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by Michael Wiesenberg |  Published: Feb 22, 2012


Michael WiesenbergHere’s a little game you can use to sharpen your ability to catch players bluffing and to help make your play less predictable.

When I was a tour guide in the Canadian Rockies, the drivers used to play a game called birding. We would bird for drinks or sandwiches.

The concept of this game bears some similarity to Roshambo (paper-scissors-rock).
Each participant had three coins. Each placed his hands behind his back and put zero, one, two, or three coins in one hand, closed his fingers about the coins, and brought the closed fist in front of him, where it remained till the end of the round. Players took turns guessing the total of all coins held. No player could guess a number already chosen. After all had guessed a number, players opened their hands, and the total was ascertained. Each round, the player who guessed the exact total retired from the game; that player would not have to buy the drinks or food. To make it fair, each round the starting position for the guessing would move one position clockwise. Each round started, of course, with each player placing his hands behind his back and then bringing one out with a new coin total. When the game got down to two-handed (or started that way), the start alternated. The game was played till only one person remained. The fate of this unlucky player, never having guessed a correct total, was to buy drinks (or lunch) for everyone else. One of the rules to the game was that you were never permitted to guess an impossible total. That is, if it got down to three-handed, and you had no coins in your hand, you could not guess a number greater than six. If it was two-handed, and you had three coins in your hand, you could not guess less than three.

Some participants always got stuck for the refreshments, while others had an uncanny ability to guess the correct total, particularly when it got down to two players.

What is the point of all this? It’s that poker players are often predictable and predictability is related to the game of birding. Some players would always start with three coins and always follow with three coins. Other players would be afraid to follow with the number they had just chosen. This of course would give the edge to the observant opponent, who could eliminate one possible handful on the second round for that particular player. Some players were very predictable. They always used a certain series for their coin placements. Other tried to be less predictable, but in doing so also ended up being non-random. The observant bird players knew what pattern many players followed. This allowed their guesses to be better than random. Less successful players guessed more or less at random, and their chances for success were also random. The good players based their choices on observation, and their “guesses” were better than random.

To prevent a line on their pattern, good players selected coins to place in their hands purely randomly. One way to randomly choose one of the four possible numbers (0, 1, 2, or 3) is to glance at the second hand of your watch (or the seconds readout of your digital watch if you’re not old-fashioned) at the moment of choosing. If the second hand is between 1 second past and 15 (or the seconds counter between 1 and 15), place no coins in your hand if it’s between 16 and 30, place one coin; and so on.

The fewer the players that remained — assuming the “educated guesses” of these “expert” players did not meet early success — the fewer variables they had to deal with and the more likely they were to guess the correct total. And, when the game got down to two, the poorer players often gave away their own totals by trying to predict what the opponents had concealed.

One small example. If you had no coins in your hand when it was two-handed, and you were first to guess, zero was a very bad guess. Unless your opponent also had no coins, he would then say the number of coins in his own hand and always win.

How does this apply to poker? Some players fall into the category of bluffing once, and then fearing to bluff again. This is similar to the guy who never put three coins in his hand if he had just done so. Other players always bluff twice in a row. Many players who have a pattern are not even consciously aware of it, just as many bird players did not know that they, for example, never followed a particular placement of coins in their hands with the same number.

Introduce birding among your acquaintances. Doesn’t matter if they’re poker players or not, but they should not have read this article. If you can learn to beat the game consistently, your poker game will improve. ♠

Michael Wiesenberg has been a columnist for Card Player since 1988. He has written or edited many books about poker, and has also written extensively about computers. His crossword puzzles are syndicated in newspapers and magazines. Send congratulations, condemnations, and counsel to