Poker Tells … The Lump In Your Throat

Interpreting Gulping in Poker

A hard swallow, also known as a gulp, is generally associated with nervousness and fear. Chances are, you’ve been in a situation where anxiety makes your throat feel constricted, giving you that “lump in the throat” feeling and that sudden need to swallow.

lump in throatIn poker, things get more complicated. You can find many instances of players gulping during hands with a wide range of hands. Kind of like the shaking-hands-when-betting behavior, gulping isn’t easily nailed down to a specific hand strength.

I talked to poker player Daniel Steinberg recently. Daniel is a respected, successful poker player who also happens to be Max Steinberg’s twin brother. (You can see footage of him in the 2010 WSOPE Main Event; he got sixth.) He’s also a keen observer of poker behavior. He had this to say on the subject:

“I don’t tend to assign much importance to it. At a tournament recently, there was a player who gulped after making a large river bet and he had a strong hand.

You would think gulping would be a sign of nervousness so would generally be correlated to bluffs. But I think it can also be a sign of worry about losing a big pot with a semi-strong hand.”

That’s one point. Another point is that many players swallow frequently. At this year’s WSOP ME final table, Marc-Etienne McLaughlin swallowed pretty frequently when holding all ranges of hands. I had a friend text me that he thought it was a tell that McLaughlin was weak, but I’d already studied footage of McLaughlin and knew he was doing this pretty frequently.

It can also be a conscious choice; some experienced players know that they tend to gulp when nervous and they try to balance this by doing it in other spots. It’s hard to have an observable pattern if you’re doing something frequently enough.

One other factor: many players use it as a false tell, to try to deceptively communicate weakness to an opponent. I was recently talking to a couple experienced players who said they had used it consciously when betting a strong hand, to try to get a call.

Here’s a poker anecdote of my own where gulping came into play. Earlier this year, I happened to meet Jeff Dobrin, a cash game pro and a WSOP Circuit Ring winner. I was sitting at a $2-5 NL cash game a few minutes before a $500 NL tournament was to start. Jeff was talking to someone else, and I gathered that he was a poker pro who lived in Vegas. Jeff seemed like a smart, cool guy, so I went against my usual standard of not talking about my book when playing with strangers. I asked him if he’d heard of the book “Reading Poker Tells” and told him I was the author. We talked a little bit.

Flash forward a couple hours later and I’m playing the $500 tourney, and Jeff gets a table change two seats to my right. A few hands in, he raises in late position and I 3-bet with A3o on the button. He calls.

The flop comes 964 rainbow. He checks and I bet. Jeff calls rather quickly. The turn comes a 10. Jeff checks. The pot is rather big in proportion to my stack at this point. I bet about half my stack, thinking my unknown image will get a fold from a wide range. Jeff considers, and smiles a bit. He says, “Why so much? It feels like you really don’t want a call here.” I might have smiled back.

A second later, he chuckles and says: “The ‘Big Gulp’, huh? From the guy who wrote the book on poker tells? No way.”

Now it’s true I did gulp here. And it was because I was actually nervous. I do have a tendency of swallowing when I’m bluffing. I don’t have alligator blood, I’ll be honest; I’m a naturally anxious person. But I adjust the best way I know how; I just try to balance this known tell by swallowing after betting big hands, too. But it still put me in a bad spot here if Jeff was going to follow through on his read.

“I don’t know what you’re talking about,” I say in an overly innocent tone, like I’m trying to be funny while obviously knowing what he’s talking about. He had thrown me off with his comment and made me a bit more nervous. I wasn’t sure of the best thing to say or do. Probably should have just shut up in hindsight.

“That’s just too obvious,” Jeff says. He thinks a few seconds. “You have to be doing that on purpose.” The thing I had going for me, I guess, was that he knew I wrote a book on poker tells so maybe he was giving me credit for a false tell here.

“You might be trying to trick me with that,” he says, finally. He folds his 22 face-up. I show the bluff. He shakes his head.

“Oh, the gulp was real! I thought you had to be leveling me with that,” he says.

“I could have been,” I say, trying to appear more complex than I actually am. “I could have been reverse-reversing it to get a fold.” He laughed. I’m pretty sure he realized that that wasn’t true.

Since that fateful day in Pendleton when Dobrin came close to soul reading me, he and I have exchanged thoughts on poker tells. I recently asked him for his thoughts on gulping. He emailed me:

“I think gulping during or immediately after a bet isn’t reliable as an indicator on its own, because it can mean strength or weakness. I find the gulp to be most useful when you try to elicit it with an interaction. I’m a big believer in talking to opponents in key spots and studying them during this interaction. Sometimes confronting your opponent with an unexpected piece of information will elicit a physical reaction. In this context, an immediate and reflexive gulp is almost always a sign of anxiety.

An example: In a recent live $500 buy-in NLHE game, I hit bottom set versus a pre-flop raiser on a Ks 9s 5h flop. I lead out and he min-raises me, so there’s a slight possibility that he could have flopped a higher set. On a 7d turn, I check-raise him to $155, and he shoves for the rest of his stack, about $375 more, which I cover.

While I’m probably not folding a set here, there’s also no harm in trying to get a little information. So I ask, “Would you really play Aces this way? I’ve got a set.” This elicits a strong gulp from him that I feel is genuine nervousness. This makes me feel much better about making the call. He does indeed show AA. And knowing how he reacted in that spot can also be useful for later more tough spots.”

As with most behavior, you have to be careful with how you interpret gulping. There is no one-size-fits-all guide to interpreting what a standalone opponent gulp means. How you use this information, or if you use it at all, will depend on how experienced you are and how you’ve seen that specific player act in the past.

December 2013