They say that you only see one sixth of an iceberg above the waterline. When you are playing poker that is what you get—a hint. Small clues abound, but how much do you really see? The mathematician might give you one answer but if you act only according to his suggested path then you are not listening to other clues. This is an old argument, but a very important one—act as though you know nothing? Or act as though you know what your opponent has? Both sides can make really valid arguments, but the truth is that great players make use of both paths—the math and the direct perception, the micro-observation of what is happening. 'Think long, think wrong,' is one pithy and important statement. What it refers to is listening to the non-verbal clues as to what to do.
It's really easy to talk about tells in a general way, but the truth is that you have to see the tell, and then be able to use it—to help you decide what action to take. It is passé to say that weak means strong and strong means weak (at least since Mike Caro first pointed this out…and illustrated it, years ago) but how do you make use of this information? The truth is that tells are true…when given by amateurs! But no sooner does one gain some proficiency at poker then giving out false tells becomes a part of the professional poker player's repertoire. The same thing that always means a certain something when an amateur gives it out becomes a weapon when a professional brings it out. The professional player might give one type of false tell to an amateur, but engage in a mind-game with another professional about what does the opponent know about what he's doing—a 'what does he think I am thinking' sort of thing.
So use the mathematical centerline, but don't be afraid to depart from it in a radical way if you're certain of your interpretation of the way someone reacts to a flop, or a card, or their holding. We now have a new and powerful tool in helping us search for clues—the televised poker show. You can actually watch how someone acts when they hold certain hands, and act accordingly. Before, it took months or years to learn what one can see in minutes nowadays. Erik Seidel was the frontrunner of not wanting to show his hands and what he was doing—and he is right that the information he was giving away had huge value. Where he perhaps miscalculated was in not understanding how many new (and bad) players were created by every television show.
On some occasions you're strong when you act strong and in the same situation on yet another occasion you might not have the hand you're representing. About five years ago I was at a final table with an aggressive John Juanda two spots behind me, and an ultra-aggressive Barry Shulman two to my right. Barry raised almost every hand coming in (this was in no-limit hold'em) as the chip leader with a stack of 54,000, and clearly he was going to get re-raised by some of us if we looked at anything of value—like 66 or AT or KQ, but I looked down at AA, the holy grail of poker hands, and Barry raised, as usual, to 2,200 over a big blind of 800, and I re-raised to 6,200 off a stack of 28,000, as the thought of making the more clever play of calling flickered across my mind. The call raises suspicions of its own if anyone is watching though, and the re-raise looks like it could easily be one of the three hands mentioned above—or another one in that same general area. Juanda found QQ and moved all-in for 22,000 and had a "oh, no" comment, and moment, when Barry mucked and I insta-called him, before seeing the hands. He wanted a think, not an insta-call, and correctly surmised what that meant. Five community cards later he was gone.
Also in 2002 I was at a final table at the Bellagio and was seated to the right of Daniel Negreanu, the game being pot-limit hold'em. Daniel was quite active, playing a lot of hands—but this was prior to his perfecting his "small-ball" game plan. Furthermore, at this time (now I can say because it is no longer there) I had a tell on Daniel, and about six times the pattern was - I checked, he bet, and I check-raised to three times his bet. I could have been holding two napkins, that is how sure I was of where I stood. If you have a good tell on an aggressive player you want him on your left, not on your right—strangely enough, and the exception to a concept. Every single time Daniel looked me over, couldn't bring himself to call, and mucked his hand.
Now for the rest of the story. Two days later we played in a no-limit tournament, me in the four seat and Daniel in the eight seat, I was dealt AA at the second limit and limped with them behind another limper. The action got to Daniel and he made it 400 over a big blind of 100 and behind two limpers. The opener mucked and I re-raised it to 1,100. He thought for some while, and analyzed the hand out loud, as only he can possibly do, and moved all-in for a total of 3,400. I called with my remaining 1,600, as he knew I almost surely would, and he turned up that QQ again. It came K44 and a Q on the turn, a 7 on the river, and I was done. Daniel immediately came over and apologized, but what was more interesting, was his explanation. "You kept check-raising me at that final table," he offered, "and I kept wondering if you could really have it every single time. Which carried over to this…"
This same match-up (QQ vs AA) has come up rather often in key hands in my poker career, I don't know why. In St. Maarten in a no-limit hold'em tournament I held a huge lead when we were at 19 players (the tournament paid 18 places). How huge? Well I had 55,000 in chips and second place was a Pakistani-looking gentleman from London who had 27,000 and was at my table. Going to the final table seemed like a foregone conclusion for me, but it didn't happen. The first hand was when Mr. P raised it to 2,600 over a big blind of 800 from the two hole. I was in the big blind and looked down at AA (that wasn't how I got the stack, by the way), and feeling good, I made it 6,600. Mr. P immediately moved all-in, much to my pleasant surprise. I insta-called, expecting to see KK, but he held QQ, close enough. Except it came Q6229 and I started a slide that couldn't be stopped. My final hand was the capper, a player raised from the four hole to 4,800 over a big blind of 1,600, and I looked down at QQ and moved all-in for my last 14,600 and he called and turned up . It came ace on the flop and I left muttering to myself. No one else wanted to hear my complaint, believe me.
Until next time…play good! And get lucky!