Let’s talk WSOP

I’ve spent the last year working on a new book called “Verbal Poker Tells.” It’s focused on during-hand verbal behavior — finding patterns in what poker players say and how they say it.

playing cardsBecause it’s WSOP season, I thought it’d be fun to showcase some interesting verbal behavior and conversations from past WSOP events. All of the following hands (and many others) are featured in my “Verbal Poker Tells” book, which is due out for sale in June.

You’ll notice that most of the following hands focus on behavior from players making significant bets: this is often the most meaningful place to look for behavioral information. With large bets, hand strength is likely to be polarized (either a weak hand or a strong hand). Also consider: the later the street, the more likely hand strength will be polarized. A river bet is much more capable of giving meaningful information than a pre-flop bet of the same size.

Also remember: this behavior will mainly apply to amateur, recreational players. Experienced players are more likely to be balanced and tricky with their verbal behavior.

2010 WSOP Europe Main Event

Dan Fleyshman is the pre-flop raiser and has bet the flop and turn. The river board is Q♣ 4♣ 4♦ 5♠ A♦.

Fleyshman bets 100,000 into a pot of 432,000. His opponent, Brian Powell, considers.

Fleyshman: “You’ll never guess what I have.”

Powell: “Two-three?”

Fleyshman: “No.”

Powell: “Aces full?”

Fleyshman: “Nope.”

Powell: “You hoping I missed those clubs?”

Fleyshman: “That’s part of it … I was very sad when the ace got there.”

Results: Powell calls with K♥ Q♥. Fleyshman has A♥ 4♥, for a full house.

Fleyshman’s opponent asks him if he has the straight or a full house. Fleyshman replies “no” to these questions. These responses are what I call “weak-hand statements.” These are statements that weaken a speaker’s range. His statement of being “sad when the ace got there” is also a weak-hand statement.

Bluffers will hardly ever want to imply weakness about their hand, even in a joking way. Because Fleyshman is willing to subtract strong hands from his range, it’s very likely he has a strong hand of some sort.

Also, statements about what hands a player doesn’t have are very likely to be true, much more so than statements about what hands a player does have. For this reason, Fleyshman’s negative responses are very likely to be true.

2010 WSOP NLHE Main Event

A four-way flop is checked around. The turn board is A♣ 7♥ 4♦ 9♥. A player bets. Edward Ochana raises. Scotty Nguyen 3-bets. Everyone folds except Ochana.

Ochana asks Scotty, “What do you got? Pocket nines, Scotty?”

Scotty responds, “Nope.”

Ochana says, “You don’t got a set of aces.”

Scotty replies, “Nope.”

Results: Ochana shoves with A♥ 4♣ and Scotty calls. Scotty has 7♠ 7♦ for the flopped set.

Similar to the last example, Scotty’s statements eliminate several strong hands from his range. This is something a bluffer would be very unlikely to do.

Also interesting: players often express concern about hands that are slightly stronger than their own hands. When Ochana expresses concern about high sets, this makes it likely he has a low set or two pair.

(Note that talking about your own hand in even these small ways is technically not allowed by WSOP rules. But because the rules on during-hand talking are ambiguous, open to interpretation, and unevenly enforced, you’ll still sometimes hear such talk.)


2007 WSOP NLHE Main Event tournament
On a flop of 9♣ 4♥ 3♣, Jerry Yang bets 2M into a pot of 2.3M. His opponent is Lee Childs.

Childs stands up, seemingly agitated. He takes the sunglasses off of his face. He says, “I don’t think I can lay it down.” He goes all in for 4.2M, only 2.2M more than Yang’s bet.

Results: Yang folds his A♠ 7♠. Childs has T♣ T♠.

Yang’s bet on the flop represented slightly less than half of Childs’ remaining chips. Because there wasn’t much money behind, Childs believed there wasn’t much benefit in hiding information or being deceptive. This situation made it more likely that Childs would express his genuine feelings: that he had a good but not great hand.

The strength of Childs’ hand was a factor in him being willing to express any concern. If he had, for example, AK, or an underpair, it’d be unlikely Childs would express any verbal concern because he wouldn’t want to increase the likelihood of Yang calling him.

2005 WSOP Main Event

Joe Hachem raises pre-flop with A♦ K♦ to 160,000. Steve Dannenmann calls.

The flop is T♦ 9♠ 5♦.

Hachem checks the flop and Dannenmann bets 150,000. Hachem raises to 1M. Dannenmann shoves for 3.75M more. He looks at Hachem as Hachem considers.

Hachem says, “You’re staring me down as if you’ve got nothing.”

Dannenmann replies, “Everything else is extra credit from here for me, buddy.”

Hachem: “Sorry?”

Dannenmann: “Everything now is extra credit for me. I got past the first day.”

Hachem: “All in, huh?”

Dannenmann (shrugging): “Hey, I’m just having fun.”

Results: Hachem folds. Dannenmann had 9♥ 9♣, for the set.

Dannenmann’s statements are misdirections: statements intended to misdirect attention away from the true explanation. By saying “everything else is extra credit from here” and “I’m just having fun,” Dannenmann is implying that he doesn’t mind being eliminated because he’s happy just to have made it that far in the tournament. These statements imply that his raise is made not because he has a strong hand, but because he doesn’t much care about his fate. (Also, his statements indirectly weaken his hand range, which also makes it unlikely he’s weak.)

2004 WSOP NLHE Main Event

On a river board of A♠ 4♣ 2♥ 9♠ 7♦, Jeremy Tinsley is first to act. His opponent is Sam Farha.

Tinsley says, “I know you wouldn’t have checked if you had anything” to Farha. Then Tinsley bets.

Farha says, “You made me check.” (This is referring to a previous interaction on the turn.)

Tinsley says, emphatically and jokingly, “You coulda bet!”

Results: Tinsley has 4♠ 4♦, for a flopped set. Farha has T♣ 9♥ and folds.

As with the last example, Tinsley’s statements are misdirections. He’s implying he’s betting because he doesn’t think Farha has anything, not because he (Tinsley) has a strong hand.

2006 WSOP NLHE Main Event

On a river board of A♥ 8♣ 2♠ 6♦ 2♥, Allen Cunningham has A♣ T♣. He’s first-to-act and bets 2M.

Jamie Gold says, “I raise … I’m all in.” His raise would put Cunningham all in.

After shoving, Gold stands up, smiles at Cunningham, and says, “Gotcha.”

Cunningham says, “Yep. I guess you do.”

Gold: “You know, I knew you didn’t have it.”

Results: Cunningham folds. Gold had 8♠ 8♦, for the full house.

Gold implies that he raised all in because he knew Cunningham was weak — as opposed to raising due to having a strong hand. This is another example of a misdirection.

Gold’s statement “I knew you didn’t have it” is also goading. Goading, challenging behavior from a bettor is highly likely to be a strong hand. Bluffers avoid such behavior: they don’t want to inadvertently cause an opponent to call out of suspicion or anger.

2008 WSOP NLHE Main Event

On a river board of A♥ T♥ 3♣ 2♦ Q♣, Jason Young is first to act. His opponent is Ray Romano, the actor.

Young makes a very small bet of 1,200 into a pot of 7,700. As he bets, he says to Romano, “Same bet; I like sitting next to you.”

The “same bet” statement references him betting the same amount on the flop, turn, and river. The second part of his statement implies that he’s making such a small bet because he likes sitting next to Romano and doesn’t want to eliminate him from the tournament.

Results: Romano calls with T♦ 4♥. Young has A♣ 9♦, for top pair, medium-strength kicker.

Young’s statement is a misdirection: he’s trying to justify his very small bet. Young’s statement serves a defensive, pot-controlling purpose, as does his bet: he doesn’t want to check and face a large bet from Romano.

2009 WSOP NLHE Main Event

Andy Black raises pre-flop to 24,000. Scott Buller goes all in, which would be 143,000 more for Black to call.

Black: “Would you like me to call, sir?”

Buller (immediately): “You know, it doesn’t really matter.”

Black: “It doesn’t matter ’cause it’s late in the tournament or it doesn’t matter because — ”

Buller (cutting him off): “No. No. We’re just getting started.” Buller smiles.

Black: “On a scale of one to 10, how would you rate your hand?”

Buller shakes his head dismissively to that question.

Black laughs, looking at Buller for some sort of reaction. “I’ve got a big hand here, you know? … Give me something.”

Buller is quiet.

Results: Black calls with A♥ J♦. Buller has A♠ K♥.

Immediate verbal responses are highly indicative of relaxation and a strong hand. Players betting weak hands are wary; they’ll tend to want to think for a moment or two about their responses. They don’t want to speak too spontaneously, because an unthought-out statement might lead to a call. Buller’s immediate replies and his willingness to cut Black off mid-sentence are both indicators of relaxation.

2013 WSOP NLHE Main Event

Sylvain Loosli and Jay Farber are heads-up in this hand. Loosli checked back the turn on a board of A♥ T♠ 6♦ 3♦. The river is a 5♠.

There comes an announcement that someone was knocked out of the tournament. Several people clap. Jay Farber taps his hand on the table in an attempt to acknowledge what just happened.

The dealer interprets this gesture as a check and says, “Check.”

Farber immediately attempts to clarify: “No, no, no! I was — I’m sorry. I was … fake clapping.” He laughs. “Whatever — I didn’t mean to check.” (His statement “whatever” seemed to be the start of him saying, “Whatever you need me to do” or something similar.) Farber then bets 575,000 into a pot of 1.6M.

Results: Loosli folds his K♣ T♣. Farber has A♠ J♥, for a pair of aces.

Farber’s immediacy in correcting the situation, his looseness of speech (“no, no, no” and his quick starts and stops in speech), his laugh, and his unusual explanation (“I was fake clapping”) are all indicators of relaxation.

If Farber were anxious or preparing to bluff, it’s unlikely he’d be so verbally “loose.” Bluffers, when they talk, will tend to have more restrained verbal behavior. They’ll tend to use more “normal” and complete sentences or phrases because they don’t want to accidentally say the wrong thing. They’re also unlikely to respond immediately to prompts or have quick starts and stops in speaking.


2010 WSOP NLHE Main Event
Annette Obrestad has 4♣ 4♠ on a river board of J♦ J♣ 4♦ 7♦ Q♥. She bets 5,050 first-to-act.

Her opponent, Brennen Steffens, announces a raise, saying, “Twelve thousand.”

Obrestad: “So ugly. So sick … What do you think I have?”

Steffens: “I’m hoping, like, pocket eights.”

Obrestad: “Does that mean you have a flush?”

Steffens: “What’s a flush?”

Obrestad laughs.

Results: Obrestad folds her full house. Steffens had J♥ 7♣, for the better full house.

Levity is highly correlated with relaxation. Bluffers don’t usually have the mental “looseness” to joke around. They’re also wary of how their statements will be interpreted. Steffens’ ability to joke around makes it likely he’s relaxed.

Zachary Elwood is the author of the book “Reading Poker Tells.” You can follow him on Twitter at @apokerplayer. His book “Verbal Poker Tells” should be available for sale by June 2014. 

June 2014