Originally Published in Woman Poker Player Magazine
Author: Barbara Connors
There’s the game, and then there’s the game-within-the-game. Poker’s very own form of psychological warfare. Verbal banter at the table is a crucial weapon in this particular war. This can include trash talk, coffeehousing, friendly (and sometimes not-so-friendly) repartee, as well as the tactic of bombarding opponents with a constant barrage of questions: “Do you have a pair?” “Are you on a draw?” “Why did you bet so much?” “Can you beat a straight?”And so on. These poker interrogators are, of course, attempting to get valuable information out of their opponents — not so much from what they answer as how they answer. How do they react to the question, what tone of voice do they respond with, what is their general attitude? Does the person answering the question come across as confident — or insecure? For those who are truly gifted at reading the reactions of their opponents, these systematic questions can reveal a wealth of valuable information.
There are a couple of problems, however. Just as the vast majority of poker players are not nearly as skilled as they think they are, most nattering nabobs of poker are not as good at the chit-chat game as believe themselves to be. The one virtue, if you can call it that, of trash talk is that it doesn’t require much skill or a good knowledge of people to get results. Even the clumsiest, most artless trash talk will often put somebody on tilt. But inquisitive banter is something else altogether. Done well, it is an art form, a skill that requires a strong understanding of human nature. And most poker players who try to use this tactic really aren’t that good.
But the good news for us is that countless studies have all shown that women in general are much better at verbal skills than men. Specifically, we are better at picking up subtle changes in a person’s tone of voice, volume, and rhythm of speech — to gain insight into that person’s mental and emotional state. What this means is not only do we have the potential to use this tactic ourselves to gain an advantage in the game, we can turn the tables and read those interrogating opponents who are attempting to read us. Because every time a Chatty Charlie opens his mouth in an to effort to pry information out of us, he risks giving away information about himself.
Now, a couple of warnings are in order. Poker chat is a bit of a slippery slope. In most cardrooms, and certainly in tournaments, talking about your hand too specifically is illegal — especially if you are telling the truth. Even just talking about what hands are possible on the community board can be a big no-no. Moreover, unless you really know what you are doing, it’s usually just best to keep your mouth shut during the play of the hand. Particularly if you are the one being systematically questioned. Usually the best way to handle this type of situation is to have one pat response that you always give, no matter what the question. It could be anything from “I have pocket aces,” to “I have nothing,” to “I’ll tell you when the hand is over.” As long as it’s the same answer every time, said with the same tone of voice and mannerisms, you shouldn’t be giving away any extra information.
As for reading the readers, unfortunately, there is no one-size-fits-all rule for this. Well okay, there is one. Bluffers are almost always silent. They’re so worried about saying something that might make you want to call them, that they’ll usually clam up altogether. So if Mr. Interrogator suddenly has nothing to say just at the moment when you’re trying to decide whether or not to call him — odds are excellent that he’s on a stone-cold bluff. (And if you do run into a talkative bluffer, you’ve likely run into a very sneaky and skilled player indeed.)
Beyond that, just know that an inquisitive opponent usually has some kind of a hand. Generally speaking, he’s asking you questions now for one of two reasons. Either he’s trying to figure out if you’re holding something that can beat him, or else he’s using his questions as a smokescreen — to obscure the fact that he’s holding a monster. He’ll play the part of the insecure opponent, concerned about what you might have, because he knows he is about to win that pot, and he wants as much of your money as possible to go in there. Be especially worried when an opponent calling your bet sighs a defeatist phrase like, “You’ve probably got me but I have to see one more card,” or “I shouldn’t let you suck me in like this,” or anything that smacks of: Poor me, I know I’m going to lose this hand but I just can’t bring myself to fold. Remember the golden rule of reading your opponents at the poker table — strong is weak and weak is strong — and never is this more obvious than when your opponent’s “performance” is extremely obvious.
Another purpose of table talk is to throw you off and break your concentration, right when you’re about to make an important decision. To influence your decision. In essence, to induce or reduce your action. Remarks such as, “I’ve got you beat,” or “Call me, I’m bluffing,” or even an enthusiastic “Yes!” when the river card falls, are all designed to push you into making the decision they want you to make. Probably one of the most famous examples occurred in the final hand of the 1998 World Series of Poker Main Event. Scotty Nguyen, holding a full house, told his opponent Kevin McBride: “You call, gonna be all over baby.” McBride, who had nothing in the hole and could do no better than splitting the pot by playing the board, was goaded into calling by Scotty’s remark and it was, indeed, all over baby.
Again, there’s no magic formula for figuring out what your opponent is trying to get you to do. It comes down to basic people-reading skills. Tune out the actual words being said. Instead, listen to everything else: Body language, tone of voice, general attitude, etc. Do these things say, I want you out of this hand, or do they say, please call me! For what they’re worth, here are a few telltale signs that someone may be lying to you: Touching their own face as they speak, inability to make eye contact, general nervousness and fidgeting, unusually rapid speech, or anything that interrupts the smooth flow of speech, such as clearing one’s throat and words like “um” or “uh.” Now any one of these things can be totally innocent, particularly in a person who is naturally nervous anyway. But if an otherwise relaxed person starts displaying these signals, that’s a definite red flag for deceit. The more of these signals you detect, the more likely it is that you’re witnessing a bald-faced lie.
Most of all, listen to yourself. Your knowledge and experience of the game, of pot odds and betting patterns and how this particular opponent tends to play — these are the things that should be guiding your decisions at the poker table. Not some provocative remark by a chatty opponent who is trying to throw you off your game. The best revenge is playing well.