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Discovering tells in online poker

Welcome back to ESPN's Online Poker Think Tank. Each week, our select panel of online professionals is given a topic for discussion via e-mail and then we edit and post the results of the conversation here. If you have any topical suggestions, we urge you to submit them at the end of the column.

After a massive social debate last week, it seemed like something more strategic was in order. To that end, this week's question delves into the seldom-explored topic of online tells. For those unfamiliar with the term, a "tell" in poker is defined as a detectable change in a player's behavior or demeanor that gives insight into that player's assessment of his own hand. It's generally been accepted that the roll of the tell is a major difference between live and online poker. In this week's discussion, we see that's not as true as some of you might think.

I learned a lot from this week's responses. From now on, I'll be keeping a closer eye on my opponent's screen names, the rate at which they bet and (thanks to one particularly colorful example provided by Justin Bonomo) what they say in the chat box. I'm going to make a little more dough for having done so. Read on to find out why.

The topic for this week:

Students of online poker know that tells play a roll much in the same way they do in the live version. What are some of the tells that players should be looking for in online play (especially those specific to it), and how much should they factor into one's decision-making?

Bonomo: Before I answer, I have to clarify that I don't consider bet sizing to be a tell. That goes with the way a hand is played. A tell is generally considered to be something not directly related to the play of the game itself.

The biggest online tell by far is bet timing, and I think it should greatly affect your play. The truth is that very few players factor it in and it's added to the long list of reasons why the experts have a big edge against novices. Schneids actually has some great examples of when timing tells help clarify what a players' range is in limit in his cardrunners videos, so I'm sure he'll chime in agreeing with me.

To be honest, I think I really undervalued these tells, probably due to the robotic nature of sit-and-gos. Last summer, when I lived with a bunch of online players like Ozzy87, Bushman and MrSmokey1, I was able to see first hand how often these guys could accurately call out their opponent's hand (or range of hands) specifically based on the timing of a bet. Roman (aka Empire2000) was probably the player that varied his game the most based on these tells and I was extremely impressed by all the information he was able to glean from timing tells.

Isaac Haxton: I'm not sure I agree that bet-sizing can't be a tell. The difference between betting $800 or $1,200 into $1,400 on the river is an actual difference in how the hand played out and you should obviously play differently against the two bets. However, against some people there's a big difference between when they bet $800 and $777. I'd consider that a tell.

Other than that, I think timing is pretty much the only other sort of tell. Maybe chat? I guess I alter my play based on someone's chat sometimes. It's pretty infrequent for people to chat during a big pot and I think you can sometimes get some information from it.

Anyway, regarding timing tells, I think they make a huge difference. Even without realizing they are doing it, almost all experienced online players think a good bit about their own and their opponents' timing. A lot of players have some terrible habits with regard to timing. The simplest examples of this are tells from players who are not aware that their opponents are paying attention to their timing and are not "acting." Their timing correlates directly with how much thinking they have to do and they bet as soon as they've made a decision. I'll call these Level 0 tells. They are most common among inexperienced players but almost everyone exhibits them to some extent. For instance, a player might think forever if and only if they have a very hard decision or mash the bet pot button instantly when they turn the nuts.

Among more experienced players, Level 1 tells are more common. When I say experienced, I don't necessarily mean good. The high-stakes fish who play four days a week almost certainly fall into this category. So do most low or mid-stakes grinders. In these cases, the players are "acting" but in an unsophisticated, often even unconscious, way that rarely helps and often hurts them. These sorts of tells are fundamentally the same as live tells like staring someone down when bluffing but averting eye contact when value betting. Some examples are betting much faster with bluffs than with value bets, calling very quickly on the flop or turn with weak hands they intend to fold to further aggression or "thinking" for a predictable and brief period of time before betting the nuts.

The best players are actively aware of their timing and do one of two things. Some take a very uniform amount of time for every decision. Very good players will act with nonuniform speed but will be very cognizant of their timing and try to avoid falling into predictable patterns. Some players will also try to manipulate their opponents with their timing by acting conspicuously quickly or slowly in certain circumstances but shifting around the hands they do it with.

Screen names and avatars can be also quite valuable. I'll vary my play radically against an unknown based on a player's screen name.

• "shipmonieslol" is probably under 30 and probably reads poker forums. If he's playing bigger than $.25/$.50 or so there's a very good chance he's a pro or an experienced and winning amateur.

• "laphroaig" (a single malt scotch) is probably the screen name of someone over 30 with some money. There is a higher than normal chance that he is a fish. Names of cars or cigars are similar.

• Screen names with crotch jokes are generally aggressive players.

• "AcEsFuLL4346385" is probably more aggressive/reckless than AcesFull123.

• People who put words like "crazy," "gamble" and especially "fish" in their screen names are trying to trick you surprisingly rarely. "goldfish" is actually a fish pretty consistently. The same is true for the word "rock" in my experience.

• Anyone who has a picture of their baby as their avatar is terrible at poker. It sounds like a joke, but I'd say this is accurate like 95 percent of the time.

Bonomo: A screen name is not a tell. Sure, it's useful to stereotype players, just like ethnicity, age and gender can be used to stereotype live players, but none of those things would ever be considered a tell. Have you ever heard someone say, "I think I picked up a tell on xxx. He's Asian, so that means he's bluffing!" Makes no sense. Same thing with avatars. Those are personality/play style indicators, not tells.

As for bet sizing, the difference between $800 and $777 is essentially the same as table chat, so I can see the argument for that being a tell.

Wise: You're obviously right, Justin, but I think the factors Isaac is talking about can still be incorporated into the conversation, since they potentially provide nongame play information about an opponent's attitude and motives. I'm interested to hear if other folks on the list pay as much attention to those indicators as Ike does.

Todd Witteles: As a limit player, my experience with online tells is a bit different than that of people like Justin, who primarily play no-limit. The biggest difference is that your bet size is predetermined, so you are exclusively using timing tells. Furthermore, because limit plays much quicker, irregularities in timing tend to mean more than in no-limit.

Here are some of the more common "click tells" I have noticed in online limit play:

• The quick check-call: Opponent has ace high or a weak pair. He is not planning upon check-raising or pulling any moves, but rather is going to simply check-call down to the river (unless his hand unexpectedly improves). It is extremely easy to value bet a player doing this, but you also have to be careful not to attempt to bluff him, because he's almost surely going to show down.

• Preflop raiser hesitates on flop, then checks behind: His hand is very weak. He was considering continuation betting, but decided he hates his hand so much that he doesn't even want to do that. If you have a pair, you're definitely ahead. There's also a good chance you can bluff him and take it right there.

• Player hesitates on river when scare card hits, after check-calling flop and turn: This one's a little bit tricky. If it's a less-experienced player, it means he probably hit his hand and is trying to figure out whether he should check-raise you. If it's a more experienced player, it usually means he's trying to represent thinking about check-raising you, hoping you'll check behind and give him a free showdown.

• Player betting strong the whole way suddenly hesitates on river, then bets: This one irritates me the most (especially when experienced players do it), because it's so obvious. The player has an absolute monster, and is trying to trick you into calling the river by making it look like he's only reluctantly betting at this point. It seems that this move is pulled by novice and experienced players alike.

• Player who check-called flop now hesitates on turn when an overcard hits, then checks: This usually means that the player hit top pair, and is deciding whether to check-raise you or just bet out. If you have better than top pair (or top pair/top kicker), this is an automatic three-bet, because your hand is almost certainly best. If you have worse than top pair, you may want to check behind, as tempting as it might be to value bet here.

• Preflop player in one of the blinds hesitates before calling a three-bet: Usually indicates a good-but-not-great hand, such as K-J suited, A-Q offsuit, A-J, A-10-suited, A-9 suited, Q-J suited, 9-9, 8-8, 7-7, etc. Player is either considering folding or considering capping, but ultimately just calls. It's hard to get a great read on what the player has at this point, but beware of boards that hit one of these type of hands.

• Preflop player instantly caps pot when action returns to him: Unless you're dealing with a hyper-aggressive player who caps mediocre hands, the instant cap usually means a very strong holding such as A-A, K-K, Q-Q or A-K. A slower cap might indicate hesitation to do so, such as 10-10, J-J or (again) A-K.

Of course, none of these clicking tells are 100 percent reliable. You need to go with your gut instinct, along with using your knowledge of the player in question.

Now, on the topic of screen names, Isaac brought up several interesting points, most of which I agree with. A few additions:

• Players with a name and a bunch of numbers afterward tend not to be very good. For example, "Tony743624" is most likely a novice player.

• Watch out for phony female names that are meant to either appear nonthreatening or seductive. It might be tempting to soft-play against "SexyHottie6969" in the hopes of gaining her favor, but keep in mind that "she" is probably a 250-pound guy with more body hair than your average plumber.

Part 2 of this week's Think Tank will cover timing tells and believe it or not, how the location of your opponent can make a difference in how you should approach the game.

Gary Wise is a regular contributor to ESPN.com, Bluff magazine, worldseriesofpoker.com and other publications. His podcast, Wise Hand Poker Radio, can be heard at roundersradio.com and airs at 8 p.m. Wednesdays.