I do not pretend to be any expert on tells, but I have learned a great deal from reading Mike Caro’s Book of Poker Tells, subtitled “The Psychology and Body Language of Poker” and his articles about them. The major concept in Caro’s book is “strong means weak/weak means strong” meaning that most players act as if they had the opposite of what they have. In elaborating that concept, Caro explores player behavior with an extraordinary amount of subtlety and attention to detail. Reading and re-reading this book, and his articles in various sources, including Bluff Magazine and Pokerplayer Newspaper, among others, has helped make a sensitivity to tells one of the strongest aspects of my game.
In fact, attention to Caro’s writing has been so valuable to me that I often feel I owe him part of my winnings. An especially keen example of a Caro contribution to my bottom line happened the other day. As you read about it, you will see why I wanted to subtitle this article “An Appreciation of Mike Caro.”
I was at Foxwoods for two days, but for some very strange reason, I didn’t feel like playing the first day (if you knew me and my poker history, you would find this very strange indeed). Maybe I was just tired, or out of sorts from a long drive - or maybe it’s just that the room cost so much, I wanted to spend some time in it. In any case, I spent part of the first day visiting some places I really enjoy a few miles from the casino, and then returned to my room for a nap. When I woke up, I started idly flipping through the March issue of Casino Player Magazine, which happened to be in the room. It covers all casino games and casino news, not just poker (it is not to be confused with Card Player Magazine), but it did contain an article by Caro. The article appeared to be a followup to a previous one, because in it, Caro alluded to an article in the February issue in which he discussed a specific tell concerning breathing.
In the February article, which is available online at www.casinoplayer.com, Caro discusses a situation from a no-limit game in which a player made a very large bet into a big pot. He writes that “when players bet big hands, they tend to be relaxed. They breathe normally, or even more noticeably than usual. When players are bluffing in big pots, they’re like scared children hiding in the dark. They’re afraid to move... And one other important thing: They don’t breathe much. Sometimes they don’t breathe at all.” Caro’s point is that the player is so afraid he might reveal he is bluffing, he freezes. He continues: “It’s as if the suspense is killing him and he’s frozen, awaiting the outcome.” And that is what happened in the situation he describes. The opponent observed that the player who had just made the large bet - twice the size of the pot - was as still as a statue. He called and the bettor threw his hand away.
The article I read while hanging out in my room was from the magazine’s March issue. In it, Caro goes on to discuss more experienced players, who are aware that pulling off a bluff might be more easily achieved if they appear relaxed. So these players carefully avoid holding their breath or otherwise freezing up, to give the appearance of normalcy or at least, nonchalance. But, he suggests, even these more sophisticated players can be induced into giving away the strength - or weakness - of their hand. To discover whether someone is bluffing in a situation where a bluff is possible (given betting patterns during the hand), Caro recommends that you watch your opponent very carefully after he bets. Then, you keep watching him as you measure out the amount of chips you would need to call. As long as you keep your chips behind your cards when you are counting them out, and keep your mouth shut, you are not committed to either calling or folding. But you get to see your opponent react to the possibility that you’re going to call. Caro asserts that you will often see the nonchalant-seeming player freeze up (just like the amateur who froze as soon as he completed his bluff bet) in response to your indication that you’ve decided to call.
When I went to play the next afternoon, the exact situation Caro described in his article came up. It was almost uncanny. Holding 8-7 off suit, I flopped middle pair (sevens), and a preflop raiser bet the flop. (Why I was in a raised pot heads-up with 8-7 is a story for another time). There were no picture cards on the board, and no Ace. I sensed weakness, but I decided to just call and see what developed. The turn brought a blank, though the board was now double-suited, containing two hearts and two spades. The player bet $100 into a pot containing about $120. I decided to test his resolve and raised to $200. He just called. So now it was possible he had a flush draw with two high cards. I was sure he didn’t have my pair beat.
The river brought a terrible card for me, the King of hearts. Now there was a high card AND a three-flush on the board. My opponent immediately bet $300, in three neatly-placed stacks of four green chips each. He even made a little flick at the first stack, a courteous-seeming gesture to spread the chips, making it clear that each stack had exactly four chips, not three or five. He was as cool as a cucumber. He leaned back, right arm extended, shuffling some of his other chips with that hand, over and over. I watched. I waited. He kept shuffling his chips, with no change in motion, nothing to reveal he was nervous or didn’t want me to call. He had the look of a successful young tournament player with a great deal of tolerance for risk, someone who likes to take a lot of chances. (He had been discussing his tournament prowess earlier in the evening). Finally, not taking my eyes off him, I reached for my chips and measured out three stacks of four green chips. His hand that was shuffling his chips stopped. In short, he froze. Then he looked directly at me. I knew I had him. I called and he showed A-Q, for Ace-high. I took down a pot of over $1100 with my measly pair of sevens. Mike, I thought, I owe you one.