Poker Tells

Poker Reads: Breaking the Codes

Poker Tells"We can never know about the days to come
But we think about them anyway"
-- Carly Simon

All decent poker players, novice or old pro, continually learn things -- things about our individual opponents, about our own game, about skills it takes to play the game of our choice well, and so on. Sometimes we even learn things when we are not even aware we are learning. Like a shark that needs to keep moving to keep alive, poker players need to keep learning or they are dead meat.

It's not that difficult to achieve a decent level of adequacy as a poker player: You play hands like AK when you get them; you play when you have reasonable pot odds; you don't tilt like the Leaning Tower of Pisa because you lose one little pot. This basic level of competence is within the grasp of most players who read this. But, becoming a winning player, or more of a winning player, requires a player to be constantly learning, absorbing and adapting.

Winning poker is about self-control and situational analyses. Without self-control nothing else matters, but once you have that (mostly) under control, successful poker decision-making is the result of correctly analyzing the precise situation you are in. Like in most things, the more we know about something, the better decisions we make.

Successful players are like sponges in their ability to absorb information, but even more than just being able to take in, organize and decipher the data all around us, players should strive to find and discover data. Suppose you see a player get caught bluffing. You can observe all that he did and profitably use that information at a later date. That's learning -- but it's also a bit passive. If you really are seeking out things to learn when you are playing, you probably should have known that the bluffer was bluffing even before he showed his hand the first time he was caught. The fact that he was bluffing should just confirm what you already knew.

Okay, so that sounds a little cosmic, like I'm advocating mindreading or something. What I'm trying to get across is that the bluffing player almost certainly gave off enough information prior to his bluff for us to know he was bluffing when he did it. All the information is there, we just have to figure out how to decode it! Good poker players are code breakers.

I'm not saying we should be able to crack every player's code(s) before he or she acts. I'm saying our brains should be constantly gathering the information that helps us draw reasonable conclusions. In doing so, we should often be able to anticipate what our opponents are going to do -- sometimes even before they know what they are going to do!

One common example: You put one player on a flush draw, with no hope of having the best hand without making the flush. Reading this particular situation is fairly easy. A more difficult thing is to correctly conclude how likely the flush-drawing player is to bluff should he miss his draw. Reading the fellow for a bluff after he does bluff, that's basic, good poker. Figuring out what a player is going to before they do it, that ain't so easy -- but that is what we should be trying to do.

In football, anticipation is critical. Defensive backs live to anticipate quarterbacks and receivers. They love correctly reading a situation, and making the moves necessary to make an interception before the ball is even thrown. More importantly, sometimes they must make their move before the ball is thrown, or they won't have the time to make the interception. Baseball outfielders do this too.

Poker is often similar. We make money by anticipating our opponent's actions. This idea most regularly comes into play when we are out of position, first to act. We have to do something before our opponent does. When out of position, it sure is a great, profitable thing to have some idea of what our opponent is going to do if we check and what they will do if we bet. No matter how short a time you've been playing with your opponents, they will have given you some information, in code, that you should have been looking for, that you should have tried to decipher, that you should be able to use to better anticipate their action.

Learning leads to codebreaking. Codebreaking leads to anticipation. Anticipation leads to profitable action. Learning = money.

Also see Sherlock Holmes on Poker Details and Detection