Poker Coverage:

Using Live Tells To Break A Solver Tie

by Steve Zolotow |  Published: Oct 19, 2022


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Top poker players have different views of the importance of tells. Some players, especially those with online backgrounds, minimalize a tell’s usefulness, while others, especially those who’ve played a lot in live cash games against weak players, find them incredibly valuable.

I use the word ‘tell’ to mean any physical or verbal behavior that provides clues as to the strength or nature of someone’s hand. The main caveat is that each player in each situation has their own idea of strength and weakness.

To me, reading tells is an essential skill for all brick-and-mortar poker players. Why? Because many decisions are extremely close. Solver output may make simple decisions look very clear, but in reality, solvers will always select something that is one-tenth of a big blind better than an alternative. They will also mix strategies. They will take the same hand in the same situation and provide a mix of 20% raise, 60% call, and 20% fold.

This means that in the solver’s electronic brain, all three choices have equivalent equity, but should be mixed to keep ranges balanced. It also means that as a human playing against other humans we may find clues that make decisions clear. If something is 50-50, and we can use a tell to make it 60-40, we have gained a lot of equity, even though we will still be wrong a lot of the time.

During this year’s World Series of Poker, I played approximately 35 events (too many!) and managed to cash 10 times. My favorite hand occurred early on in the summer during event no. 3, a $2,500 no-limit hold’em freezeout. (As a side note, ‘freezeout,’ which means no rebuys or re-entries, used to be the standard for all tournaments.)

In the evening of day 1, I raised in middle position with pocket eights. I was called by the button, who appeared to be a somewhat loose, amateur player. The flop was A-10-3 rainbow, and since the ace is good for my range, I made a continuation bet of around half pot.

He gave this some thought, said “one-time,” and then called. The turn was an offsuit 9. I fired again for slightly less than pot. He called quickly.

On the river the three paired, so the board was now A-10-3-9-3. Perhaps, I should shove, hoping to get a ten or a bad ace to fold, but instead I checked my unimproved pair of eights. He made a large bet, enough to put me all in.

Although I had nearly half my stack invested, I couldn’t beat an ace, a ten, a nine or a three. What should I do?

Let’s return to his comment, ‘one-time’ followed by a slow flop call and his quick call on the turn. I don’t remember hearing someone say one-time when calling in the middle of a hand, but I often hear players who are all-in with the worst of it and need a specific card make that statement. It is common for them to make it with a low pair or a gut shot.

For example, one player shows A-K on a board of K-9-8, and his all-in opponent shows A-9 (needing exactly one of the remaining nines) or Q-J (needing exactly a ten.)

Based on this I decided that his flop call on A-10-3 was based on either bottom pair (a three) or a gut shot (K-Q, K-J, or Q-J, or perhaps even 4-2.) When the turn brought a 9, my eights were still best, if my interpretation was correct.

I fired a second bullet, and now he called quickly. The quick call made me feel like the nine had improved his hand. Which hand, from the list above, got improved by a 9? Only Q-J, which was now an open-ended straight draw. When he makes a large river bet, my pair is only a bluff catcher, but if I’ve interpreted everything correctly, he’s bluffing with Q-J.

I quickly reviewed my analysis and decided to go with it. I stated that I could beat Q-J, and I called.

He turned over Q-J!!!

I wish I could say that the table broke out with cheers and applause, but we quickly moved on to the next hand. Scott Seiver, one of the best all-round poker players, was at that table, and went on to win the tournament. I managed to hang in long enough to finish fourth for the first of my two final-table finishes and $99,483.
Note how valuable deciphering this tell was! ♠

Steve ZolotowSteve ‘Zee’ Zolotow, aka The Bald Eagle, is a successful gamesplayer. He has been a full-time gambler for over 35 years and has two WSOP bracelets. 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.