A word of caution
The very fact of committing the above observations to print may in itself change the behaviour of players and indeed, for purposes of deception, sophisticated players will often try to mimic the behaviours of less sophisticated players. Sometimes, for instance, a player would make a bet purposely using small denomination chips when holding very strong hands. This is done just on the off-chance that a more sophisticated player will erroneously make the sort of deductions which we gave in Example 1. If no one makes this sort of a deduction – well, you have lost nothing by trying.
On the whole, the above chip-handling behaviours are only applicable to less sophisticated players. However, this is not always the case and sometimes you will see established players making fundamental errors. By revealing these chip-handling behaviours, I have, in a way, ‘broken the magician’s code’ and told you how the card-reading trick is done. However, these are only a small sample of the range of chip-handling behaviours you will observe at the poker table. The challenge, for us all, is to interpret the behaviours and build up a repertoire of new card-reading tricks or analytical techniques.
Again you should be very attentive to how and when your opponents pick up and look at their cards. On the very simplest level, players are so careless sometimes that they pick up their cards in such a way that their neighbours cannot help but see what they are holding. These players are usually so poor that it is easy to determine what they are holding anyway, so I normally tell them to hide their cards. Sometimes, players pick up their cards and look at them as soon as they get them, whilst others pick them up just before it is their turn to act. Just one example will be sufficient to let you know how careful observation and deduction can be used in ‘reading’ or determining what cards a player holds.
Example: Have I got a heart or not?
Often the flop in Hold ‘Em will contain three cards all of the same suit, say KH, 7H, 4H . When this happens one or more players may look at their hands again. The reason for this is that the player may have one card of the suit and has looked for the second time to make sure. It is equally likely that the player has an ace but has forgotten what suit it is. In the case above, if the player has something like AH, 4S then this is a reasonable hand, but if he has AH, KS then this is a more powerful hand. In both cases, if you have a flush already made and bet into the player they will more often than not call you. Some rash players even consider these ‘drawing’ hands to be good enough to bet, raise or re-raise with.
It is possible that a player will have something like AS, KC against the KH, 7H, 4H flop, in which case he should proceed with extreme caution because if this hand is out against a made flush there is practically no chance of the hand improving to win.
By watching what the player does in this sort of circumstance (i.e. the three-flush flop) you can obtain a very good impression of what cards he holds and play your own hand better as a result. So, for instance, if you are the player holding the AS, KC against the KH, 7H, 4H flop, you might well be prepared to proceed with the hand if you see your sole opponent have a second look at his cards. In this case, the chances are high that your opponent has a four-flush and that you are a percentage favourite in the pot (you would have an approximate 65 per cent chance of winning).
Incidentally, it is almost never the case that a player will pick up and look at their cards a second time if they already have the flush made. This is because if a player has two cards of the same suit he will remember what the suit is and even novice players will realise that it is giving the game away to look at their hand. This is why if you do have the flush on the flop and you are playing against sophisticated players it is sometimes deceptive to look at your cards a second time, pretending that you have only got four cards to the flush.
Chip and Card Behaviours
One brief example will illustrate how chip- and card-handling behaviours can combine to give you clues about what a player holds.
Example: I’ve got to protect my hand here!
Many players protect their hands from the danger of the dealer accidentally throwing it into the discards by the simple expedient of placing a chip or coin on top of the two-hole cards. Indeed some players even have special (perhaps’lucky’) chips which they use solely for this purpose. If such a player ‘forgets’ to put the chip on top of his cards it could be because the cards are not worth protecting. In general, when this happens the player is going to pass the cards in any case, so there is not much useful information to be drawn from this sort of observation.
Sometimes novices or poor players who don’t have this habit of putting a chip on top of their cards will suddenly do so.You might even see the player take a whole stack of chips and pile them on top of his cards. When this happens, the player has almost invariably got a very good hand indeed (my money would be on two aces or two kings). Players in this circumstance may subconsciously get a feeling of paranoia that the dealer will rob them of a wonderful money-making opportunity by carelessly throwing their hand into the discards. Indeed there may be a different explanation for different players exhibiting this behaviour, but the important thing to bear in mind is that it does happen and reasonably frequently. If you observe a poor player piling chips onto his cards my advice is to pass unless you have the nuts.
However, as has been stressed at many points in this book, poker is a complex game and many players show feral cunning in the moves they make. So you should not take anything at face value. For instance, relatively sophisticated players who know about this type of card-protection behaviour may well stack chips on top of a worthless hand and then try to bluff you out of the pot.
More likely though is that a sophisticated player (let’s call her Player X) will attempt to set someone up in the hope of winning a big pot. Player X will pick another intelligent player as her quarry and, knowing that this player is observant, will always pile chips on top of her good hands. Player X will make a point of ensuring that the quarry/victim sees the good hand on completion on each occasion. This type of behaviour will be reinforced by constant repetition (perhaps even over a period of a few nights), until Player X considers that her victim has the strongly held belief that ‘Player X always piles chips on her good hands’. Then remarkably, when the two are in a big pot together, Player X will neglect to pile chips on her blockbuster hand and as a result will win a lot of extra chips from her hapless victim. Of course, this sort of trick should only work once against a good player.
This is only one example of how good players can set other players up for a ‘coup de grace’ (or perhaps it could be called a ‘coup de theatre’, because of the dramatic effect). So I would urge you to look out for this type of situation yourself.
Why does Player X pick another intelligent player as the victim? Why not a poor player? The reason is clear. It is because subtle play is lost upon poor players. They either don’t notice or, if they do, it goes right over their heads. It seems like a paradox but you cannot do anything tricky against poor players and you should think carefully before trying to bluff a poor player. We are not saying don’t try to bluff a poor player, just bear in mind that bluffs work best against intelligent players.