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Poker Strategy With Andrew Brokos -- Learning To Look Left

The Benefits Of Paying Attention At The Poker Table


Andrew BrokosLight snow had been falling all day Saturday, and the roads were in worse shape than I expected when I left for the casino shortly after dinner. It took me nearly twice as long to get there as usual, so I wasn’t eager to turn around and come back home when the brush told me the $1-$3-$6 game that usually runs on weekends wasn’t going at the moment. Needless to say, this problem could have been avoided had I checked from home the mobile app that would have told me that the game I wanted to play wasn’t running. As it was, I asked her to add my name to the interest list and seat me in a $1-$3 game.

An hour later, she called a board check to see how many of the people on the $1-$3-$6 list were still around and interested in playing. Disappointingly few people responded, and it became clear to me that the game wasn’t going to start up any time soon.

Rather than leave immediately, though, I gave myself a challenge. I had to pay attention to everything at the table for one full orbit. After every hand, especially those in which I was not involved, I needed to be able to recount the action, who won the pot, and how. When it was my turn to act, I had to look left and see if any of my opponents were telegraphing their intentions before I made any decisions. If I failed to do any of these things, the count would go back to zero and I’d have to start again trying to observe the game diligently for nine consecutive hands.

Although I always played the World Series of Poker main event and a few other select live events, and I’ve played a lot more live poker since Black Friday, I still think of myself as primarily an Internet player. I know that at a live poker table my opponents are probably hemorrhaging information with their body language and mannerisms, but I’m still just learning to take it all in.

Actually the problem isn’t so much making sense of it when I see it. The problem is staying focused and attuned to the table and remembering to look for this information before I act. There’s an old Card Player interview with Isaac Haxton where he says that he can often pick up some sort of tell on the player to his left that enables him to determine whether that player intends to play his hand. Despite the obvious value of his information, Haxton goes on to say that, “two-thirds of the time I’ll forget to look left before I act.”

After an hour and a half of attempting this exercise, I finally permitted myself to leave following a good but still not perfect orbit of close observation. The things I was able to observe and in some cases take advantage of during that orbit provide a powerful example of what’s out there if you just take the time to look for it.

Hand 1: The woman across the table from me perks up noticeably after looking at her cards. I fold something junky in the big blind to her raise, and she ends up showing down A-K.

Hand 2: I have A-K in the small blind. One player limps into the pot, and then a middle-aged man raises to $11. He’s done this a couple of times, so while I don’t think he’s stealing, I also don’t think he has only the most premium hands in his range. The action folds to me, and I raise to $41. The limper folds, and the preflop raiser calls without seeming to consider anything else.

The flop comes K-6-2, all different suits. As much as I’d like him to have K-Q or K-J, I don’t think those hands are terribly likely. My best candidate for getting value will be pocket pairs. I bet $55, and my opponent called.

I should say at this point that my table image was pretty bad. I’d won two big pots by getting all-in with strong draws and catching. I would consider both very standard spots to semibluff all-in, but the table at large seemed to think I was crazy for betting so much with “just a draw.” I’d also stolen a few pots preflop with big raises when no one seemed to have much.

The turn is another six, completing the rainbow. Despite my image, I don’t think my opponent would call two more bets with less than a king, so I decided to check the turn and bet the river.

To my surprise, he quickly bets $200. The size of his bet combined with his speed suggests that he is trying to protect a hand. Given that there are no draws to speak of and a flopped set would now have a full house, I decide he probably has a king and wants to protect against an ace. Specifically, I think he will often have the same hand but just might show up with less every now and again.

I pulled out two stacks of red chips, arrange two black chips on top of them — enough to put him all-in — and am about to push them across the betting line when I remind myself to look up. What I see could be a photograph straight out of Caro’s Book of Tells. My opponent is very deliberately looking away from the action, as though he has no interest in the pot.

For those who don’t know, Caro’s central rule for interpreting the behavior of players who know they’re being watched is: “Strong means weak and weak means strong.” A player who feigns weakness or lack of interest is likely to be extremely strong.

I reconsider my plan, and after a few more seconds of thought, I throw my hand away. Suddenly my opponent’s interest in the pot returns. He slams his hand on the table. “Where are you when I need you?” he asks, a reference to the relentless aggression I’d shown in the last two hours.

“Aces?” I ask him.

“I had a full house,” he tells me, and I have no reason not to believe him. At the very least, his frustration at my fold was surely genuine.

Hand 3: The under-the-gun player picks up calling chips, but before he can throw them into the pot, the player on his left tosses in his last $39. The under-the-gun player folds, as does everyone else.

Hand 4: The under-the-gun player limps in with no great interest. He’s been limping a lot, and his demeanor gives no reason to think he was especially strong this time. A few others limp behind without much thought. I look left. The button is doing the “fold hold”, with cards pinched between thumb and forefinger. Nothing about the blinds’ behavior suggests that they like their hand either, and in any event they are less dangerous than the button since they don’t have position on me.

I raise to $25 with Q-8 suited. Everyone except the player on my right folds. This player seems to be the best of the competition and has made a play similar to this one, raising a field of weak limpers, several times himself. He eyes me suspiciously and calls.

It seems pretty clear that he is giving me no credit for a hand, so when he checks the 10-10-7 flop, I check behind rather than attempt a bluff. He checks again on a five turn, and I bet $20, hoping to represent a big ace and get him to fold anything less, in particular K-x and stronger Q-x hands, but he calls.

The river is a king, and now he quickly bets into me for $25. If he thinks I was bluffing the turn, I’d expect him to check this card, since it would be a good one for me to try to represent. And if he’s value betting a good king of his own, I’d expect him to bet bigger.

After a bit of thought, I raise to $50. He shakes his head a few times and folded. “Flop a full house?” he asks.

Hand 5: I don’t notice anything of great interest, so I make a standard fold with J-2.

Hand 6: The dealer is about to start pitching cards when I notice that the button hasn’t moved. No one else at the table was sure where it was supposed to be, not even the player who just paid the big blind, but I remind them of the action and convince the dealer to move the button.

Hand 7: Two players fold, and then the action is on me. Before looking at my cards, I turn my head and glance at the two players most immediately on my left. Thinking that I’ve already acted, they fold out of turn. The next player is clearly about to fold when the dealer stops him and indicates that the action is on me. My K-3 is still a fold, but knowing that three players behind me are going to fold would enable me to play quite a more hands in this spot than I otherwise could.

Hand 8: I don’t notice anything of great interest, so I make a standard fold with 9-6 offsuit.

Hand 9: I’m first to act, and although I notice a few players who clearly aren’t going to play their hands, my 8-5 offsuit remains unplayable.

It bears mentioning that this is a smaller game than I usually play, and the competition is accordingly less sophisticated. The tells aren’t generally so blatant in bigger games, but they are there, and my experiences in this single orbit have convinced me yet again that they are well worth looking for. Smaller stakes games are a good place to practice, because once you have a better idea of what to look for and why, you can apply those skills in a tougher environment. ♠

Andrew Brokos is a professional poker player, writer and coach. He blogs about poker strategy on and is co-host of the Thinking Poker Podcast. Andrew is also interested in education reform and founded an after-school debate program for urban youth.