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Head Games: Top Mistakes and Tells Players Make in Tournaments Over and Over Again

by Craig Tapscott |  Published: Apr 30, 2014


The Pros: Bobby Oboodi, Amanda Musumeci, and Aaron Been

Craig Tapscott: What are the biggest mistakes you see both amateurs and professionals make in tournament strategy over and over again?

Bobby Oboodi: I think playing too many hands preflop is a huge mistake for amateurs. Playing too many hands puts them in bad positions postflop, where they will generally make life unnecessarily difficult for themselves.

To begin with, everybody pretty much has the idea of how to play preflop, from information on the Internet to watching World Series of Poker telecasts. The postflop game is where the pros are going to take advantage of less experienced players. When amateurs are playing hands like A-9 or A-10, they are putting themselves in terrible positions against the pros where they can easily be exploited. An example is when inexperienced players are calling three-bets with A-J or A-10 out of position. Even when flops are ace or ten high, they will be put in situations where they are check/calling and guessing most times against an experienced professional. They should stick to a much narrower and tighter hand range where the decisions are pretty straightforward. With hands like A-A, K-K, Q-Q, J-J, or A-K postflop, you will either have monster type hands or have nothing. Even Phil Ivey cannot bluff you off the nuts.

Also, amateurs should avoid defending their blinds too often as they will be totally exploitable postflop. You are just so defenseless out of position; even professionals, when somebody has you out of position and putting pressure on you, it is very difficult and places you in awkward spots.

Amanda Musumeci: One of the mistakes that I see a lot on the tables from the amateurs is that they don’t play with an awareness or knowledge regarding stack sizes. The pros base much of their play on guidelines that have been deemed “optimal.” Both learning and abiding by such guidelines are major catalysts in what sets the average pro apart from the average “feel-based” amateur player. I often see amateurs raising on stacks that are too short to be raising with (such as six big blinds, and then folding to a reraise, etcetera), flatting raises when stacks are too shallow, and shoving all-in with too many chips.

On the other hand, it’s difficult to know when pros are making mistakes. Pros have ways of avoiding a lot of showdowns, and so because of this, we get to see less of their hands. I do see “pros” that have trouble changing gears at various tables and various levels of a tournament. I’m sure that I’ve played with some people who will tell you I played really tight and some people who will tell you I play like a nut job. Pros can also have a lot of ego, so I see them barreling off in spots where it was obviously a spot to just give up the hand.

Aaron Been: The biggest mistakes I see both amateurs and professionals make in tournament strategy are folding the big blind (BB) too much and generally not being positionally aware preflop. Many players miss out on the value of calling a raise in the BB. Because of tournament antes, the player in the BB is often getting 4-to-1 or 4.5-to-1 odds to call a minimum raise. This means he should play a lot of weaker hands because at that price he only needs 18-to-20 percent equity in the pot.

Positional awareness preflop includes not just playing a lot of hands in the BB, but attempting to steal the blinds less often the more people there are left to act. Most players understand that they can’t play as many hands in early position as late position, but they end up raising about 25 percent of unopened pots with seven to eight players left to act and 40 percent of unopened pots on the button with just two players left. A more appropriate strategy would be raising 15-to-20 percent of unopened pots in early position and 60 percent of them on the button.

Craig Tapscott: Share a few tells you pick up on players that are beyond the obvious ones most people know about?

Bobby Oboodi: I want to share a bet-sizing trend that I have seen on the live tour lately, it is being called downsized continuation betting (c-bet). It can be a tell to the strength of a hand. Let’s say with blinds at 1,500-3,000 you make a raise to 6,000 preflop and get called in one spot. A downsized c-bet would be any bet 6,000 or less. By making c-bets smaller, people are depending on board texture where your sizing is irrelevant. When the board is very dry, it is either in your opponents’ hand range or it is not. Your downsized c-bet will essentially give you the same information as a three-quarter pot bet, but you are risking significantly less. It is a lower variance play. Take advantage of this knowledge.

Another tell is how comfortable your opponent is in some spots. When there are big river or tournament life decisions, it is crucial to take your time. Try to wait out your opponent and gauge how comfortable or uncomfortable he may be. People may be fidgeting or literally afraid to move and are frozen like a statue when they are bluffing. Some players, when they hold the nuts, are talking a bit more or laughing. Physically, I generally also pay attention to people’s breathing. All of this is very player dependent. I’ve seen players with a chest that looks like it is going to explode from nervousness at the table, yet they have the nuts. So it is hard to give a rock solid physical equation for physical tells. My advice is to use your judgment wisely and take your time overall.

Amanda Musumeci: When I first started playing live poker, I was really nervous and tense and just overwhelmed. I suppose after having played online for years, my senses were all being reawakened at once. I honestly couldn’t even begin to pay attention to other people’s tells, because I was so concerned about what I might be putting off that other people were picking up on. The bottom line was that I felt insecure and out of my element, as I’m sure a lot of newer players to poker in general might feel. It took time, experience, and exposure to the folks in the game and the game itself to gradually help me feel more secure. Nowadays, I spend a lot more time eyeing other people up than worrying if they’re eyeing me up.

I find that lesser experienced players are huge tellboxes. When they debate over whether to make the call on the turn, you know if you bet huge on the river they’re folding a high percentage of the time. Or if they’ve been playing super tight and suddenly they snap check-raise you on a dry flop. It’s crucial to not only be paying attention to how comfy your opponent seems in a hand, but also to their tendencies throughout the day.

Aaron Been: There is a tell that may help with a common situation that has come up recently in high profile events: the possibly fake accidental bet. Often when a player makes a bizarre play such as a bet ten times the usual size, we have to consider whether it was an honest mistake or a trick to get his opponents to put more money in the pot. The first thing to consider is the player; both professionals and amateurs can make mistakes. Anyone who puts out chips thousands of times is going to put the wrong amount eventually. 

The difference is a professional is going to better conceal his emotions. An amateur who makes a mistake may often decide his only hope is convincing everyone he put too many chips because he has a monster hand. He’ll give his best staredown but may falter if the hand goes long. An amateur trying to make a move, on the other hand, will be more likely to acknowledge the potential for a mistake. He’s less aware of how obvious it is that his oversized raise can’t be part of a normal strategy. He might drop an “oops,” not realizing it’s totally unnecessary; everyone is already considering whether it was a mistake or a trick. As usual be wary of overacting at the poker table.

The last thing to remember is that players make mistakes with monster hands as well. In fact a player might be more likely to bet the wrong amount with pocket aces just because he gets excited and doesn’t count his chips carefully. Consider a very tight, straightforward player who would never make a move like this. If he accidentally raises to 2,000 instead of 200 under the gun, he can’t be too weak, as he just folds whenever he has a weak hand. ♠

Bobby Oboodi has more than $2 million in tournament cashes. In 2011 he won the World Poker Tour’s Borgata main event for $922,441. He has made an EPT final table as well as cashed in four World Series of Poker events, including the 2011 and 2012 main events in Las Vegas.

Amanda Musumeci is a 28-year-old professional poker player, Philadelphia born and raised. She took 2nd place in the 2012 WSOP re-entry event for $481,000 and won a circuit ring at the World Series of Poker Circuit Hammond event.

Aaron Been is a professional online poker player, poker coach, and video instructor at He has tournament cashes of more than $3 million.