't worried about a hand when they really want to get paid off. Aside from acting casual and exceptionally relaxed, another indicator of strength is when a player does things sloppily or without much thought. You'll notice from time to time that players will bet their chips in such a way that they "splash the pot" so to speak.
What is meant by this is that they will place their bet and knock their stacks of chips over in the process, forcing the dealer to count out the bet. In the mind of this type of player, they think that their sloppiness will goad you into a call. They may very well be right about this, so you need to look out for it. A truly weak player would want to appear strong, so these types of moves should be considered signs of strength.
Players who are strong will sometimes start to talk when it appears as if their opponent is about to fold. This is especially true when the player had previously been quiet. They figure that they aren't likely to win anything if they stay quiet, so they decide that they should try some talking as a last ditch effort. Think about it, if a player was weak and their opponent was about to fold and they hadn't spoken previously, why would they start talking now once they are on the brink of success? They wouldn't.
Players who tell you their hand should be watched carefully. To be more specific, players should be feared when they share their hand and represent something that's not in line with their play. The reason that some people do this is because they want to ensure you that they don't have much in an attempt to give you a reason to make the call. If something seems too good to be true, it probably is, and this saying holds true in poker as well.
Author: Jonathan Wanchalk
Updated: March 2015
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