Thanks to its eclectic mix of amateur poker players and hardened veterans the WSOP has been the stage for some of the biggest bluffs and the most obvious tells in the history of poker.
Zachary Elwood, author of the critical hit Reading Poker Tells, has been working for the past year on a book called Verbal Poker Tells. (We did an interview with Elwood recently about the book.)
The book features a lot of hand histories from televised poker shows, like the WSOP on ESPN, Poker After Dark, and High Stakes Poker. Just in time for the 2014 WSOP, Elwood shared some of the more interesting verbal behavior he’s witnessed in past WSOP events.
By Zachary Elwood
2010 WSOP Main Event : Scotty Nguyen Dupes Edward Ochana
A four-way flop is checked around. The turn board is A♣ 7♥ 4♦ 9♥. A player bets. Edward Ochana raises. Scotty Nguyen 3-bets. Everyone folds except Ochana.
Ochana asks Scotty, “What do you got? Pocket nines, Scotty?”
Scotty responds, “Nope.”
Ochana says, “You don’t got a set of aces.”
Scotty replies, “Nope.”
Results: Ochana shoves with A♥ 4♣ and Scotty calls. Scotty has 7♠ 7♦ for the flopped set.
Scotty’s statements eliminate several strong hands from his range. I call any statements or responses that weaken a speaker’s hand range weak-hand statements. Bluffers are very unlikely to weaken their own hand range. Even experienced players, like Nguyen, are very unlikely to want to verbally weaken their range when bluffing.
Also interesting: players sometimes express concern about hands that are slightly stronger than their own hands. When Ochana expresses concern about high sets, this makes it likely he has a low set or two pair.
(Note that talking about your own hand in even these small ways is technically not allowed by WSOP rules. But because the rules on during-hand talking are ambiguous, open to interpretation, and unevenly enforced, you’ll still sometimes hear such talk.)
2005 WSOP Main Event: Steve Dannenmann Can’t Hide Set of Nines
Joe Hachem raises pre-flop with A♦ K♦ to 160,000. Steve Dannenmann calls.
The flop is T♦ 9♠ 5♦.
Hachem checks the flop and Dannenmann bets 150,000. Hachem raises to 1M. Dannenmann shoves for 3.75M more. He looks at Hachem as Hachem considers.
Hachem says, “You’re staring me down as if you’ve got nothing.”
Dannenmann replies, “Everything else is extra credit from here for me, buddy.”
Dannenmann: “Everything now is extra credit for me. I got past the first day.”
Hachem: “All-in, huh?”
Dannenmann (shrugging): “Hey, I’m just having fun.”
Results: Hachem folds. Dannenmann had 9♥ 9♣, for the set.
Dannenmann’s statements are misdirections: statements intended to misdirect attention away from the true explanation. By saying “everything else is extra credit from here” and “I’m just having fun,” Dannenmann is implying that he doesn’t mind being eliminated because he’s happy just to have made it that far in the tournament. These statements imply that his raise is made not because he has a strong hand, but because he doesn’t much care about his fate.
Also, his statements indirectly weaken his hand range: this also makes it unlikely he’s actually weak.
2008 WSOP Main Event: Ray Romano Gets Suckered
On a river board of A♥ T♥ 3♣ 2♦ Q♣, Jason Young is first to act. His opponent is Ray Romano, the actor.
Young makes a very small bet of 1,200 into a pot of 7,700. As he bets, he says to Romano, “Same bet; I like sitting next to you.”
The “same bet” statement references him betting the same amount on the flop, turn, and river. The second part of his statement implies that he’s making such a small bet because he likes sitting next to Romano and doesn’t want to eliminate him from the tournament.
Results: Romano calls with T♦ 4♥. Young has A♣ 9♦, for top pair, medium-strength kicker.
Young’s statement is a misdirection: he’s trying to justify his very small bet. Young’s statement serves a defensive, pot-controlling purpose, as does his bet: he doesn’t want to check and face a large bet from Romano.
2010 WSOP Main Event : Harrington Reads Shulman
Five players see a flop of 9♣ 8♣ 4♦. A late-position player bets 2,000. Dan Harrington calls. Jeff Shulman raises to 7,000. The other players have folded and Harrington is the only player left. He considers the raise.
Harrington (guessing Shulman’s hand): “Jack-ten of clubs?”
Shulman (pause): “You?” Shulman smiles broadly.
Harrington smiles, too. “That’s what you’d do it with… Or a pair of fours.”
Shulman: “What about a pair of nines?”
Harrington: “I think he had a nine.” (He’s referring to the player that folded.)
Shulman: “Aces?… Limped under the gun?”
Harrington: “No, not [indistinct]. You wouldn’t have played it that way. I gotta throw it away.”
Results: Harrington folds his A♦ 8♦. Shulman has 4♣ 4♠ for the set.
When a player is willing to discuss his own hand range, it makes it likely he’s relaxed. Players betting weak hands have no incentive to walk a player through possible hands because that may lead to an opponent calling. Shulman’s willingness to discuss his own possible hand range makes it likely he’s relaxed.
2009 WSOP Main Event: George Costanza is Weak
Jason Alexander limps under-the-gun. Another player raises. The big blind puts in his call.
Alexander immediately says to the big blind: “You’re calling? If you’re calling, I’m calling.” He calls.
Results: Alexander has 4♣ 4♥.
Alexander’s immediate verbal reaction when action gets to him makes it unlikely that he limped in with a strong hand. If he had any sort of strong hand, such as TT-AA, AK, or AQ, he’d be likely to take a few moments to think about his decision, or at least be more focused.
This behavior fits a general pattern of players with weak hands, when the pot is small, being more talkative than players with strong hands. Players with stronger hands will tend to be focused on the situation and on their opponents: this often results in the player being quiet. Players with weak hands don’t have the same motivation to focus; this is why a lot of early-hand talking is heard from them.
2005 WSOP Main Event : Jennifer Harman Knows
On a turn board of Q♥ J♦ T♠ T♦, Cory Zeidman bets 1,000 and Jennifer Harman raises to 3,000.
Zeidman considers for a while. If he were to call the raise, he’d have only 3,000 behind.
Zeidman: “I think you might have ace-king, actually. I was hoping it wasn’t that. Now I’m hoping something else. Wow. Hmm, geez. How can I possibly muck this hand? I call.”
Results: Zeidman has the 9♦ 8♦, for the flopped straight and the turned straight flush draw.
Voicing his concern about the higher straight makes it likely Zeidman has the lower straight. Considering there’s not much action left, it’s unlikely he’d speak like this as a complicated deception. He probably believes that there’s not enough action left to be worried about revealing information.
Zeidman did hit his straight flush on the river to beat Harman’s full house. Harman bet and Zeidman called. When the cards were turned up, Jennifer Harman immediately said, “I knew you had that hand.”
Assuming we believe that Harman suspected his exact hand (which I do), Zeidman’s statements on the turn were undoubtedly a large factor in allowing her to define his range. If she suspected that he had a straight, she might have also deduced from his “How can I possibly muck this hand” statement that his hand had more potential than just a straight.
2008 WSOP Main Event : Show Me if I Fold?
On a river board of A♠ K♥ J♠ T♣ T♦, Roberto Romanello bets 1,800 into a pot of 1,950.
Greg Geller raises to 6,000. The third player folds.
Geller says, “Just don’t raise me.”
Romanello: “You show if I pass?”
Geller: “Pardon me?”
Romanello: “You show if I pass?”
Romanello: “One time?”
Geller (shaking head, emphatically): “No.”
After another 25 seconds, Geller says, “Okay, I’ll show.”
Results: Romanello has J♥ J♦ and folds his jacks full. Geller has K♠ K♣, for the better full house.
There typically isn’t much information to be gleaned from responses to the question “Will you show if I fold?” But negative, dismissive responses are the exception: they’re highly correlated to strong hands.
This is because bluffers don’t want to be perceived as rude; they don’t want to cause an opponent to call out of frustration or irritation. Because Geller’s immediate negative responses to Romanello’s questions could be interpreted as dismissive or rude, it’s likely he has a strong hand.
The strangeness of Geller suddenly changing his mind about showing his cards also makes it likely he’s relaxed. Unusual behavior, in general, will be linked to relaxation.
Zachary Elwood is the author of the book Reading Poker Tells. His Twitter account is: @apokerplayer.