Editor’s Note: The following are two chapters (edited for brevity by the author) from Zachary Elwood’s book Verbal Poker Tells.
Misdirections are an attempt to “explain away” the true meaning of a player’s action. Another fitting word for them would be “excuses.” (In my first book I referred to these as “disclaimers” but I’ve come to realize “misdirections” is a better general term for this kind of verbal behavior.)
Most misdirections are examples of first-level deception: they will imply the opposite of what is actually true about a player’s hand. (Second-level deception would be going one level deeper and stating or implying the truth about one’s hand. Most deceptive statements in poker are first-level deceptions, although many can be subtle.)
High Stakes Poker, high stakes NLHE cash game, S4 E17, ~16:00
The river board is A A 5 9 K. Guy Laliberté checks.
Daniel Negreanu, with J J, bets $5,000 into the $17,100 pot.
Laliberté says, “Not very convincing” and then raises to $15,000.
Laliberté is implying that he’s raising because Negreanu’s bet doesn’t convince him that Negreanu has a strong hand. This, in turn, implies that he (Laliberté) could be raising with a wide range of hands, including bluffs.
As discussed previously, this is also an indirect weak-hand statement. Bettors who weaken their own hand range will usually have strong hands.
Results: Laliberté has A K, for the nut full house.
$1-2 NLHE cash game, submitted by J. Vu
A player 3-bets pre-flop to $32.
His opponent says, “Let’s see where this kid’s heart lies” before 4-betting to $82.
This player is implying his raise is primarily intended as a test of his opponent’s “heart”, in other words, his courage. He is misdirecting from his real reason for raising; that his hand is strong. In a similar way to the last example, this player is also indirectly weakening his own range.
Results: The 4-bettor has A A.
2005 WSOP Main Event NLHE tournament, E9, ~35:00
The flop is T 9 5.
Joe Hachem has A K, for the nut flush draw. He checks.
Dannenmann bets 150,000. Hachem raises to 1M. Dannenmann shoves for 3.75M more.
Hachem says, “You’re staring me down as if you’ve got nothing.”
Dannenmann replies, “Everything else is extra credit from here for me, buddy.”
Dannenmann: “Everything now is extra credit for me. I got past the first day.”
Hachem: “All-in, huh?”
Dannenmann shrugs and says, “Hey, I’m just having fun.”
With his statements that “everything else is extra credit from here” and “I’m just having fun,” Dannenmann is implying that he doesn’t mind being eliminated because he’s happy just to have made it that far in the tournament. These statements imply that his raise is made not because he has a strong hand, but because he doesn’t much care about his fate. (Again, his misdirections also indirectly weaken his hand range, which also makes it unlikely he’s weak.).
Results: Dannenmann has 9 9, for the flopped set.
2004 WSOP NLHE Main Event tournament, E9 of 10, ~13:00
The river board is A 4 2 9 7. Jeremy Tinsley is first to act. On the turn, he and his opponent, Sam Farha, had both checked.
First to act on the river, Tinsley says to Farha, “I know you wouldn’t have checked if you had anything”. Then Tinsley bets.
Farha says, “You made me check.” (This is referring to an interaction they had on the turn.)
Tinsley says, emphatically and jokingly, “You coulda bet!”
Tinsley’s statements imply that he’s betting because he doesn’t think Farha has anything, not because he (Tinsley) has a strong hand.
Results: Tinsley has 4 4, for the flopped set.
High Stakes Poker, high stakes NLHE cash game, S3 E6, ~21:00
On a river board of A 9 8 K Q, Eli Elezra bets $13,000 into a pot of $27,000.
His opponent is Erick Lindgren. Lindgren considers the bet and says, “That’s the lucky number.” He’s referring to Elezra making a $13,000 river bet several times in recent hands. Lindgren then raises to $40,000.
Elezra says, “Nice speech. ‘Lucky number’, then you throw this to me.”
Lindgren says, “Well, you bet it on the end four times.”
Lindgren seems to be attempting to explain what Elezra refers to as Lindgren’s “speech.” Because a speech accompanying a big bet is generally associated with a good hand, Lindgren seems to be saying: “I’m not making a speech because my hand is good; I said that only because you’ve bet $13,000 so many times.”
Results: Lindgren has J T, for the nuts.
This is a case of a misdirection that seems intended to direct attention not from the bet itself, but from a behavior associated with the bet.
2008 WSOP NLHE Main Event tournament, Day 2A, E6, ~25:00
On a river board of A T 3 2 Q, Jason Young is first to act. His opponent is Ray Romano, the actor.
Young makes a very small bet of 1,200 into a pot of 7,700. As he bets, he says to Romano, “Same bet; I like sitting next to you.”
The “same bet” statement references him betting the same amount on the flop, turn, and river. The second part of his statement implies that he’s making such a small bet because he likes sitting next to Romano and doesn’t want to eliminate him from the tournament—and not because he has a vulnerable hand.
Results: Ray Romano calls with T 4, third pair. Jason Young has A 9, for top pair, medium-strength kicker.
All of the misdirections so far have been associated with decent-sized bets; they’ve been attempts by a bettor to distract from the idea of a strong hand. This hand is different because it features a justification for a small, defensive bet. Jason Young’s statement serves a defensive, pot-controlling purpose, as does his bet; he doesn’t want to check and face a large bet from Romano.
$20-40 fixed limit cash game, witnessed by author
In a heads-up pot, the river board is J 9 5 7 A.
The player who’d bet the flop and turn now says, “I don’t like that river!” and checks.
This player is implying that he has a decent hand, like a pair of jacks, or maybe pocket queens or kings. He’s implying that he’s only forced to check because of the presence of the ace. Because he’s checking while implying he has some sort of good hand, he’s probably weak in some way.
Results: His opponent checks behind. The speaking player had K 9, for a pair of nines.
This is a limit hand, so it’s less meaningful than if it appeared in a more significant no-limit spot. But this is still a pattern in both no-limit and limit. While players might show up with a range of medium-strength hands, this kind of statement will almost always be some sort of defensive misdirection intended to discourage an opponent from betting. Even if the speaker does end up calling, a check-raise has become very unlikely.
Players will sometimes express real concern about a hand that’s stronger than their own, even when there may be significant action left in the hand. For example, a player with A A gets raised on a Q 8 2 flop and asks his opponent, “Did you hit a set?”
It’s understandable that a player who thinks there’s a good chance his hand is beaten will imagine the most likely hand that’s stronger than his. Often, the imagined hand will be just slightly stronger than the player’s own hand.
This kind of statement is a kind of defensive statement and also a form of vented, genuine frustration. If the player who says this continues in the hand, it’s likely they have a good hand but not a very good hand. The strength of the player’s hand is a factor in making the player comfortable enough to verbalize some concern. (A player with a weak hand, who knows he might continue in the hand, would be unlikely to make a statement expressing his own vulnerability.)
Another factor: a player who makes such a statement is, in a way, “saving face” in the event he loses to a stronger hand. In the example just given: if his opponent did have a set and the player with pocket aces paid him off, the player with aces could at least feel better knowing that he realized (and made it known that he realized) what was going on.
This is a fairly well-known pattern. Sometimes experienced players will try to use it deceptively, as a false tell.
2011 “JAX50K” NLHE cash game, Orange Park Kennel Club, E3, ~6:00
On a flop of A 6 3, Rick Rahim continuation-bets $8,500 into a pot of $8,500. Paul Petraglia raises to $17,000.
Rahim says, “Wow. Did you really hit a set? Be sick if he’s got a set of sixes… Well, I didn’t bet it to fold. I’m all-in.”
Rahim’s immediate reaction to Paul’s raise, expressing concern about a set, makes it likely that Rahim does have some sort of strong made hand that’s weaker than a set.
Results: Rahim has A Q.
2010 WSOP NLHE Main Event tournament, Day 5, E17, ~45:00
A 4-way flop is checked around.
The turn board is A 7 4 9.
The first-to-act player bets and Edward Ochana raises. Scotty Nguyen 3-bets. Everyone folds except Ochana.
Ochana asks Scotty, “What do you got? Pocket nines, Scotty?”
Scotty responds, “Nope.”
Ochana says, “You don’t got a set of aces.”
Scotty replies, “Nope.”
Ochana’s concern about the possibility of sets makes it likely that he has some sort of strong made hand that is weaker than the sets he’s named.
Results: Ochana goes all-in with A 4: two pair.
2005 WSOP NLHE Main Event tournament, E1, ~8:00
On a turn board of Q J T T, Cory Zeidman bets 1,000 and Jennifer Harman raises to 3,000.
Zeidman considers for a while. If he were to call the raise, he’d have only 3,000 behind.
Zeidman: “I think you might have ace-king, actually. I was hoping it wasn’t that. Now I’m hoping something else. Wow. Hmm, geez. How can I possibly muck this hand? I call.”
Results: Zeidman has the 9 8, for the flopped straight and the turned straight flush draw.
Voicing his concern about the higher straight makes it likely Zeidman has the lower straight. Considering there’s not much action left, it’s unlikely he’d speak like this as a complicated deception. He probably believes that there’s not enough action left to be worried about leaking information.
Zeidman does hit his straight flush on the river to beat Harman’s full house. Harman bets all-in and Zeidman calls. When the cards are turned up, Jennifer Harman immediately says, “I knew you had that hand.” Assuming we believe that Harman suspected his exact hand (which I do), Zeidman’s statements on the turn were undoubtedly a large factor in allowing her to define his range. If she suspected that he had a straight, she might have also deduced from his statement “How can I possibly muck this hand” that his hand had more potential than just a straight.
High Stakes Poker, high stakes NLHE cash game, S1 E11, ~27:00
Phil Hellmuth raises pre-flop and Daniel Negreanu 3-bets.
Hellmuth: “You might have jacks so I just call.”
Negreanu: “Jacks! You got tens? You claiming tens? Is that what you’re claiming?”
Results: Hellmuth has A 4. Negreanu has A T.
The important thing to note about this is just that Negreanu knows the general meaning of someone expressing concern about a specific hand; it’s usually because the speaker has a hand slightly weaker than that. Of course, Hellmuth knows this, too, so he’d be unlikely to give away his hand that easily.
High Stakes Poker, high stakes NLHE cash game, S7 E5, ~20:00
On a turn of K 8 2 J, Vanessa Selbst bets $17,400.
Doyle Brunson considers for a bit. “Well, I guess you turned three kings but I’m going.” He raises all-in to $55,300.
Selbst says, “Does that speech mean you have trip jacks? I call.”
Results: Brunson has 8 7, for a pair of 8s with the flush draw. Selbst has A K, for top pair.
Brunson is probably using this pattern intentionally, as a subtle false tell to represent strength. We can see from Selbst’s response that she’s also aware of the pattern.