<
>

Even your avatar can tell a story

Welcome back to Part 2 of this week's ESPN Online Poker Think Tank. Our select panel of online professionals has been adamant that there are plenty of opportunities to pick up information from your online opponents, but paying attention to these minuscule details is extremely important.

In the first part, our panel noted that bet timing is perhaps the most notable. Additionally, a screen name can give you additional insight on the possible level of aggression that might be heading your way. As we conclude this week's Think Tank, here's a reminder of this week's topic:

Students of online poker know that tells play a roll in much 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?"

Matt Hawrilenko: Todd and Isaac have done a great job of capturing most of the tells I notice, although I'd add that in my experience, the most reliable timing tells are generally the difference in a player acting in 0.5 seconds versus acting in 1.0 or 1.5 seconds. In this amount of time, you can be fairly sure that your table is at the forefront of his screen -- anything much longer than that and it's likely that he's otherwise occupied. The most common tells I see are the reverse tells that Todd mentions: a player pausing before value-betting a monster, or occasionally a scare card hitting, a player pausing like he is pondering a bet and then checking, hoping you'll check behind.

What I'd really like to discuss is the value of these tells and the proper way to incorporate them into our games. The first order of business for most players is developing a strong, fundamental strategy before figuring out how and when to stray from it. I didn't really begin factoring tells into my decisions until I had a pretty strong record at $300/$600 and $500/$1,000 fixed limit. I generally use tells to change my borderline decisions. Since, in a strong strategy, borderline decisions should be close to 0 EV, those stand to gain the most value if I'm right and lose the least value if I'm wrong. For example, if I'm playing limit hold 'em and calling an opponent down with 6-5 on a board that has come K-6-3-9, and an ace hits the river also bringing in the flush and he does the delayed bet that Todd talks about, then I might think about folding. On that board, I'd never consider folding the K otherwise.

The impact of the tell on my decision is a function of the reliability of the tell and the relative size of the decision. When you're regularly getting 7-1 or so on the river, the tell would have to be huuuuuugely reliable to make a case for changing decisions in anything besides those cases that are already close to 0 EV. I'd be very interested to hear the perspective of the no-limit guys on this. I would think that the working-out-from-the-borderline theory still applies, but since calling decisions can be so much larger, tells are laden with more value and borderlines can shift a lot more.

Mike Schneider: As someone who mainly plays limit hold 'em, the only thing I can really add is a strong agreement with Matt's statement about timing. When you play someone heads-up for a while, these little differences begin to become especially noticeable, because what usually happens is the opponent gets into a consistent rhythm for doing their actions. Then, every so often, you notice this slight, subtle difference in their timing -- like say they have a fairly constant check/calling speed, and then on the river after 20 straight times with this checking speed, you notice a slightly quicker check (maybe one that is a half or even quarter of a second quicker). When this happens, you get check raised at a fairly high frequency in my experiences.

Wise: Guys, do reverse tells play into the online game the way they do in the live one?

Witteles As I mentioned earlier, some online tells actually take on the opposite meaning when playing at lower limits (or against novice players at higher limits).

For example, the pause when a scare card hits the river tends to be a trick when done by experienced players, yet it is usually a legitimate check-raise attempt by novice or lower-limit players. Most of the other tells I mentioned, however, tend to be constant regardless of the opposition's talent or experience.

There's one other aspect I'd like to mention in regard to sizing up your online opponent, similar to the screen name issue. Believe it or not, the city a player is from can often give you a hint as to the skill of your opposition. This is definitely an inexact science and never conclusive by itself, but I have found a few patterns.

If a player is from a city where poker is easily available to play live, there is a lot higher chance that they will be good. For example, I give a lot more instant respect to players from areas such as Las Vegas, Los Angeles, San Diego, Chicago, Minnesota, Phoenix, San Jose and New Jersey. Other metropolitan areas, such as Seattle, New York, Toronto and Vancouver, tend to also produce a lot of talented players. Most European players -- at least at the middle or higher limits -- tend to range between competent and very good.

On the flip side, certain types of American cities tend to produce more than their fair share of donks. These include a lot of the midwestern and southern cities/towns where live poker isn't available, thereby being less likely places for good players to live.

In addition, you want to look for opponents from expensive areas, such as Beverly Hills or Newport Beach. These are often successful, wealthy professionals who care more about the fun of playing poker than worrying about winning or losing, and they usually have plenty of money to throw around.

Of course, these are all stereotypes. I have seen terrible players online from Las Vegas, while I've faced excellent players from Omaha, Neb. However, this is yet another factor to keep in mind when figuring out if the guy who sat at your table is likely a tough customer.

Townsend: So many online tells come into play on the river. I think bet sizing is a huge one. If I have a baby flush and an opponent pots the river, I might only call even if I'd been planning to raise for value given the action on earlier streets. Conversely, I've found that a substantial pause on the river indicates a bluff. For example, suppose I raised preflop and bet the flop. If the turn checked through, and then my opponent thought and bet the river, I would be much more inclined to call with a marginal hand than I would without the pause.

There's also a different meaning to a river pause, which is that an opponent made a hand different from the one he was thinking about. Suppose the board is 10-6-3 with a flush draw, and you are in position betting every street. If the turn is a brick and the river is an offsuit queen, a long pause often indicates that your opponent is deciding what to do with the top pair he just spiked.

A similar principle comes into play in certain aggressive heads-up matches. So many opponents these days three-bet aggressively out of the small blind with hands like 10-8 suited, with elaborate plans to follow through on dry flops and get the money in with reasonable draws. The longest flop pauses from the weaker variety of these opponents often come when they flop a pair. They've thought so hard about which boards to bluff at and whether it's better to bet/three-bet or check-raise with a draw that it's a sort of surprise when they flop something boring like second pair.

One last great tell is a quick flop call. As Dan said, this is a good, but not great, hand. In hold 'em, it's usually second or third pair, which you can get your opponent to fold if you bet two or three streets.

This week, not only did we learn a lot about how to profit off the subconscious errors our opponents make, but also about the mind-set of the professional player. Notice with the examples provided by Haxton and Witteles how thoroughly every aspect of what appears to many of us to be a blank slate is thoroughly dissected? In a game in which information is power, it pays to take whatever information one can get.

I have to think that in addition to this information being useful in the online game, applying it regularly can only be fantastic practice in the live. After all, if you can spot the 0.5 second difference between a situational bet or the norm, whether or not a flesh-and-blood opponent looks you directly in the eye has to be awfully easy to spot.

Next time you sit down at a virtual table, start things off by taking a look at the names and avatars of the players around you and see if the information above holds true. I'm guessing you'll find that more often than not it does and that's pretty good in a game in which nothing is certain.

As usual, if you have a question for the Think Tank, we hope you'll submit it here.

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 at 8 p.m. Wednesdays.