Sign Up For Card Player's Newsletter And Free Bi-Monthly Online Magazine


Poker Training

Newsletter and Magazine

Sign Up

Find Your Local

Card Room


Clever Hans

by Steve Zolotow |  Published: Mar 28, 2018


In the last few years, young German poker geniuses have been extraordinarily successful. Superstar Fedor Holz has been the leader of the pack. So, you might think that Hans is another great Germanic player, who is about to take the world by storm. No Hans, now long deceased, was not a poker player. In fact, he was not even human, he was a horse. I frequently hear or read that tells are relatively unimportant in today’s games. While this may be true online, nothing could be more wrong when it comes to live games. Players state they can’t pick up any valuable information from their opponents. Whenever I hear this, I think of Hans.

Wikipedia tells us that, “Hans was said to have been taught to add, subtract, multiply, divide, work with fractions, tell time, keep track of the calendar, differentiate musical tones, and read, spell, and understand German. Von Osten would ask Hans, “If the eighth day of the month comes on a Tuesday, what is the date of the following Friday?” Hans would answer by tapping his hoof.” Most humans have difficulty solving the problems that Hans seemed to be capable of getting right. Was Hans an equine genius? Yes, he absolutely was, but not in the way you might think.

The Germans investigated Hans very thoroughly. They found that the horse got the correct answers only when the person asking the question also knew the answer and when he could see that person. How could this be? Wikipedia answers, “the questioner’s posture and facial expression changed in ways that were consistent with an increase in tension, which was released when the horse made the final, correct tap.” Hans was picking up tells from his interlocutors. Therefore, any poker player who claims he can never pick up information from tells must be dumber than a horse.

What can you do to improve your ability to read your opponents? Begin by practicing against the weakest opponents. Play some live $1-$2 blind cash games and some $50 buy-in tournaments. In a recent $5-$10 no-limit hold’em cash game at Aria, I witnessed the following two hands. In both cases, everyone folded to the button who raised to $35.
The small blind folded.

In the first case, the big blind said, “Raise it to $100!” He then aggressively shove a stack of ten orange $10 chips toward the pot and stared at the button raiser. His hand was eventually revealed to be A-5 suited. Two rounds later, in the same situation, the big blind hesitated, then quietly slid $110 into the pot – a black $100 and an orange $10. He stared fixedly at the pot. This time he had aces. Let me put this into a table:

Hand A-5 suited A-A
Verbal Statement of raise Quiet
Physical Aggressive shove Careful slide
Direction of gaze At opponent At pot
Demeanor Confrontational Hesitant, unassuming
Chip denominations Ten at $10 1 at $100 and 1 at $10
Total raise to $100 $110

Based on the tiny sample of two hands, it is impossible to know for sure which of the differences shown in the table was random and which was related to the difference in hand strength. But it is virtually certain some of these behavioral differences are revealing tells. And the stuff mentioned was just what I noticed. There could have been other differences that escaped my attention.

If you start in small-stakes games and tournaments, where players’ tells are more obvious, you should be able to develop your ability to read your opponents. You are smarter than a horse, right? ♠

Steve ZolotowSteve ‘Zee’ Zolotow aka Zebra is a very successful gamesplayer. He has been a full-time gambler for over 40 years. With two WSOP bracelets, over 50 cashes, and a few million in tournament cashes, he is easing into retirement. He currently devotes most of his Vegas gaming time to poker, and can be found in cash games at Bellagio and at tournaments during the WSOP. When escaping from poker, he spends the spring and the fall in New York City where he hangs out at his bars: Doc Holliday’s, The Library and DBA.