Bet-timing tells are patterns that players have with regards to how quickly they make a decision, whether checking, calling, betting or raising. Immediate bets are one bet-timing behavior that can be very meaningful.
Before we talk about immediate bets, though, a few caveats:
- For most player behavior to be meaningful, it has to be associated with a somewhat significant situation. So for this article, you should assume I’m talking about fairly decent-sized bets. (For example, standard pre-flop raises or continuation-bets are not likely to have meaningful behavior associated with them. Because they’re not as potentially stressful, it’s harder to draw reliable conclusions about associated behavior.)
- Tournament hands are more likely to have significant situations, just because tournament decisions are more important (and therefore more potentially stressful) than similar ones in cash games.
- As with most behavior, recreational (non-professional-level) players are much more likely to adhere to general patterns than are experienced players. We should be more likely to trust our reads of recreational players than of experienced players.
OK, so what do immediate bets mean? When a recreational player makes an immediate bet, and it is a significant bet, there are two main general points we can make about this behavior:
1) Immediate bets are usually polarizing, meaning those bets are made with either strong or weak hands (i.e., bluffs).
2) Immediate bets are more likely to represent weak hands than strong hands.
As we talk about the reasons behind these patterns, keep in mind that these are general tendencies and are far from 100 percent reliable. They are patterns that are more likely to be true than not, but it does not mean they are very strong tendencies.
Immediate bets are polarizing
Why are immediate bets often polarizing? This is mainly due to the fact that, with medium-strength hands, most players have to think a bit before deciding whether to bet. This means that if a player makes a significant bet immediately, it will usually either be an obviously justified value bet with a strong hand or a similar “no-brainer” bet with a weak hand (i.e., bluff).
In an interview with Kristy Arnett for PokerNews, Canadian poker pro Jason Lavallee talked about a Queen-high call he made on the turn and river versus a player who he considered fairly inexperienced. Lavallee had Qd Td and the run-out was 9d 8h 3s 3h Ks. Here’s what he said, starting with the turn action:
“I ended up checking and she made a pretty small bet but really fast. Against non-experienced players, usually, one of their biggest leaks is not value-betting light enough and just in general playing too polarized, where they’ll bet their really big hands or their absolute air, but they won’t really know what to do with the middle part of their range. Like if she shows up on the turn with like 87 suited, which is middle pair, I wouldn’t expect her to bet really quickly; she would consider what to do with that hand. And usually in tournaments, they’ll opt even more for pot-control lines, which means not betting and being put to a tough decision and instead try to steer the hand toward showdown.”
“So when she bet really quickly it was an interesting decision because, I didn’t think she had total air, but I wasn’t sure what she would end up doing with like a 9, an 8, or like pocket sixes type of hand, and I didn’t think that she would bet it that quickly … So I decided to call instead, which is very non-conventional; it’s one of those things that you, in the moment, you feel or you don’t. There’s something to be said about instinctual play; it’s definitely not a standard line that I take all the time.”
“The river brought an off-suit king. And I checked and she bet really fast again, for about 40 percent of the pot. Anyway, I ended up calling and she had QT.” (PokerNews.com podcast with Kristy Arnett, from November 2013)
Lavallee shows how experienced poker players use behavioral information; they are not basing decisions solely on behavior but are combining likely behavioral patterns with all other pertinent information, including a player’s playing style and likely hand range.
Immediate bets are skewed toward bluffs
Besides being purely polarizing, though, immediate bets will also tend to be more skewed toward weak hands and bluffs. Why might this be?
There are a few main reasons for this:
- Players betting strong hands have an incentive to focus on betting the perfect amount. Players with strong hands are focused on maximizing value; this will often take a little bit of time.
- Conversely, players betting weak hands (bluffing) have less to think about. They know they have to bet; they aren’t as focused on what the perfect bet is. Often, the bluffing player has already decided on the previous round that he is going to bluff the next round, which also tends to speed up his decision. (This is especially true for the aggressor in the hand, more so than the non-aggressor.)
- Players betting strong hands can have an incentive to seem like they have more of a decision than they do. There can be a motivation, whether it’s conscious or unconscious, to communicate that the situation required some thought.
- Conversely, players who are bluffing can have an incentive to appear confident and certain. Betting quickly is one way to communicate confidence.
- If an immediate bet tends to indicate a polarized hand strength, in most situations there will be more weak hands in an opponent’s possible range than there are strong hands.
While I’ve long known this is a general pattern, this was really driven home to me a few years ago. I’d entered a $300 tournament and, before the event began, I had made a vow to pause a couple seconds before every decision, no matter how obvious the decision seemed. This was mainly because I felt I’d been rushing decisions recently but it was also in a conscious attempt to keep my bet-timing more balanced and to stay more “unreadable.”
I ended up getting down to the final three players. On my bust-out hand, I’d called a bet on a paired-board turn with a flush draw and overcards, while planning ahead to go all in if my opponent checked the river. This is what happened; my opponent checked and I went all in, and I did so immediately. I realized afterward that that was the only time in the tournament I’d bet immediately. This happened because a) I’d been planning ahead that I was going to bluff, and b) I probably had a (mostly unconscious) urge to seem confident when betting. This happened despite me making a conscious effort that day to wait a few seconds in every spot. This really drove home to me how powerful this pattern can be.
Major caveat: time spent thinking is a factor
The main caveat with this pattern is that the longer a player has had to think during a round, the less meaning an immediate bet will tend to have. A player who bets soon after a new round has started (whether first-to-act or not) will be more likely to adhere to this pattern than someone who, for example, has had a long time to think about his decision while another player took a long time to act before checking.
Now obviously this is not a 100 percent reliable pattern. We’ve all seen players bet immediately with strong hands and we’ve all bet immediately with strong hands ourselves. It happens. And some players will be well-balanced and always act quickly. But the point is that what I’ve described is a general pattern; it will be true more often than it isn’t true.
The main practical application of this is in observing a player to see if this is a player-specific pattern for him or her. Watch how quickly recreational players bet and see if their quicker bets are more weighted toward weak hands. Maybe they’ll have the general pattern, maybe they won’t, but the point is just to observe and see what you find.
The other practical application of understanding this pattern is in using it as a “tie-breaker” in decisions that are close from a fundamental strategy standpoint. For example, if you’re facing a bet on the river and you believe you have the same EV (expected value) whether you call or fold, then you might use the player’s speed of betting as a decision-maker, knowing that the general pattern will lead you to better decisions in the long run. And that is how many experienced players use general behavioral patterns: for close, seemingly break-even decisions.
Zachary Elwood is the author of “Reading Poker Tells” and the recently published “Verbal Poker Tells.” His website is ReadingPokerTells.com and you can follow him on Twitter at @apokerplayer.