Poker champ Barry Shulman offers insights into observing other players, how your opponents handle and stack chips, and that extra flick of the fingers.
Barry Shulman majored in accounting at the University of Washington before embarking on a successful career as a Seattle real estate developer. When he retired to Las Vegas with his wife, Jan, in the mid-1990s, he rediscovered a hobby that started in college: poker.
Today, the tournament pro, champion player and publisher of Card Player Magazine competes at major World Poker Tour and World Series of Poker events, as well as on the Professional Poker Tour, traveling across three continents to match wits with the games international elite. Below, Barry answers questions about advanced poker tells.
Q: Do you think, with the advent of televised poker, that players have become more fixated on tells?
Barry Shulman: I think tells are kind of like bluffs, in that its fun to talk about them. But in almost all poker games with the exception of the world-class games the less horsing around you do, the better it is. Normally, tells are better for things like very close calls, when you can get one other piece of data to make a qualitative decision as to whether to call or fold, as opposed to radically changing your mindunless you really pick up on something.
Very often, what we have in poker games is a certain erratic behavior whether its posture, paying attention, scratching my nose, picking up a glass of water in a different way, or throwing in my chips more emly or weakly. Often, we can pick up on the fact that somebody is doing something differently, and its the first time weve seen them do it. So, the question is: Do they do that when they have a em hand or a weak hand?
You might do something that, for you, means something and you don’t know that you’re doing it. If its a real tell, you might do something that someone else does but you might do it when you have a em hand, and he might do it when he has a weak hand. And neither of you even knows it. So, if I see you do something out of the ordinary, I want to see, when you put the hand down, whether it was a particularly big hand or small hand. Then I put that information in my memory bank. Thats why were supposed to be paying attention, even when were not in a hand. When youre not in hands, youre supposed to be looking around the table and observing other people.
Q: What about someone who plays with his chips? What does this reveal about a person?
Barry Shulman: It probably reveals if hes nervous or not, or bored. Certainly, if somebody is totally inept at stacking his chips, he hasn’t played with chips very much, so you can probably tell if somebody is an absolute rookie. But remember: With the Internet, it might mean that he hasnt touched real chips, but hes played a lot of poker.
Q: What can you tell about a player by the way he stacks his chips?
Barry Shulman: Generally speaking, when peoples chips are very neat and tidyand especially if they line up all the lines exactly the same then they tend to be more conservative, or play more conservatively at that point, than people who have messy chips. People who have messy chips tend to be wilder players.
That’s also true in clothing. Some gentleman comes in the game, and he’s wearing a nice suit and a shirt and tie, looking all sprightly. He’s less inclined to be a goof than some kid wearing a T-shirt, who’s all scraggly-haired. But then, older guys tend to be more conservative than younger guys. Mind you, this is very generic.
SoundPoker: In the Poker for Dummies DVD, in which you make a guest appearance, you divide tells into two categories: intentional tells and subconscious tells. Intentional tells are obviously meant to deceive your opponent, while subconscious tells are the gestures each of us makes that were not aware of.
One of the subconscious tells you highlight is how players with weak hands sometimes add extra emphasis when they toss their chips into the pot. You state, Watch the tail end of a bet. If the betting motion is smooth, but finishes with a slight extra flair perhaps a flick of the fingers releasing the chips that extra emphasis often indicates weakness. The opponent is either bluffing or uncomfortable about the strength of his hand.
Barry Shulman: There’s something to this, and its taken me an awfully long time to nail it down. There’s something about a flick at the end that means almost all of the time that its a bluff.
Q: Is it a mannerism that seems phony? Richard Harroch and Lou Krieger, authors of the Poker for Dummies reference book, state that this tell is one of the hardest gestures to spot one that you must really train your eyes to discern. They explain that this flick of the fingers happens because the player thought at the last instant that he wasnt making the bet seem em enough. Why would he be worried about that? Only if the hand was not powerful enough to make the bet comfortable.
Barry Shulman: Its a bit hard to describe for an article, without being able to demonstrate it, but its a way that the person subconsciously throws in the chips: with more energy than normal. Its a bit sophisticated, albeit a very good tell.