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Tells & Bluffing Strategy
Tells and bluffing are two vital areas of poker and are interrelated in their application at the table. With the explosion of online poker, both areas have required players' strategies to evolve perhaps more than any areas of the game. In real life, there have always existed strategies for reading opponents based on physical reactions to various situations but with online poker, almost all of these are lost due to the non-physical playing environment. Players have had to adapt to new methods that need to be considered which are discussed below alongside traditional methods:
1) Real-life tells - in real-life, as mentioned above, you have a chance to gauge players' hands based on their physical reactions to various situations like the initial deal, bets and subsequent raises after the flop, turn and river. A poor player will not be able to mask some sort of physical reaction, whether it be raising the eye-brows, widening the eyes, playing with their face or drink or re-checking their cards following a new card being dealt. Any tell you can get on a player early will give you a good advantage as to reading their hand and deciding whether it beats yours.
2) Online tells - online is a totally different game to real life where tells are involved. With no physical reactions to look for, the only tells you can get on a player stem from their betting patterns and the time they take to make a decision. As a rule, the longer a player takes to call a bet, the better their hand may be. For example, if someone is deciding whether to call a 200 bet with only an 800 stack, they are likely to deliberate for some time before making a decision. Of course, this is not always true, they may have a great hand and are delaying to make themselves look weak but if you observe each player in turn and remember how they react in various situations, you can gain some advantage over them in those situations if they turn out to be predictable as a lot of players do.
3) Building up a clear picture of each player - carefully observing each player at the table right from the off is as important as any other aspect of the game of poker and makes the timing of your moves that much more accurate and safe. As a game evolves, especially a ring game or Sit 'n' Go (SnG) tournament, you should keep updating what you know about each player in all types of situation. This can be tricky at a full table of 10 and it is really only important to concentrate on the 4 or so best players at the table as, with any luck, those are the ones you will be up against as chip rivals in a ring game or in the late stages of a SnG. One nice feature of most online poker rooms is the note taking option where you can make notes on each player to refer to in that game and all subsequent encounters. Once you have found your favourite poker room you can build up a good set of notes on a fair number of the players who play your favoured limits helping you to get a good read on them right from the off. If you evolve your notes as the players evolve, you can try and keep one step ahead of them.
4) Identify classes of player - reading the other players is a skill one can acquire with regular playing and certain players, especially the weaker ones, can begin to be grouped as they start to exhibit the same tactics that they have either acquired or read in a book or online and are blindly following. This can be especially useful at a Multi-Table Tournament (MTT) where you often get moved to a brand new table and all previous reads you have are lost and you have to quickly adapt to the new players, especially if you are one of the shorter stacks. It is not usually a good idea to come to a new table and instantly try and assert yourself by playing too loosely or putting in bluffs with no prior knowledge of the styles of play of the other players. Patience is key to a good bluffing game so build up some knowledge before doing anything you might later regret.
5) Bluffing - whether online or in real-life, bluffing relies heavily on tells because of course to bluff well, you need to get your timing right based on the tells you have. If your opponent is exhibiting their usual tells of a weak hand, it may be a good time to bluff if the situation makes it worthwhile (eg the pot size is worth the risk) as you might feel reasonably secure that they will lay down their hand to the right sized bet or raise. The best players will bluff many times in a game, especially in a tournament as it reaches the latter stages when combatting the rising blinds requires you to win more pots. An appreciation of the worth of bluffing and developing the skills to bluff well will turn you from an average to a great player but it must be practiced for it to work consistently.
6) Exhibit yourself as a weak player - early on in a game, it is sometimes advantageous to deliberately bluff for a relatively small amount knowing that you will be called and lose. Do not muck, show your losing hand and say 'nice call' or something to the other player. Other players at the table may mentally brand you a fool which leaves you in a position to play a strong hand later on in the same manner and most likely be called or raised yet this time win. It is a devious tactic but one that has worked time and again if you package yourself early on as a weak player. The early bluff is just one tactic, there are others which can all be used as part of successfully mixing up your game to remain unpredictable allowing for more bluffing and stealing. Another time to play strangely is heads-up to test how your opponent reacts. Within the first ten hands heads-up, you can usually tell what sort of calibre heads-up player you are up against by testing their play vs a checked big blind, called small blind, raised small blind etc. This is explored in more detail on our page on heads-up strategy.
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