Your Speech Can Give You Away
by Zachary Elwood
I’m sitting at a $2-5 No-Limit Hold’em poker table in Portland, Oregon. My opponent—a guy named Eddie—has just bet $300 into a pot of $500. I’m considering my options.
The board cards—the communal cards that any player can use—are T♥ 7♥ 2♥ K♠ 2♣. I’ve got A♣ A♥. That’s a decent hand. But if Eddie’s making this big of a bet on the last round of betting (known as the river), then my hand is really just a bluff-catcher. He either has me beat—with either a flopped flush or a rivered full house—or he’s bluffing. There’s really no in-between.
Against an aggressive player who bluffs a lot, this might be an easy call. But I’ve only played with Eddie for a few hours, and he strikes me as pretty “ABC”, meaning he plays solidly but I haven’t seen any tricky or aggressive plays from him. So I have to give his bet some respect.
“Will you show?” I ask him. That's shorthand for “Will you show your hand if I fold?” You hear this question a lot at the poker table. It can be a gambit to get some last-second behavioral information to sway a decision. Or it can just be a genuine question aimed at making it more likely an opponent shows his hand when the hand’s over. But because this question is so common, there’s usually not much information to gain from the answer. Most players respond in a rote way or don’t say anything at all.
“If you call,” Eddie responds. “If you call, I’ll show.” He says this in a slightly joking way. It’s a taunt as much as an offer—he wants a call, and he wants to be paid for it. By itself, his response doesn’t tell me much, because a player who’s got a strong hand is as capable of implying they want a call as a bluffer.
Then Eddie picks his cards up off the table and shows them to the two guys sitting beside him. The three of them are all friendly at the poker table and away from it.
Eddie then holds out his cards towards me, face down on the table, and says, “I’ll show you one.”
Thinking that he’s offering to show a card before I act, I say, “The left one. The one near you.”
Eddie says, “No, I mean after you fold.”
“Oh,” I say.
“I have you beat,” Eddie says.
All of the things Eddie had said and done so far—subtly implying he wants a call, then showing his hand in a relaxed manner to his neighbors, then finally telling me he very directly that he has me beat—all of them communicate, in various forms of directness, that his hand is strong.
This is all unusual behavior; at serious stakes, poker players don’t often talk much during a hand. And when there is unusual behavior there is usually information to be gained.
But what was the information? You might be tempted to say, “Well, he’s insinuating strength, so he must actually be weak.” It’s a simple first-level deception. But things aren’t always that simple in poker. For one thing, players with strong hands are relaxed, and if they’re already assured of winning a decent-sized pot, they’ll sometimes get a little verbally creative and say unpredictable things, including implying strength about their hands. You’ll often hear amateur players say things like, “I’ve got the nuts, you can’t call me!” when betting a strong hand. (The nuts is slang for the best hand possible.) So you can’t rush to a simple strong-means-weak judgment.
On the other hand, bluffers also have an obvious motivation to imply strength about their hands. Bluffers who do this are essentially trying to replicate (consciously or not) the more relaxed behavior of a player who can really afford to act that way.
When trying to figure out whether such “strong-hand statements” are more likely to represent a bluff or a value bet, you have to think about the mindset of your opponent. You have to ask yourself, “Knowing what I know about this player, what might his motivations be to say what he’s saying?”
An amateur player might bet a very strong hand and say something like, “I’ve got you; you can’t call this!” He’s relaxed and having fun, and doesn’t much care if his opponent folds. A serious player, on the other hand, is focused on making as much money as possible. When a serious player has a strong hand, he’ll generally not want to do anything that might scare away his prey.
What do I know about Eddie? Earlier in the day we had a short conversation about poker. I’d gathered that he was at least somewhat serious about the game, because he told me that he took occasional trips to Las Vegas to play.
Because I know this, it strikes me as unlikely that he has a strong hand. If he were actually strong, he probably wouldn’t want to set up any sort of verbal obstacle to me calling him. If there’d been some past verbal trickiness between us, it’d be harder to make this judgment, but we’re both strangers to each other. He doesn’t know anything about how skilled I may or may not be. He also doesn’t know that I’ve spent a good amount of time studying the verbal behavior of poker players.
At this point, a minute had passed since Eddie’s bet. I’m just getting ready to make the call when Eddie says, “They know what I have,” referring to his friends beside him.
Even though I know I’m calling, I like to let these situations play out a little bit, especially in a situation where I know I’m going to see an opponent’s hand. You can pick up some behavioral information that may come in handy in future hands.
I look at Eddie’s friends. They’re both players I’ve played with a lot. Although we’re friendly combatants, they’d definitely like to see Eddie win and see me lose.
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“So what does he have?” I ask jokingly.
Neither of them is looking much at me; they’re mostly looking at the board cards in the middle of the table or down directly in front of them. Knowing what I know of these guys, if their friend Eddie had a big hand, both of these guys would enjoy looking at me and relishing the moment a bit. Many players enjoy seeing a vanquished enemy squirm. But these guys are avoiding eye contact.
“He’ll kill me if I tell you,” one of the players replies.
I figure, these guys aren’t happy about the situation. They’re uncomfortable, and they don’t want to give away information about Eddie’s hand, so they’re trying hard to be relaxed. In a way, they can be seen to be acting like bluffers themselves. Eddie has spread the discomfort of bluffing to them. He can try to control the signals he gives me, but it’s harder to control his friends’ behavior.
All this is a sideshow to the main action, though. I make the call, which I’d already decided I was going to do. I found it unlikely that Eddie, being a serious player, would want to communicate so much strength and relaxation if he actually wanted a call.
“Good call,” Eddie says, and throws his hand away.
The use of language by poker players is admittedly complex. When you sit down at a poker table, your opponents are actively trying to manipulate and deceive you, which isn’t the case in most everyday non-competitive situations. But with a lot of experience and conscious study, you will make sense of players’ talk more reliably. Certain situations come up over and over again. People believe they’re being in a unique way but there are often recognizable patterns. Your opponents try to be deceptive, but their attempts leak useful information anyway. Sure, you will make some mistakes. But over time, your judgment calls become more accurate.
I’ve played and studied poker seriously, on and off, for more than ten years, and for three of those years I played for a living. Studying how poker players talk, I’ve become better at understanding verbal behavior in everyday life, too. I’m pretty good at noticing when someone becomes uncomfortable during a conversation and guessing why that might be. I can often figure out when and why someone seems to be avoiding a certain subject. I notice when someone chooses a non-standard word phrasing. As social animals, we all have this kind of social intelligence to some extent. But I’ve found that studying people at the poker table has improved my real-world “reads.” In an essay titled “Poker is good for you,” David Sklansky, the poker author, wrote that poker benefits serious students because it gives us immediate rewards and punishments for our understanding of math, logic, and psychology.
Even though I’ve used Eddie in this story, it doesn’t mean he’s a bad poker player. For all I know, he’s actually very good. His behavior, however obvious it seems with the benefit of hindsight, may have worked in getting an average amateur player to fold; for that reason, it’s hard to say that he made much of a mistake. He also might have just been abnormally relaxed, which led to trying something creative; even very good players are capable of sometimes doing strange or ill-advised things.
Now that Eddie and I have what poker players call “history,” it will be more difficult to make such judgments calls against him if we ever play in the future. Our interactions will necessarily become more complex because we'll both be thinking of how our past interactions affect the current one.
But in poker, information is power. When I play with Eddie again, I’ll be studying him just as closely as I did the first time.