Online Strategy Session: Poker Tells Expert Zach Elwood Says Watch for Key Timing Issues

Author Zach Elwood offers a look at some key timing issues that can help online poker players in that next big tournament oe cash game.

Editor’s note: Zach Elwood is the author of Reading Poker Tells and Exploiting Poker Tells. He also hosts the the Reading Poker Tells Video Series and People Who Read People podcast. This is the final part of a two-part series. For part one, click here.

The time it takes to act and other timing issues at the poker table can offer some real insight into a player’s hand strength. This tell can help players looking to win pots and pay beyond “ABC poker.”

Find some discussion and key hands below adding to the concepts outlined in the first part of this series. Many of these ideas can also be used in the online poker world as well.

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Brian Rast discusses timing issues and their importance at the poker table

Zach Elwood: Can you talk about some behavioral things you look for when you play?

Brian Rast: One big thing is timing. The amount of time a player takes in certain spots can be important. At the end of the hand, someone betting abnormally fast, whatever that means for the spot, I think for most players that’s more likely to be a bluff than a value bet.

This tell is probably more true for amateur players than pro players. With amateur players, for the most part, they’re unwilling to go into the tank and then bluff. Because of the idea that, if you start thinking too long, you’re not confident about your hand.

Zach: It feels uncomfortable to wait a long time and bluff, I think for anyone. It’s interesting because I think even when you think your opponents are likely to give you credit for a hand when you wait a long time and bet, because it’s a pretty widely known concept, it just feels uncomfortable.

Rast: Even me, I feel like I don’t wait too long to bluff. Although maybe it’s not the worst idea.

I play a lot of limit, and in limit, timing becomes very important. Timing can really influence what you think about what someone’s doing. So I think just in general, the tempo with which you play your hands is very important.

Some online poker strategy tips from GGPoker rep and Big Brother winner Kevin Martin.

Hand review: immediate bet from tight player

In a $2-5 No Limit Hold’em cash game, a very tight player makes it $20 pre-flop. I call with Q♠ J♠ on the button.

The flop is Q86. He bets $25 into $47. I call. The turn is the J♣. He bets $45 into $97. I call. The river is the 2. He quickly bets $100 into $187.

We discussed bet timing earlier, with a focus on how immediate bets skew towards bluffs. But in some situations, immediate bets make very strong hands clearly more likely.

This is one such case. When a tight player makes a significant bet immediately, it will almost always be with a very strong hand. The tighter they are, the more reliable this will be.

This is mainly because tight players, for the most part, are not capable of quickly reaching a decision to bluff. To put it another way: their quick-bluff range is almost non- existent.

If this player had an over-pair or a set, the flush draw completing would make him pause a moment. If he were going to bluff, he’d likely want to consider the situation a few moments before betting. This is especially true considering he is first to act. (An immediate bet would be less reliable if he were second to act.)

Based on what I knew of his play, I thought AQwas almost the only hand he could have, so I folded.

Poker pro Dara O’Kearney offers some ICM advice from his latest book Endgame Poker Strategy with poker author Barry Carter.

Quick bets when board texture changes

This hand is from the 2007 World Series of Poker $10,000 Main Event. The WSOP episodes are edited, so it’s hard to know for certain how closely the bet-timing in this hand matches what actually happened.

I’ve been told by a WSOP producer that they generally avoid making actions seem like snap-bets or snap-checks if there are long pauses present, so I tend to think the timing is fairly accurate. In any case, we’ll just assume it’s accurate for the sake of learning, as I think it’s a good example of how board texture can help with a read.

On a flop of 873, the pre-flop raiser, Winston, bets 150,000 into a pot of 232,000. His opponent, Kenny Tran, calls him with A8♠.

The turn is another heart: the 2. After just a few seconds, Winston announces “350,” betting 350,000 into the 532,000 pot. Tran calls again.

The river pairs the board: the 2. Winston, after a few seconds, announces “700,” betting 700,000 into 1.32 million.

As discussed earlier, quick bets often polarize a player’s range to strong and weak hands. On the turn, when Winston bets quickly, we can assume his range is probably the A(maybe the K) or a bluff.

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Further examination

If he had a heart weaker than the A, or if he had a hand weaker than a flush, he’d probably want to think a little bit about the situation. It’s very unlikely he’d bet a set or two pair so quickly on a four-flush board.

On the river, when the board pairs, his large, quick bet is also polarizing: it’s likely he’s either got a full-house or a bluff. And him having a full house contradicts his probable range after betting the turn.

If he did have the Aor the Kon the turn, it’s likely he’d want to think for a while before betting the river, as the board texture has changed so much and a full house is now possible.

For some quick and large bets, changes in the board texture can help you in picking out a bluff. When the board changes dramatically and a bettor doesn’t seem to be thoughtful about that change, it can be a clue that he’s bluffing.

In this hand, Tran thought about it quite a while and eventually called with his pair of 8s. Winston had A♠ T♣, for just Ace-high. Tran is an experienced live player, known for being good at reading people. It’s possible the speed of his opponent’s bets played a role in his decision.

For more information on Zach Elwood, click here.

Online Poker Strategy Session: Zach Elwood Offers Advice on Quick Actions at the Tables

Zach Elwood , author of Exploiting Poker Tells, analyzes quick actions at the tables, some of the most critical online poker tells.

Editor’s note: Zach Elwood is the author of Reading Poker Tells and Exploiting Poker Tells. He also hosts the the Reading Poker Tells Video Series and People Who Read People podcast. He offers PokerScout readers some strategy advice below.

While there may be less information available on competitors at the online poker tables, there are some tells that can give players some information on the strength of an opponent’s hand.

Quick action is one of the most critical online poker tells. Online, actions that take a long time aren’t going to be reliable: this is because we don’t know the reasons a player might be taking a long time.

They could be multi-tabling, or distracted, or whatever. For this reason, only quick actions are worth paying attention to.

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As with most poker tells, it’s important to have some sense of a player’sbaseline. For example, if a player is always betting immediately just due to being a very experienced player, their immediate actions won’t be meaningful.

And this means that, as is the case for poker tells in general, the most of the value you’ll get from these patterns is when playing more recreational players who are more likely to have timing imbalances. 

These are some excerpts from Exploiting Poker Tells that are relevant to online poker and have to do with quick calls and quick bets.

Quick call of four-bet defines range ($5-10 NLHE cash game)

I raise in middle position with K♣Kto $35. A fairly tight player behind me makes it $115. Stacks are $1,200. I make it $325 and my opponent calls within about four seconds.

This situation comes up fairly frequently: an opponent calling a three-bet or four-bet quickly. This might be a literal “snap call,” or it might just be an unusually fast call considering a player’s usual speed of action. In most of these cases, these quick calls will point to medium-strength hands: hands that, from that player’s perspective, are obviously too strong to fold, while also obviously too weak to raise.

For most recreational players, quick calls of pre-flop three-bets and four-bets will make JJ and QQ likely. JJ is significantly more likely than QQ, but QQ becomes more likely the tighter the player is. 

Some inexperienced players may also call quickly with AK, whereas better players will usually spend a little time thinking about the situation before reaching a decision. How well you’re able to pinpoint a player’s range will depend on your knowledge of their playing style.

In this case, because I had a few dozen hours playing with this player, I was very confident he had QQ. I knew he was tight enough that he would probably at least consider folding JJ and AK. I knew if he had AA or KK he would consider raising. So there wasn’t much left except QQ.

Knowing that AA, KK, and AK are unlikely is obviously great information to have post-flop. It can influence you to bluff on Ace-high boards, and it can encourage you to slow play if you think that you’re ahead but your opponent will fold to a bet.

Snap-call of a three-bet ($5-10 NLHE cash game)

A very tight player makes it $35 in the hijack. And “very tight” is an understatement: this guy is probably one of the tightest players in the world. It’s basically impossible to get value out of him, so my only approach when in hands with him is to try to get him off hands whenever I see a promising spot to do so. He has about $700 to start this hand and I cover.

When this player raises pre-flop, it’s a very tight range. He often doesn’t raise first in with AK, but he will in late position. I’ve noticed that when he raises late with hands like AK or AQ or low pairs, he makes his raises larger than he would if he had big pairs. If he had KK or AA, he’d probably make it $30 here, so his $35 raise makes KK and AA less likely.

A player behind him calls; this player is fairly tight and mostly straightforward. I’m in the big blind with K8. I make it $135.

Deducing Queens

I know that if the first raiser has AA or KK, he will be waiting a while and then either shoving or near-shoving. If he has AK or pairs JJ or lower, he’ll most likely be folding. The only hands he’ll just call with, I think, are QQ, and maybe JJ and AK suited.

He calls my raise after only about three seconds. This quick call – quick when taking into account his usual behavior – restricts this player almost exclusively to QQ. If he had paused a bit before putting in the call, it becomes more possible he might have JJ or AK suited, but the immediate call is very range defining for a player this tight.

The other player calls also.

The flop is K♣Q7. I check and the tight player bets $300 into $420. The other player folds and I fold.

The bettor shows QQ♣, for a set.

Even if I had a strong hand here on this flop, including AA or a set of 7s, I would have folded to any bet from him. That’s how confident I was that his behavior combined with his playing style narrowed his range to only QQ.

Quick bet polarizes & weakens range (2013 PokerStars EPT €10,000 NLHE tournament)

Jason Lavallee min-raises to 60,000 from middle position and Carla Sabini calls on the button. The big blind also calls.

The flop is 983♠ and Lavallee continuation bets for 78,000. Sabini calls. The turn is the 3. Lavallee checks and Sabini quickly bets 100,000. Lavallee calls.

The river is the K♠. Lavallee checks and Sabini again quickly bets 160,000 , around a third of the pot. He makes the call with Q♣J♣, beating Sabini’s QT.

Lavallee talked afterward in a PokerNews interview with Kristy Arnett about how his opponent’s bet-timing was a factor in his call:

Player comments on big call

“I ended up checking [the turn] and she made a pretty small bet but really fast. Which 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 6s type of hand, and I didn’t think that she would bet it that quickly.

“I thought about raising, but I didn’t see what raising would accomplish, because the stuff that I actually end up beating, stuff like 6-7 suited, J10, and Q10, I already beat with my specific hand. 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.

“And the river brought an off-suit King. And I checked and she bet really fast again.”

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Analyzing the hand

Lavallee explains in a clear way how quick bets can polarize a player’s hand range. This is probably the most important and reliable aspect of quick bets: they make medium-strength hands unlikely because most players need to consider what to do with medium-strength hands.

Whereas with clearly strong and clearly bluff-worthy hands there is less thought required.

Besides this basic reason, we also have the fact that bluffers often wish to appear confident, which leads to them betting quickly. Conversely, players with very strong hands can have a motivation to appear uncertain, which can lead to them physically or verbally “hemming and hawing” (to quote Phil Hellmuth) before betting.

For these reasons, quick bets will make it a bit more likely than usual that a bet is a bluff. But this is not a big factor; you should always remember that overall, most significant bets are value-bets and not bluffs.

I wanted to include Lavallee’s exact words because it’s not often that experienced high-stakes players talk about how opponent behavior can influence their decisions. Many serious players don’t like to talk about such things because they feel it reduces their edge – and they’re probably right

For more information on Zach Elwood, click here.