It’s happened to everyone. A novice calls and calls you for no particular reason, then catches a miracle on fifth street and takes a whole lot of your money. Say you’re in the poker room at the local casino, playing no limit Texas Hold ‘Em and betting strong with two-pair going into the river. Everyone has dropped out except for the man two spaces to your left, a bespectacled and grumpy-looking 75-year old whose mannerisms and erratic betting make him a tough read, but also give you confidence that he bets when he feels like it regardless of the cards. He’s hunched over, staring at the cards in the middle. He’s been calling you almost dutifully. You have him pegged for a pair, maybe even a low one. Then again he might just be senile and betting for fun with nothing. Under the circumstances, you’re sure your hand is the winner and thank the old man in your head for giving away his money.
The fifth card up is a nine of spades, of no consequence to your hand and surely not to his either. He leans back and exhales. You bet, and in an obvious but futile move, he tries to save all the money he’s wasted by doubling the raise in an attempt to buy the pot. You raise back and look up, almost feeling sorry for him. He raises back, not even looking at you. Finally, you raise again and he calls. You flip your cards, feeling good with your queens and jacks. But, without looking, he tosses his cards into the table, and there it is: a straight to the ten. He collects the money without even a sideways look at you, like he somehow earned it, while you’re left with your head in your hands, possibly trying to flag down the cocktail waitress to bring you a shot of whiskey.
What happened? All of the coy strategy, the Rounders patois, playing at www.FullTilt.com, and information gleaned from hours of reading poker manuals, and you got your clock cleaned by an inferior player just entertaining himself between pension checks. The answer comes in bringing yourself back to a time when you barely knew the rules; when you had to be constantly reminded whether a flush is better than a straight. Poker, to the very occasional player, is not about the complex, deeply psychological battle of will and mental faculty that it is in more seasoned competition. Instead, the novice player is dealing mainly with tension and release. So if you’re not yet able to spot tells like a pro, the key to cracking novices is remembering these key fundamental motivations. After that realization, a novice’s seemingly erratic betting patterns become easy to crack. It’s a matter of associating simple actions with the size of their bets and the cards on the table.
Now look back at his first raise after he caught the nine to complete his straight. The raise means two possible things, and it’s likely that he’s got it written all over his mannerisms. One is the tension of a man deeply involved in a pot with a weak hand. The other is the release, and vindication, of all that betting he was doing earlier. That’s all you’re looking for, either tension or the release of earlier tension.
Yes, he caught an inside straight on the river. Go ahead and feel sorry for yourself. But in medium and low stakes games where less-than-competent players are throwing their money around, it’s not as uncommon as it should be. A big raise from someone who had been calling on a card like a nine, that late in the game, means the nine either helped him or hurt him. So take a look. Is he hunched over, hardly breathing and squinting through a weak smile? Does he keep shifting in his seat and emitting dissatisfied sighs? Think about how someone would look when they’re tense. Or is he leaned back, fighting to hold off a smile that threatens to break out across his face? Those would indicate the release of tension and the vindication of their actions.
Looking back, everything from his lean to the audible exhale indicated a release of tension, and that coupled with a raise should have thrown up all kinds of warning signs.
Hindsight, of course, is 20/20. But in the end, you will only do yourself a favor by remembering that all novices are ruled by simple motivations, day and night different from the cryptic, complex strategies of an expert. To remember those simple motivations can save you from wasting even more money on the inconceivably lucky draws to which novices are prone.