Verbal tells: Communicating Strength With Weakness

This article is about analyzing a certain kind of verbal statement. Most tournaments these days do not allow talking about your hand, so this article will primarily be of use to cash game players.

Hellmuth and Laliberte

Some players who are bluffing will try to communicate that they have a strong hand by stating some slight, believable weakness about their hand. This usually happens on the river, and usually only when it’s clear that the bluffer’s opponent is debating between calling or folding, and not considering a raise.

For example, a player bluffing all in on the river may say to his opponent, who’s been thinking for a while, “I’ll tell you this; I don’t have a full house. If you got a full house, you’re good.”

There are a couple main motivations for this kind of manipulative statement:

  • The bluffer wants to communicate strength about his hand, but doesn’t want to come out and directly say something like “I’ve got the flush,” because most people would think that’s the kind of thing a bluffer would say. So some people find a way to indirectly state their strength. Saying something like, “I don’t have a full house,” a player is indirectly stating, “I don’t have the full house but the fact that I’m betting and willing to tell you that I don’t have the full house means that I probably have a strong hand.”
  • The bluffer thinks that their opponent, who seems genuinely uncertain about calling, just needs a little bit of persuasion to talk them into a fold. The bluffer would not say this kind of thing if they thought it was possible their opponent could have the very strong hand that the bluffer is stating he doesn’t have.

This kind of statement imitates something a very inexperienced poker player might say when they actually do have a strong hand and want a call. But in all of my time analyzing televised poker hands and in my own experience playing, I have only heard this kind of statement from someone with a strong hand less than 5 percent of the time, and then only from very beginner-level players. If you hear this kind of statement from a player who plays regularly, it’s almost always going to indicate a bluff.

Let’s look at a couple examples from some poker TV shows.

“Poker After Dark,” Season 4, Episode 5, 37:00

In a hand from “Poker After Dark” between Phil Hellmuth and Guy Laliberte, the board is

Jd 8h 8d 2c 5d

Laliberte has 9h Td, for the missed straight draw. Hellmuth checks the river, and Laliberte quickly bluffs for 16K, about the size of the pot. Hellmuth thinks for a few moments, and then says “What do you got, Guy? You know I have a big hand, right?”

Laliberte responds, “If you have a set of Jacks, it’s good. You would have bet them.” By stating some believable weakness (that he can’t beat Jacks full), Laliberte is trying to communicate strength (that he can beat many hands that are weaker than Jacks full).

“Poker After Dark,” Season 1, Episode 34, 16:00

In a hand from “Poker After Dark” between Phil Gordon and Gabe Kaplan, the board on the river is

Ac As Kh Kc Kd

Phil Gordon has the Ad 2s, for Aces full, and checks. Gabe Kaplan, who holds Qs 5s, bets $5,200 into a pot of $9,200, trying to get Phil Gordon off of what he thinks is probably a chopped pot.

Phil Gordon waits for a while, then says, “Genius check on the turn there … That was a bad card on the river there, Gabe,” seeming genuinely worried about four Kings. Gabe says, “I don’t have four Kings.” To Gabe, it’s very unlikely that Gordon has an Ace or a King, so he feels comfortable saying this. He is attempting to make Gordon think that he has an Ace.

“High Stakes Poker,” Season 4, Episode 11, 29:30

In a multi-way limped pot, David Benyamine raises to $21,200 with 2h 7s and gets one caller: Jamie Gold.

The flop is

6d 8h 3h

Benyamine bets $38,000. Gold talks a bit, asking “You hit a set of eights?”

Benyamine shakes his head, raises his hand, and says, “I swear, no set of eights. If you have three sixes, you’re in good shape.” Because Benyamine is a very good player, this kind of statement is less likely to be as meaningful as it is when amateur player say such things, but I still believe this is an example of this pattern. I’ve watched a good amount of footage of Benyamine and haven’t seen him say something like this when he has a strong hand.

A $2-5 hand

Finally, here’s an example from a $2-5 NLHE game I played recently. I was heads-up with the preflop raiser, a young kid who I didn’t know at all. I’d raised the flop as a bluff and had gotten called. I hit top pair on the turn and it was checked through. The board on the river is:

3d 4s 4c 8s 9h

I have Ks 8c and I check. My opponent bets $80 into a pot of $217. I think it’s quite probable he has an overpair, considering he called the flop. I assume he probably checked the turn behind me because he was afraid of trip fours. After I think for a while, he starts talking a little bit. One of the things he says is, “If you got a four, you got me. You don’t got a four, I got you.” Recognizing this pattern, I feel better about calling, and he shows 5d 6d, for the flopped straight draw.

Keep an ear open for this pattern in your games, and email me with any stories where you’ve noticed it being reliable or maybe not so reliable.

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October 2013