Watching For Tells
by Jake Block
“Every hand’s a winner
And every hand’s a loser,
And the best we can hope for
Is to die in our sleep.”
— The Gambler (Kenny Rogers)
Making bets, either in a casino or in your day to day life can be a curious thing. Either way, there are two ways that it can be done. You can go with your gut and play your hand. The casinos make a lot or money from this kind of gambler who sometimes wins, but most often walks away from the tables, wallet empty, mumbling, “I was sure the next card would be a six!” Then you have the type of gambler who considers his odds, knows how to manage his cash flow, watches the play of others at the table, and when his time come to play, takes one lest chance to consider it all, and then makes his play. The casinos also make a lot of money from this kind of gambler, who sometimes wins, but seldom walks away mumbling, and he’s at least saved enough for a good meal before calling it quits for the night.
There’s an old saying that someone told me when I began gambling. “Don’t gamble when you’re feeling lucky. Gamble when you’re feeling REALLY lucky.” Now, I can and do play a variety of card games, from Texas Hold’em to straight Stud Poker, and when I’m in the mood to sit at a table and just move chips around, I’ve even been known to play the kid’s game “War,” for a buck a card. Given my choice, and time to spend enjoying myself, I’ll opt for my favorite game of chance, Blackjack. I get more relaxation from a 12 hour run at a Blackjack table than most people get from a full night’s sleep! My favorite time to find a place at the tables is between midnight and 5AM, when people who tend to be more card savvy and less prone to rookie mistakes are more likely to be sitting at my left or right.
There’s a song by the rock group Steppenwolf that has the refrain:
“Life is a gamble
Where you search and you ramble,
And you try for the high that will help to see you through;
Life is a gamble and so if you can handle
The uncertainty of tomorrow with me,
Today I’ll bet on you.”
That’s what I like about gambling, both on cards and people, in a nutshell. I treat each about the same. I can read a hand of card as it slowly unfolds at the table, and I can read a person’s intent and motion as their hand unfolds in my life. There are some hands that encourage me, and I bet, but there are more hands that show you the futility of pursuing them, so you fold… or bluff and see how far you are willing to push things before circumstances change or things fall in on you. And that’s key. In all or the time that I have been a gambler, I have chosen to play my hand as it lays much more often that I have chosen to bluff it out, and not from a lack of “heart.”
Most often, bluffing becomes more financially draining than just folding your cards to hope for a better play in the next hand. Like I said, I can read the cards and, experience has shown me that when I see things unfold with people that tend toward a loss, I have to make a decision that is best for me. In cards, I protect my funds, and in dealing with people I protect my emotional capital. Even a hand that starts with a pocket pair of aces can end in a loss as further cards provide information. You learn to be bold and bluff only when you can read your opponent by his expected play based on your experience with him or her at the tables.
An experienced gambler will often play his opponents in much the same way be will play his cards. He will watch his opponents as they play, looking for what players call “tells.” A “tell” is something that a player habitually does that will give you an indication of what his position is during the game. For example, a person who shuffles his chips and then bets big because he has a gook kicker (hole card) to back up what you can see in open play is showing you a “tell.” You mentally catalogue it along with other “tells” you find in them and other players at the table.
People in daily life exhibit “tells” as well. They might not be as prevalent as shuffling chips, but if you deal with them for any length of time, you can indeed pick up on them. Things people do when they are happy to see you, things they do to hide their disapproval, that glance to the left when they tell you a lie all go into my mental catalogue. I might deal with people for a long time, but when that catalogue becomes laden with negative tells, especially when experience shows me that they’re being used when dealing with me, I’m going to move to protect my emotional capital and cut them loose.
It’s hard for me to deal with the self-serving machinations of those who would claim to be my friend or ally. When they try to use my good graces to further their own agendas, they soon find out that I’m nobody’s fool, and while I may sometimes play along to see where their game is going, bluffing isn’t generally my style, so sooner or later, the cards will be laid on the table. Then they will learn that I play to win, and I’m very good at it.
One of the most important things to remember in poker and in life is the old saying, “If you sit in on a poker game, and you don’t see a sucker at the table, get up. You are the sucker.”