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Reading People
Webmistress "Troi" 12.15.2006

So yeah, I guess you're wondering why my nickname is Troi. Ever seen Star Trek: The Next Generation? Sure it's olde school Trek by now. But if you have, then let's just say it's because people here think I look like Deanna Troi, and you can now skip to the next paragraph. If you haven't: a female character on that show was very sensitive to other peoples' emotional states, and her name was Deanna Troi. She played in the Bridge Officers' weekly poker game (hey, I play poker too!) People at FlopTech say that I look sorta like her (well maybe if she was younger and had more piercings). And some of the guys here say they'd love to see me in uniform, whatever that means.

They also say I can read people almost as well as her. You might be expecting me to say "I watch the players' hands" or "I watch how fast they blink" or "I watch how they're breathing" or "I watch the pulse on their neck." Well you would be right. I said it. And yes, I do look at all that.

In a nutshell, an excited player is usually holding a strong hand. Hands tremble when they bet. Blinking, breathing, and heart rates all increase. Pretty basic stuff, and the more experience a player has, the more easily he or she will see these "big hand symptoms" in others and also mask these symptoms in their own play.

But what really hits me is their overall vibe. Not specific details, but a general gestalt. People who aren't very self-aware are like living, breathing billboards. I remember sitting to the left of a young guy playing in a tournament at a local casino. The action came to him, he looked at his hole cards, said "Raise" and bet. And it was like he'd lit a firecracker. I almost got blasted out of my chair from the wave of energy radiating off him.

I pretended to think for a second as I looked at my hole cards, then folded. And he got action on his pocket aces! I couldn't believe it. I almost yelled "Didn't you see that?!?" You'd be surprised how many people sit there at the poker table and totally ignore all signs of strength. That's fatal unless the deck hits you, especially in no-limit where you really need to think about the other players and their hands more than yourself and your hand.

Another time I was playing in a home tournament with some friends. I had pocket aces, I raised, got called, raised on the flop and got reraised. The reraiser looked as if he could walk through a brick wall unscathed. I pushed all-in for not very much more because I was already pot-committed with the short stack after that flop bet. Bad call and I knew it. Sure enough, he'd flopped a set of jacks. I knew I was behind: it was crystal clear to me. But I had to call and try to catch if he only had top 2 pair or something. And anyway, aces are a good enough hand to go broke with, right?

So what about sensing weakness? Basically, for me, if I don't get that "strength vibe" from a player, odds are that he doesn't have it. But watch out: as I said before, experienced players can cover up that excitement (or truly not be excited much at all) when they're holding a monster.

And that brings me to the topic of "acting". Totally un-self-aware people can't (or don't try to) act. These are the "walking billboards" I mentioned earlier. The next level of player, from the standpoint of readability, is "the amateur actor". He's self-aware and wants to manipulate other people by feigning strength or weakness. He or she hasn't heard of the famous rule: "weak means strong, strong means weak." I won't go through all the specifics. It's been done before by Mike Caro and other writers far better than myself.

A "non-actor" who has a weak hand (or thinks you're stronger) is pretty easy to read. Now give an "actor" the same hand in the same situation (weak or thinks he's beat). If he or she wants to try to win the pot, s/he will try to fool you into thinking s/he's strong. This is pretty easy to spot too. I mean, why would somebody who has a really strong hand actually act really strong? (We'll get back to that question a little later.) Most of the time you want to maximize your profit with a strong hand. You don't want to scare away your customers, so why act scary?

Yeah so it's all good. But how do you develop that sensitivity to the strength gestalt? How can you learn to tell if someone is acting or not?

The same way you get better at anything: practice. You need to log the hours at the table (and away from the table) and observe people. I'd recommend focusing on just one or two people the next time you're playing. Don't make it too obvious that you're watching them, but make a point of observing how they act when they have a strong hand and when they have a weak hand. I find that the best seats for observing are 2, 3, 8 and 9 at a 10-handed table (i.e. the seats 2 and 3 seats away from the dealer. From those seats you're on the curved end of the table and are already angled in towards other players. You can watch them without craning your neck over and being too obvious. From a tactical standpoint it's best to watch players acting after you, so watch the guy 2 seats to your left at first.

Try to make a mental "video" of what they looked like, how they bet, their mannerisms. Then if it gets to a showdown or if they make the mistake of just showing their cards after the hand is over, try to remember it all: their actions, their look, and their hand. Next time they're in a hand, do it again and see what they do differently. Keep watching them even if there's no showdown: were they relieved to win? Were they disappointed the pot wasn't bigger? Or were they just acting like they were relieved or disappointed?

My own personal corollary to "weak means strong, strong means weak" is "after the hand, relieved means disappointed and disappointed means relieved". If an "actor" wipes his brow and says "What a relief" or something like that, it means he had a big hand and wanted action. If he shakes his head and says "Damn, I bet too much," he was weak and didn't want action. Again, this is only against players who try to act, and do it badly.

Putting the "strong means weak..." and "relieved means disappointed..." rules together, you can get a dead read on "actors". But there's a caveat: don't mistake "happy" for "relieved". People can feign relief yet still be truly happy to rake a pot.

If you keep observing you should be able to guess if they're strong or weak. And it should be pretty clear whether they're "actors" or not. Some forms of acting are simple and obvious: some actors will hold chips in their hands pretending to be ready to raise if you bet. Others will make it look like they're ready to fold, then raise. Some will talk too. Saying "Watch out! Don't do it!" after they check to you is a classic false strength "act." But all the acting and angle shooting has been covered in the poker literature. It's pretty transparent. A player's skill level is pretty easy to discern too. More-skilled players will sometimes try to give false tells, so you need to watch out for that.

On a deeper level, you need to become sensitive to peoples' emotional states, which will, in turn, affect their actions. We ladies are usually very good at sensing peoples' emotional states. But don't call it "feminine intuition" you MCP dinosaurs. It's called "emotional intellgence" in the 21st century. Guys, don't despair. You too can learn to be "sensitive." Ladies, you can always get better at reading peoples' emotional states.

Practice reading people when you're at the beach, or standing in line at IKEA, or eating sushi at Nobu. Watch the couple splashing in the surf, the cashier at the counter, and the matre'd as she seats people. What can you sense about their emotional state? How long has that couple been together? Locals or tourists? Is the clerk tired and at the end of a shift? How does he get along with his co-workers? And the maitre'd: does she like working at Nobu? Are her shoes comfortable? Next time you're among strangers, try to figure them out. It's invaluable people-reading practice, it's free, and the whole world is your classroom.

So yeah, we gals start out ahead of the guys when it comes to reading people. But we're also at a disadvantage at the poker table because we've been socialized to "read people" from the standpoint of empathy and understanding. We need to twist that around into detecting weakness and attacking or detecting strength and retreating. Believe me ladies, it's not hard. Just wait until the first time some jerk tells you that you play good "for a girl" or asks you if you're as fast as you play.

Anyway, watching people is only half of it. It doesn't matter how many poker players you watch or how closely you watch them until you get to a certain stage in your own poker career. You'll know it when you get there. It's when you're sitting at the table and your emotional baseline is virtually the same whether you're in a hand or not. You've achieved a zen-like level of emotional balance. Call it a cool detachment, an aloofness, a nonchalance. Throwing chips into the pot is just as uninvolving as chewing stale gum. Or sipping a beer. Been there, done that, got the t-shirt.

You can't totally observe people until you can totally ignore yourself. If, for some reason, you're afraid or angry or depressed or otherwise emotionally preoccupied, you will be completely oblivious to others' emotional states. You need to be emotionally balanced going into the game and to stay balanced during the game. Make it clear that nobody can tilt you: laugh off bad beats with "hey that's poker" or "gee I wish I could do that". Be friendly to morons who try to stir things up by, well, being moronic jerks. Let 'em know you're un-tiltable because you ARE un-tiltable.

Like everything else, it takes time. You need to get completely comfortable with your casino(s), with the stakes you're playing at, with all the different player types out there, and just get used to handling bad beats and bad behavior. When you're at that point you can really bring your people-watching up to the next level. You've lowered your emotional noise floor to the point where you can sense other players' strength and weakness from their own emotional state and their reaction to it.

Other peoples' emotional noise floors can obscure their feelings about a specific hand too. If someone wins a huge pot and is giddy, then raises big on the very next hand while she's still stacking chips, you won't be able to tell if she's weak or strong because she's still hyped from the last hand. How many times have you seen players get action and win pots back to back? Some people call that a card rush. Sure, that's part of it. But the psychological carryover from the first win can mask either a bluff or a monster hand.

Oh, and remember when I mentioned that some players will act strong when they really are strong? That's the second stage of self-awareness at the poker table. When you're up against better trickier players, who know the "strong means weak..." rule, they might represent a bluff when they really do have a big hand. You'll eventually be able to spot those players. But that's getting off topic into multiple levels of thinking: "what does he think I think he has" etc. And that's another story.

Just keep on observing, learning, and putting in the hours. You'll get there.