Poker Tells – Lesson #2 – Finding Fascination

We almost never become really good at something that we aren’t interested in. If you are seven feet tall and athletic you will probably be the best basketball player on your high school team, but unless you love the game and love to compete, you won’t be a big star in college or have any shot at the pros. Even knowing that a free college education and a multi-million dollar contract could be waiting for you, all the work required to a world class basketball player will be too much if you don’t love the game.

There are a few exceptions, typically children with overbearing parents who have their child swinging a golf club or a tennis racket as soon as they can walk, but for every parent who succeeds in this there are hundreds who fail. Those who succeed, do so because they are interested, because the game is fun for them, because they love to compete. If you are going to be an expert at reading people, you need to become fascinated by them.

Learning about the human condition can be very interesting, especially if you are figuring things out on your own instead of being fed the information. Sometimes you’ll learn new things about people at the poker tables, and your understanding of the way the world works will grow too.

The more I learn about my fellow humans, the more interesting they are. As I’ve studied non-verbal communication, I’ve become interested in every aspect of social interaction. I love watching people in the mall or at a restaurant just to see what I can learn about them. You must become the same way if you want to get really good at this whole poker thing. So open your eyes and get your brain ready to analyze all the information coming in, figuring out all sorts of neat things about the world around you. Learn to enjoy it and become fascinated by it, and the process will not only be faster, it will be fun.

A quick note on my own experience here –

I love watches. In particular I’m fascinated with high end mechanical watches and I wear a limited edition Hamilton every day. I’m becoming a watch nerd, able to pick out specific models from across the table, and knowing what a watch tells me about an opponent can be a big help. Watches are a perfect example of ways you can learn about other players from their appearance, and finding the skills you have that help you learn about opponents

A player wearing a $200 Fossil watch tells me that he makes between $30,000 and $80,000 a year. Someone who makes less than $30,000 won’t spend that much on a watch, and someone who makes more than $80,000 will either wear a high end watch or an ultra cheap Timex. The rich person wearing a Timex tends to be more conservative and it will come through in their play, while a higher end watch indicates that they make good money and aren’t afraid to spend it.

I have noticed that a Rolex often means that they don’t know much about watches, but they have money and feel like they should own a Rolex, while a more obscure high end watch like a Panerai indicates someone who is very interested in watches. A low end watch that is very unique, like a Stauer tends to indicate someone who thinks for themselves and is interested in things. They will know more about poker, though they may mistakes because they take their own road to learning about the game instead of reading more about what experts think.

That is just a tiny fraction of what I know about a player from their watch. If you can apply this sort of thinking to everything about an opponent’s appearance, you can learn a great deal about them before they even sit down.

I recently played a $2/5 no-limit Holdem game where an opponent’s appearance was a dead giveaway. A new player was brought to the game on my immediate left. He was wearing a high end watch from Ferrari that comes with a car, but it was older and a little scratched up. His suit was expensive, but near threadbare, and his hair was a bit disheveled. I thought this probably meant that he had a lot of money in the past, but didn’t have it anymore, and I asked about the watch to confirm my suspicion. He told me that he had bought a Ferrari in 1998 and the watch had come with it, though he no longer owned the car. A person who still wears the watch even though the car is gone is probably still wishing he had that kind of money.

We played a big hand not long after where he put a lot of pressure on me on the turn. If he had been in a brand new suit with a more practical watch I would have folded, but this guy seemed like a hopeless gambler from his appearance and I called. He was bluffing, drawing dead to my pair of kings and I won a $900 pot. My read on his appearance won me a nice pot when I would have folded and lost $120 instead if I didn’t have a read on him.

We’ll be spending a lot of time in this book on physical tells, tells of movement, posture and expression that indicate a player’s comfort level and often the strength of his hand. Without an understanding of who your opponent is, those tells will be much tougher to read and your accuracy will be lower. That is why this chapter is so important. Because a 24 year old jerk who plays for a living will talk to you when he wants you to fold, while a 35 year old amateur in a polo shirt will be much too worried about giving something away and would never try to appear comfortable enough to get you to fold when he’s bluffing.

If you can’t immediately tell the difference between the different personalities at your table by judging their appearance, you will make far too many mistakes when you try to read their body language and spot their tells. Every tell you spot, every piece of information you get, must be seen in a greater context. Trying to read people in a vacuum is very tough. With context you can be remarkably accurate and understand how your opponent’s mind works and beat them not only with tells, but with a proper strategy to exploit their weaknesses.

This chapter is about context. You MUST have context for the tells you are reading or your accuracy will be terrible. You must learn everything you can about your opponents.

If you want to become a great reader of people at the tables, you have to understand them. This means putting in the work to learn about them, to become fascinated by them, and to see through their eyes. That means going back and doing the exercise from Chapter 1 again and then once more and integrating that kind of thought process into your daily life so that it becomes second nature. The more you know about people the more accurate your reads will be and the easier it will be to spot tells and understand what they mean.

Exercise #2 – From a Distance

In this exercise, you will need to focus on someone you don’t know and who you can’t hear talking. Maybe they are across the room at a restaurant, or a few tables away in a poker room. Choose a subject you think will be there for at least a few minutes.

Now take a look at your subject. Don’t let them catch you staring at them or their behavior will change. You want to see them acting naturally. Start at the bottom with their appearance and work your way up, noting each thing you see from the lowest thing you can see from your vantage point.

What kind of shoes are they wearing? Were they expensive? How practical are they? What do you know about people who wear that type of footwear?

How about pants or a skirt? What do they indicate? How much money was spent on them? Are they work clothes or casual? What does that tell you about them?

Let’s move up to their shirt. What kind of shirt is it? Is it expensive? Does it indicate that they care a lot about their appearance or do they just throw on whatever is clean? Any logos or indications that they support a particular brand, fit into a particular cultural group, or have specific views?

Do they have a wedding ring on? How fancy is it? Any other jewelry? How about a watch, necklace or earrings? Eyeglasses or a hat? Hats are a great indicator because most of them tell us something about a person. Is it an expensive baseball hat or a fedora? Then your subject probably cares about their appearance and may not want to be caught bluffing. Is it flashy? Then your subject may be macho and want to steal pots and push the table around. Is it a plain but functional cap or something they get for free? They may be more practical and careful with money.

Hands are also a good source, not only for physical tells later on, but for appearance tells right away. Are they calloused hands, indicating someone who works hard for a living, or softer hands that indicate a desk job? Scars? Visible arthritis? Tattoos? Everything you see means something. Figure out what it means.

Your subjects overall appearance can tell you a lot, but look even further into what they are doing. Their activity, body language, companions, choice of seat or location, can all tell you about them. Now pick a few more subjects and go through the same process. Every time you do this, you’ll get better at it.

Soon you will start linking things together. Calloused hands, but a nicely pressed suit that doesn’t fit perfectly? Maybe he doesn’t usually wear a suit, and he had a formal function to attend today, possibly a wedding or a funeral. A pink pocket square to go with calloused hands and the ill-fitting suit, and the guy is in his mid-forties and looks happy? His daughter probably got married today.

I could fill these pages with examples, but as my friend Al Schoonmaker is fond of saying, we learn by doing. You have to start watching people and looking for these things yourself. It’s a gradual process, but it won’t be long before you realize that you’ve gotten pretty good at it.

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