We learned in an earlier no limit holdem article that it is important to have some distraction in between hands, to keep yourself from playing when you are impatient and eager for action. The flip side of that poker coin is that you need to be laser-focused when your money is actually at stake in a live hand that you’re playing. If it isn’t, if you’re not completely focused during your play of a no limit poker hand, you can fail to detect information that may win you the pot.
Here’s an example.
I was playing in a $1/$2 Blind no-limit home game in the Boston area a while back. Most of the guys at the table thought of themselves as serious poker players. Many wore the costume of the poker professionals they watched on TV: complete with sunglasses, a baseball cap and even some fancy chip tricks. I was impressed.
One of the players had been on a roll. He won five or six fully contested pots in an hour and had built his initial $100 buy-in into a mountain of chips for this game -- perhaps $800 or so.
I wasn’t doing so badly myself, but I was far behind this guy. I had a stack of $500 or so. Between the two of us we were like the twin towers, dwarfing the tiny stacks of the other five players in the game who had either rebought a few times and were at about $100, or who were nursing even shorter stacks.
I had noticed something about this player during the two hours or so that I had been in the game, something that I guessed he hadn’t noticed about himself. When he had a good hand he talked. A lot. When he was bluffing or just pushing a substandard hand he became stone-cold still and glared (as much as a sunglasses-wearing player can glare) at his opponent.
He was a cocky lad who seemed to like rubbing in his success. More than a couple of times, when he was way ahead in a hand he went on to win, he would taunt his opponent. Usually they called, perhaps figuring that with their short stack they had nothing to lose.
But on a couple of occasions, following the stone-cold stare, he won the pot when his opponent folded, and he showed his down cards, usually followed by a smirk or a chortle (yes, people still chortle).
I was in early position and had one of the hands I least like, playing from early position: Ts-Th. I raised to $10, which had become the standard pre-flop raise in this game. He raised to $30 in late position. I called.
The Flop was 3h 8h 9s. On the one hand, I liked the flop, as it was unlikely to have helped someone playing a premium hand. On the other hand, it didn’t help me at all. If my opponent had raised me with a premium pair of Jacks-Aces then I was still woefully behind. On the other hand (I need at least three hands here so bear with me) he wouldn’t know if I held a premium pair higher than his, unless he held Aces. So I knew that I had to bet the flop or fold to what I expected would be his bet.
So I decided to bet. I figured that he would call any smallish bet with two overcards. So I concluded that I needed to make at least a pot-sized bet. I bet $75. He paused and then slowly pushed out all of his chips. I waited.
He stared at me for about 20 seconds, which seemed like a long time. He didn’t move a muscle: just stared. I thought about the chance that he had a pair of 9s or 8s in the hole. I discounted it, thinking that he’d want to take all of my money. This was a bet intentioned to have me fold. I figured that he might well have Aces, Kings, Queens, or Jacks and was inclined to fold; but then I recalled my observations of him. Here he was, looking like a statue. I knew what that meant. So I called, pushing my $400 or so chips into the pot.
He remained immobile. I turned over my pair of Ts. He didn’t face his cards. The turn was an offsuit Queen. The river was a Queen as well. He mucked his hand. I figured he had Ace-King; but all I know for sure is that my hand won. I credit it completely to my attention to his behavior earlier in the hand.
Most players in these lower limit games don’t pay attention. They don’t notice the behavior of other players and they almost surely don’t notice their own behavior. They play their cards but they fail to notice enough to play the other players. This is a big mistake, as you have seen. Had this opponent been more attentive he might well have won my money with his massive bluff.
Inattention to small details is also costly. Just paying attention to the dealer will often yield a view of some of the down cards. Some of you might think that gaining knowledge in this way is unethical. But if the dealer is flashing cards I’m watching, and many times they are. Similarly, inattentive players often reveal their hole cards, unintentionally of course. Keep a watchful eye.
You can also gain insight into the true strength of a player's hand just by watching what they do with their cards after they look at them. If they like them they might put a card protector on them or square them up and pull them slightly back toward them. If they don’t like them they might well grab them in their hand waiting to discard them. Some players habitually glance to the right when they’re ready to fold, or they glance around the table or away if they have a strong hand and are ready to raise. Keep a watchful eye and you’ll notice these things. Be inattentive and you’ll miss them, and in so doing miss an opportunity to make money at the table.
Ashley Adams has been playing poker for 42 years, since learning the game literally at his grandfather's knee. He's been playing seriously (and winning) in casinos, poker rooms, living rooms and kitchens all over the world, for the past 12 years. He started playing seriously in 1993 at the poker room in Foxwoods Resort Casino and he's been winning just about ever since. He's won No Limit Hold‘Em and 7-Card Stud tournaments in Connecticut, Massachusetts, California and Nevada.
He is the author of Winning 7-Card Stud (Kensington 2003) and articles in Card Player Magazine, Poker Player Magazine, Live Action Poker Magazine, Southwestern Poker Magazine, 5thStreet Magazine, and numerous online sites. He is under agreement for his next book, Winning Low Limit/No Limit Hold‘Em, due to be published by Kensington in early 2006.
He is by profession a union organizer and negotiator, representing broadcasters, health care workers and now teachers. He has two daughters, both of whom play poker.