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More about Bluffing: Part III

by Steve Zolotow |  Published: Apr 30, 2014


Steve Zolotow
I have discussed a lot about the mathematics of bluffing, and put you to work keeping track of how successful your bluffs are. Hopefully you will continue to track your success rate at both bluffing and catching bluffs. But there are two other important topics that relate to bluffing, tells and situations. Unlike the math, these areas are fun to read about. In fact, they are the subject of many stories and scenes in a variety of movies. In this column, I will start discussing tells that relate to bluffing. A tell is some physical or verbal behavior that can tell the astute observer something about his opponent’s hand. We can further break tells down into two broad categories — deliberate and inadvertent or accidental.

Deliberate tells occur when a player tries to convince the opposition that he has a certain type of hand. If he has a weak hand, he may try to pretend it is strong, while with a strong hand, he will try to convey weakness. Notice that this pattern of acting weak when strong and acting strong when weak is being deliberately controlled by the actor. This means that he will try to do something to lead you astray, so you have to be extremely careful when your decisions are based entirely on clues from tells. Most bluffers want to appear strong when they are weak. They hope this will get their opponent to fold, and they’ll win the pot. Over the years, there have been many great stories of cunning maneuvers designed to accomplish this. Let me emphasize again, these are just stories, but they are entertaining.

It is said that in the late 1800s there was a high-stakes game being played on board a Mississippi paddle-wheel boat. One of the players started to bet when a gust of wind blew his hole card into the river. Without a second thought, he dove off the ship, fished his card out of the water, and was brought back on board. He made a large bet, and his opponent folded, figuring that any card worth diving in after would have him beat. Of course, the man then showed his bluff.

A TV play was adapted into the 1966 Western A Big Hand for the Little Lady, with an all-star cast including Henry Fonda and Joanne Woodward. Wikipedia gives the details of its clever plot as follows: “The five richest men in the territory gather in Laredo for their annual high-stakes poker game. The high rollers let nothing get in the way of their yearly showdown. When undertaker Tropp calls for them in his horse-drawn hearse, cattleman Henry Drummond forces a postponement of his daughter’s wedding, while lawyer Otto Habershaw abandons his closing arguments in a trial, with his client’s life hanging in the balance. They are joined by Wilcox and Buford in the back room of Sam’s saloon, while the curious gather outside for occasional reports.

Settlers Meredith, his wife Mary, and their young son Jackie are passing through, on their way to purchase a farm near San Antonio, when a wheel on their wagon breaks. They wait at Sam’s while the local blacksmith repairs it. Meredith, a recovering gambler, learns of the big poker game and begins to feel the excitement once again. During a break, Otto Habershaw, catches a glimpse of Mary in her violet dress. Being so enchanted by her, he permits Meredith’s request to watch the game only if Mary allows him. The newcomer buys into the game, eventually staking all of the family savings, meant to pay for a home.

The game builds to a climactic hand; the gamblers raise and re-raise until more than $20,000 is in the pot. Meredith, out of cash, is unable to call the latest raise. Under the strain, he collapses. The town physician, Joseph “Doc” Scully, is called to care for the stricken man. Barely conscious, Meredith signals for his wife to play out the hand.
Taking his seat, Mary asks, “How do you play this game?” The other players object loudly to playing with someone who does not know the game, but eventually give in. The situation is explained to her: if she cannot match the last raise (and any others that may follow), she will be out of the hand.

Despite the men’s protests, she leaves the room to borrow additional funds. With Jackie and four of the players trailing behind, Mary crosses the street and talks to the owner of the Cattle and Merchants’ Bank, C. P. Ballinger. After she shows him her hand, Ballinger assumes she is playing a practical joke. When he learns otherwise, he loans her $5,500 (at 6 percent interest) and makes a $5,000 raise for her. The other players, aware of Ballinger’s tightfisted, cautious nature, all reluctantly fold. Mary collects her sizable winnings and pays Ballinger back with interest. The game then breaks up, no one ever having seen the winning hand.

The lady’s determination earns her the admiration of the men. Even Drummond, the most hard-hearted of the bunch, is so touched that, when he returns home to the waiting wedding ceremony, he talks privately to his weak-willed, prospective son-in-law, gives him some money, and orders him to run away and find himself a better wife than his daughter.

The denouement takes place in the gambling town of Black Creek, where it is revealed that Meredith, Mary, Doc Scully, and even their ‘son’ are confidence tricksters and expert card sharps. Together with Ballinger and Scully, they have perpetrated a scam on the five poker players, who had swindled the banker in a real estate deal sixteen years before. “Mary” is actually Ballinger’s girlfriend Ruby. She had promised him she would give up gambling after the caper, but it becomes clear that she had no such intent when she sits down to another poker game.”

I apologize for the length of that plot summary, but the details are quite enjoyable. While it is clearly fiction, it does emphasize the lengths to which players will go to appear strong when they are weak. ♠

Steve ‘Zee’ Zolotow, aka The Bald Eagle, is a successful gamesplayer. He has been a full-time gambler for over 35 years. With 2 WSOP bracelets and few million in tournament cashes, he is easing into retirement. He currently devotes most of his time to poker. He can be found at some major tournaments and playing in cash games in Vegas. When escaping from poker, he hangs out in his bars on Avenue A in New York City -The Library near Houston and Doc Holliday’s on 9th St. are his favorites.