Poker Tells – Lesson #3 – Don’t Give It Away

Players primarily give away information when their actions, voluntary or not, give away their intentions or the way they feel about their hand. This is often because of eagerness, excitement, or stress. So how do we prevent ourselves from giving away these indicators? The process breaks down into three simple pieces.

Stop Caring

I know it’s not easy as it sounds, but as you play more poker you’ll stop feeling so much anxiety when you look down at a big hand or run a big bluff. If you watch good players who have been around a long time, they fling their chips in without caring and most of them don’t get visibly agitated when they take a bad beat or two. You must become like them if you want to stop giving away information about your hand. While the other two means of concealment in this chapter deal with covering up that stress and anxiety, this portion deals with getting rid of it entirely.

If you are playing a game where the money is very important to you and causes you great stress, then you are almost certainly playing too high for your bankroll and/or your skill level. Most players do this, many of them for years before they learn how damaging it can be, but playing too high is definitely a mistake. If you move down a level or two, you may find that you don’t feel much stress when running a big bluff, and the possibility of being knocked out of a tournament won’t bother you so much if the buy-in isn’t so high.

Over time you will also become comfortable playing at almost any level, knowing that you are making the right decisions and playing your best. When you win and lose enough hands and you’ve seen aces thousands of times, you can let go of the money and that allows you to let go of that portion of the stress that causes tells that are hard to cover up. Tells like labored breathing, expanding or contracting pupils and a visible pulse are tough to cover up and it’s much more effective to learn to let them go.

And letting go is the key here. You can’t force stress to go away, you have to let it go and relax, letting the cards fall where they may because you know you can’t control the cards. You make your decision and the rest is up to the fates.

If you watch players that sweat their seventh street card in stud or draw games, you will notice that the harder and longer they squeeze those cards at the end the more likely they are to exhibit stress tells. They feed on the stress and they love a good sweat. You even see Holdem players do this sometimes when they are facing an all-in bet in the tournament and they are in the big blind. Players who tell bad beat stories, spend time lamenting bad play, or focus on their luck instead of playing their best game will also exhibit stress tells because they can’t let it go. Most of them don’t even want to let it go, they are playing for the rush, not the money.

If you can stop sweating so hard, stop telling and thinking about bad beat stories, and learn to forgive yourself quickly and easily for making bad plays, you will also notice that your stress tells go away. When you push all-in with a draw in a tournament, you won’t have to focus on keeping your breathing even because you won’t be worried, you’ll know that you made your decision and you can’t have any effect on how things go from here on out. Just let it go and relax.

If you want to relax your mind, one of the best ways to do so is to relax your body. Learn to toss your chips in the pot like they’re nothing to you, and adopt a relaxed posture whenever possible. Watch players who have been around a long time and seem to be relaxed and try to be as relaxed as they are. Even when you are under stress, it will help to force yourself to appear as if you don’t have a care in the world and it will definitely lower your blood pressure. We’re all actors, so just fake it til you make it and pretend you don’t care.

Cover Up

By far the most important thing you can do to cover up is to buy a pair of Blue Shark Optics glasses and a baseball hat. If you aren’t a hat person, ask yourself if you would not wear one on an actual baseball field. It’s part of what you need for success, part of the uniform, and it’s one of your weapons. Blue Sharks are even more important, but the two work together. They are powerful tools that help you read tells (we’ll talk about that later) as well as make sure that your opponents are not reading you.

One of the few things you can not cover up with a stone “poker face” is the size of your pupils. Even if you think you have your face under control, your eyes are the most expressive part of your face and you may have micro-tells that you don’t know about. Glasses that shield your eyes from view are the only way to make sure that your eyes are not revealing valuable information.

I went through multiple pairs of expensive sunglasses before finding Blue Sharks. Mirrored Ray Bans with an amber colored lens were the best thing I found, but they were $250 a pair and still too dark to watch my opponents carefully, especially at tables with dim lighting. Blue Sharks are so much better. 

I have worn a baseball hat for many years, and for a time I went without glasses and just used the brim of the hat to shield my eyes. It’s not bad for defense, but no good for watching for other player’s tells. In combination with Blue Sharks, a baseball cap becomes a real weapon.

I also want to talk about the famous “Navarro Shell” which body language expert Joe Navarro teaches in his seminars and discusses in his excellent book Read Em and Reap. The shell goes a long way toward covering yourself up and giving away as little information as possible. The shell is created by putting your elbows on the rail, your hands in front of your mouth with your chin resting on your palms or thumbs and remaining as still and calm as possible until your opponent has made their decision.

If you are being studied by an opponent who is making a big decision, going into the shell may be your best option. While you are in your shell, everything except your eyes is pretty well covered. In combination with a hat and a pair of Blue Sharks, you become very tough to read. If you are exhibiting stress tells like labored breathing your opponent may pick up on them through your shell, but the vast majority of tells should be impossible to pick up if you are still and your face and eyes are mostly covered.

Joe’s work is very valuable, and the shell is a helpful tool to have in your arsenal at times, but there are two potential problems with it.  

The first is that it can make you sick. As traveling celebrities and politicians will tell you, when they are interacting with a lot of people they have a “no hands to the face” rule. At a poker table, where you are handling dirty chips and cards and interacting with so many other people, putting your hands over your mouth twenty times a night will make you sick far too often. Staying home with the flu will hurt your profits a lot more than giving away a potential tell here and there.

The second problem is that it gives away an important piece of information. A smart player who sees you doing this will know too much about your game right away. I learn so much about a player on the rare occasion that I see them go into a shell, that I would much rather have them shell up and let me know that they have read Navarro’s book and that they are looking for tells.

Be a Robot

There will be times when you have to move, either to look at your cards or place chips in the pot. Some of those times will be very high stress situations and you won’t be able to relax enough to cover up the anxiety you are feeling about a big hand or a weak bluff. When this happens you need to become a robot and give away nothing in your motions.

Start by planning out your motions. If you improvise, then you may have to make decisions under stress and you may reveal information to a sharp opponent. If you need to make a bet, plan out your action and see yourself doing it before you actually begin and then move carefully. Don’t let anything interrupt your action. A robot doesn’t give away anything in the way it moves, and neither will you if you plan out your action. A simple plan like counting out four red chips, placing them in front of you, and going back to your original posture, can save you from giving anything away.

You may even want to practice being a robot and doing things the same way every time. If you don’t know exactly how you usually put chips in the pot you will almost certainly do it different under stress and give away information. Some of the best players in the world have practiced exactly how they bet and they do it the same way every time. There’s no reason you shouldn’t do the same.

It is important to learn to use all three methods of concealing information discussed in this chapter. Working on each method and developing good habits is vital to making certain that your opponent’s are getting as little information from you as possible. Remember that each player you learn something about thinks they don’t give anything away. While you may think you aren’t giving anything away, a good player will spot something if you aren’t vigilant.

In order to avoid giving away information, you should also make it a point not to speak when an opponent is studying you and asking questions. Answering his questions or talking to him will just give him a chance to glean information from the way you are behaving, read the stress in your voice, and learn from your answers. Most players who think they can talk casually while they are in a hand are giving away a great deal of information to strong players who will never reveal that they are getting reads from these players who can’t stop talking.

“It is better to keep one’s mouth closed and be thought a fool than to open it and remove all doubt.”

You can talk after the hand is over.

There is information in a later chapter about speech, manipulating opponent’s, and using false tells, but don’t worry about those things for now, just make sure you aren’t readable first.

It also helps to be deliberate all the time. I’m not talking about stalling for twenty seconds every time you fold, but occasionally you should take a second to think about your raise size or whether you are going to fold, even when you know the answer. Think about your behavior all the time, including body language, speech, movement, speed of action, and anything else that can give away information. Don’t be afraid to think during a hand, but don’t give away your thought process.

It may help to watch some very strong players and do as they do. Move as they move, talk as they talk, and think about why they do things. Even if you don’t adopt any of their methods, it will help you to understand why they do what they do.

Don’t give it away

Unless you are very certain about how you are manipulating every player at the table, do not show your hand, discuss your hands, tell the truth about what you held in a previous hand, or give away free information of any kind. You may be giving information to someone who will be misled by it at the time, but there are other players at the table, and they may learn something from it that they can use against you later.

A classic example is one that you may be able to use yourself, hopefully as the predator instead of the fool giving away the information. Picture this – You are watching a hand, and it appears that an opponent may have a tell. You see him hold his breath and pause before he bets in a big spot. He thinks he’s a genius and will show a bluff to tilt his opponent. It works, and the old man that he bluffed goes on tilt and loses the rest of his chips.

The player may think he did well to show his hand. He’s only thinking about how the old man reacted and how well his play worked, but after you watch him play a few more hands you confirm that your tell on him is correct. If he holds his breath and pauses briefly before he bets, he is bluffing. This information is incredibly valuable and you can use it to take his chips every time you play with him.

His mistake was that he gave away information. He probably had no idea that you spotted something in his behavior or that he helped to confirm it. It’s very tough to be sure that no one at the table is paying enough attention to pick up something on on you. Remember that everyone’s goal is to deceive, and if there is a strong player at the table you may not know it because they are sharp enough to cover it up.

It’s also important to remember that we all underestimate our opponents while overestimating our own skills. It’s easy to do, because if we see a mistake, we only see it because we know better and we can recognize that mistake. If a player is better than we are, it’s tough to tell and if they are very good at watching people and picking up tells they will not advertise that knowledge the way that many players advertise their strategy knowledge.

Players who are good at picking up tells are also often good at covering up that ability and they may be weak when it comes to strategy so you may see them as a fish. Just because they are a fish when it comes to strategy doesn’t mean that they can’t pick up some tells. In short, don’t give away anything unless you are sure of what you are doing, and usually not even then.

Subconscious Reading

Some of your opponents have been playing poker or watching people for a very long time. The worst player at the table may in fact be very good at reading people and may lose a lot less than you expect him to because on occasion he makes a raise or a fold that is perfectly timed. This may be because he enjoys watching people or there was a time in his life when he had to watch people for his job or his own safety.

These opponents may be picking up tells that even they don’t realize. We don’t read body language completely as a conscious thing. We don’t need to analyze a face logically to know that it is smiling or angry or sad, or to interpret what that means. It’s second nature to most of us, and we do it without realizing that we are doing it.

Everyone has this ability, and even the biggest loser in your regular game can certainly tell when someone is happy or unhappy by looking at their face. So why wouldn’t they read tells in this same, and maybe do it better than you do? Some of them are doing exactly that. This is a very important reason not to reveal anything. You may be revealing it to a couple of fools who don’t know how to use it, but part of their brain may know a lot more than you think or than they even realize.

So don’t give away anything. Don’t show cards unless you are certain about what you are doing and why you are doing it, and even then it’s fine to never show a hand voluntarily in your entire poker career. This is a mistake I have made often, and it’s a hard not to show cards sometimes, but do yourself a favor and don’t give anything away.

Buying Blue Sharks

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