When you are sitting at a poker table involved in a hand, how much time do you take when you check, call, or bet? Do you act more quickly in certain situations, and more slowly in others?
Beginning poker players have all sorts of little behaviors that can give away their hand strength. This is also true for decent players who don’t play often and players who don’t take the game seriously. One of the biggest information “leaks” comes in the form of bet-timing. Bet-timing refers to how long a player takes to make an action — how long it takes a player to check, call, or bet.
Here is a summary of some of the major ways beginning no-limit poker players can give away their hand strength with the time they take to act.
1. The time it takes to check
New poker players can sometimes give away information about their hands by how long it takes them to check in certain situations. Here are a couple of examples of how check-timing can reveal hand strength.
The preflop raiser bets the flop and is called by his lone opponent. On the turn, his opponent checks and the pre-flop raiser checks behind immediately. This quick check-behind pattern will usually represent a player who has a weak-to-medium strength hand. Often it will mean the player has “given up” on the hand after his continuation bet was called. If this player had a strong or very strong hand, he will usually at least consider the best play to make, even if the player decides the best play is to check.
Another example: The non-aggressor in the hand calls a continuation bet on the flop. On the turn, the non-aggressor is first to act and takes a long time before finally checking. For most amateur players, a long time taken to check is defensive in nature and will usually mean a weak or medium-strength hand. This is also related to the opposite pattern many recreational players have of checking immediately with a strong hand so as not to present an obstacle to the aggressor continuing to bet.
2. The time it takes to call
The time it takes a player to call is probably one of the most important bet-timing tells. An immediate call will usually mean that a player has a hand that is obviously worth a call but obviously not worth a raise. This will usually mean you can eliminate the strongest hands from that player’s range. Here are a couple of examples of how this particular tell can play out.
The preflop raiser bets a flop of . His opponent calls immediately. The immediate call, assuming it’s from a recreational player, will usually let you rule out a lot of hands on such a board, including sets and maybe even and . This is because if the player had any of those hands he would at least consider a raise (even if he ultimately decides just to call).
In many situations, an immediate call will make a draw more likely than a made hand. For instance, let’s say a tight, predictable recreational player calls a fairly large bet immediately on a turn board of . This immediate call will more often be a draw, because a tight, predictable player will not immediately call a big bet with one-pair type hands. (The main exception to this is when facing a very aggressive opponent; many players will make immediate calls with hands they usually wouldn’t when facing a very ”aggro” opponent.)
If the caller had a one-pair hand like , , , or , he would usually want to think for a moment about whether calling, folding, or raising was the right play. His hand is not immediately and obviously worth a call. Also, if this player had a set or two pair, he would also be likely to consider a raise for a little bit. For all of these reasons, a strong draw is more likely on this board when this player calls immediately.
3. The time it takes to bet
In a lot of situations, and for a lot of players, an immediate bet or raise can increase the chances that the bet is a bluff. This is mainly due to the fact that players with strong hands usually want to think for a moment or two about how to best play the hand, because players with strong hands are usually focused on maximizing value.
Another contributing factor: bluffers on the turn or the river often know that betting is their only way to win, so they don’t have as much incentive to think about the size of the bet. Bluffers also like to convey confidence, and a quick, “confident” bet can be one way of communicating that idea.
This tendency can show up with preflop raises. A lot of times, players in late position will raise immediately with weak hands, whereas with premium hands they’ll take a couple seconds. They are ready to raise automatically with almost any two cards in late position when it is folded to them. When they actually look down at a premium hand, though, there can be a slight incentive to take some time and maybe even appear uncertain about the situation.
An immediate bet can be especially suspicious when a new card changes the hand possibilities a lot. For instance, say the preflop raiser bets the flop and turn, then by the river the board is and the aggressor makes a big bet immediately. If this player really had a strong hand (like a set or the straight), it is likely he’d want to think for a couple moments about the best bet to make and how the river may have affected the situation. A lot of times, especially for inexperienced players, a quick bet on the river will occur in cases when the player has shown aggression throughout the hand and knows he has to fire one last bet to win.
Remember to observe opponents first
As with all poker tells, bet-timing tells are usually only going to be valuable if you’ve already observed a player having that behavioral pattern. For instance, if you know a player always acts quickly no matter what he has, these bet-timing patterns probably wouldn’t be very useful for him.
Ideally, you’ll want to witness the patterns being present in a specific player before making decisions based on them. Most of these bet-timing patterns will mainly be seen in inexperienced, non-serious players. Good players will have more balanced, unreadable (or even tricky) behaviors.
The most important thing for beginning poker players is to realize that bet-timing behavior can influence your opponent's actions. When you start playing regularly, it is important to not act too quickly or you risk giving away important information about your hand.
Follow Zachary Elwood on Twitter @apokerplayer. His latest book Verbal Poker Tells is available in paperback and e-book formats via Elwood's website, or you can pick up a copy through the PokerNews Book Section by clicking here.