This is a continuation on part one of the series where we discussed the concept of “Masking” specifically when applied to live poker. It’s recommended you start with part one if you haven’t read it already to help provide a context for the following information. We will continue where we left off by analyzing the various aspects of a live players game which may need to be masked.
While we often think of eyes as being the window to the soul, there is a huge amount of information that can be given away through our lips. Unless you are experienced at concealing tells it’s recommend that you keep your mouth covered while at the table. We don’t really have too much to lose while doing this, and we may be saving ourselves a lot of money.
We can often tell how relaxed someone is by their lips. Perhaps they have full rounded lips when they are relaxed, but they become smaller when they are tense. Perhaps they also show a tendency to lick their lips when they are tense. A player is naturally far more likely to be relaxed when they are value-betting. It takes more experience to be relaxed when running a big bluff.
We can also pick up certain tells from looking at our opponents cheeks. Perhaps their cheek muscles start to flex, or perhaps they put their tongue in their cheek. We need to make sure our lips/cheek and any other feature of our face remains constant. If we don’t have the ability to do this then we should generally take measures to conceal our face as much as possible. If we do decide to cover our mouth with our hands, we also need to make sure we do this consistently. If we only do this when we are bluffing then we are still giving away huge tells.
Usually when a player is relaxed, they breathe deep breaths at regular intervals. Their heartbeat is at a steady rate. When a player is anxious their heartbeat speeds up and their breathing becomes irregular. Some people might even subconsciously hold their breath when they are nervous.
We can usually consciously regulate our breathing in order to not give off tells. We can’t always control our heartbeat though. Sometimes this might be intense enough that an opponent can see this through our shirt, or perhaps they can see our neck pulsing. If this is a problem the only way we can mask this is to wear clothing which masks it for us. So if players can see our heartbeat through a flimsy t-shirt then we should be wearing a thick hoody or something similar.
It’s usually possible to tell if someone is interested in the current table situation by their posture. Perhaps they lean back and are very relaxed in general, but once they are dealt a stronger hand we notice a sudden surge of interest that is reflected in their posture. Perhaps they sit up straight and start observing intently the other players at the table. It’s very difficult to generalize. Some players might do the absolute opposite and try to appear relaxed or distracted. Perhaps they lean back in their chair or pretend to be watching a nearby TV. What we are looking for is a distinct change in our opponent’s default profile. If he usually leans back and looks relaxed, we should notice immediately if he sits up straight. If he normally sits up straight we should notice immediately if he suddenly becomes very casual and appears distracted.
We can often learn a lot from how a player treat his cards. Perhaps he is extremely protective over his hole-cards if he has a decent holding. If his hand is garbage perhaps he shows signs of carelessness. He is not so worried if an opponent manages to see one of his cards since he has such a bad hand anyway.
This also might be reflected in the way a player uses his card protector. Perhaps he has a subconscious tendency to use his card protector when his hand is strong. Perhaps he will not use a card protector if he intends to recheck his cards at a later point, meaning there is an increased chance he has some kind of speculative holding.
If we do use a card protector we should make sure we use it with a fixed pattern. We don’t want to just start using our card protector because we have been dealt AA. This can be a really obvious tell.
This is one of the few tells that online players can make use of also. The vast majority of tells that live players use revolve around body language, but this is one of the ones that does not. Bet-sizing is actually one of the biggest leaks that many players have, but it’s also one of the tougher tells to pick up if your primary strength is reading your opponent’s body language.
Presuming we wanted to mask the strength of our hand we would choose to bet the same sizing each time, or at least a few preset sizings which consist of a decent mixture of different hand types. The problem with trying to mask our bet-sizing is that it may actually be optimal against weaker opponents to potentially reveal the strength of our hand by means of our bet-sizing. They won’t necessarily be able to pick up or exploit this information and we end up using the bet-sizing that maximizes our expectation in a certain scenario. Assuming we are playing against very good players though, it is important that we don’t give away crucial information regarding our hand as a result of the bet-sizing we use.
Table talk can often be a great way to gain information about our opponents at the table. It can also be a very good way to give away information that we’d rather keep secret. Imagine a scenario where we are really chatty at the table, yet every time we get a big hand we suddenly go silent and focus.
In some cases it might be better to cut out table talk entirely. Assuming that it is a friendly home game and banter is necessary we simply need to make a conscious effort to ensure that our demeanor is identical when we have a strong hand and a weak hand.
Sometimes at the table we will be in a situation where we have shoved all-in and our opponent is asking us questions, probing for information. It’s good to have a default response; usually keeping silent is recommended and making sure all tells are concealed. If we do like to respond verbally it’s good to make sure there is no pattern to our responses. We wouldn’t want to only respond when we have a strong hand for example since our opponent might be able to figure this out.
The basic theme is that our actions need to either be consistent or truly random. Since humans are very bad at being completely random it’s usually better for us to be consistent. Even if we think something that we do is random it really may not be.
Even the way we announce our action could give opponents an indication of what we hold. Do we verbally say “check” or do we tap the table? If we sometimes do either is it truly random or do we show a slight bias towards acting a certain way when we have a hand? Is our voice pitch consistent if we vocalise our actions or will there be a slight tremor if we are nervous?
Even activities not related to the poker table can give away information. Perhaps the frequency with which we go for our drink during a session. Some players might try to appear relaxed and disinterested by going for their drink when they have a strong hand.
Masking – Putting it together
Our goal should be to prevent our opponents from uncovering any correct information about the strength of our hand. One way of doing this is to completely conceal our tells and make sure no information is given. Many advanced players prefer to take this one step further and give out fake tells. Depending on the level of their opponent, they will give out a tell that indicates they are weak when in reality they are strong. For example, if we generally interpret ramming chips forcefully into the pot as a sign of weakness, it might make sense for our opponent to do this when he is strong. He is more likely to get paid off that way. Remember that this may only work against experienced players however since many weaker players will not understand how to read our tells in the first place, so attempting to give off false tells is a waste of time.
So if we can successfully mask all of our tells, then great. If we can successfully give out fake-tells and cause our opponent’s to act in a certain way, then ever better.
Author Adam Jones is a regular poker strategy writer and video maker for PokerVIP and PokerTube. Check out his author page for an abundance of information relating to online and live poker.