Trust Thyself

rapid eye blink rate poker tell

Staring at the guy at the far end of the table, I see his eyes blink rapidly several times.  Really fast for about 8-10 blinks.  That’s a tell.  It means he’s lying, and since we’re playing poker, lying equals bluffing.  An increased blink rate is an involuntary reaction to high stress, associated with lying, nervousness or other troubles.  It was once noted that President Richard Nixon’s blink rate increased from 12 times per minute to 68 times per minute when facing tough questions.  I should call, and almost make the call really quickly.

But wait, why be in such a hurry?  Let’s put the whole puzzle together.

We were at MGM National Harbor casino in Maryland.  I hadn’t been there in nearly 18 months, so there is no meaningful history with anyone in the player pool.  The villain is a poorly dressed middle-aged white guy (MAWG), perhaps in his early 60’s.  For purposes of this blog, I’ll call him “Glenn.”  He’s on the button and the collar of his t-shirt is wrinkled like a strip of cooked bacon.

The community cards are A♣ Q♠ 3♠ – 8♠ – J.

I have A♠ J♣.  Much of the time, two pair is a good or very good hand.  Except for AQ, my hand beats any other two pair hand and any one pair or weaker hand.

After I checked, Glenn went all-in for $273 on the river.  At $1/3 no limit Texas Holdem, that’s 91 big blinds.  Before his bet, the pot was approximately $280.  Simply referring to this as a pot-sized shove is close enough.  A pot-sized river shove, when the pot is already big, is a very large bet at these stakes.  I have him covered.

How likely is Glenn to make this bet with a hand that I can beat, whilst thinking he actually has the best hand?  Very, very rarely.  Let’s just say never.

How likely is Glenn to make this bet with a better hand than mine, such as top two pair, a set, straight or flush?

poker tell hard swallowAs I ponder this, I continue to stare at him.  He is starting back and his blink rate has returned to normal.  But he’s adopted an odd looking posture, with his chin pressed down into the top of his chest.  His jowls form a bit of a triple chin in this position, and it doesn’t look at all comfortable.  Maybe, consistent with my suspicion that he’s bluffing, he’s also aware that a hard swallow or gulp is often associated with nervousness or fear, as the anxiety makes one’s throat feel constricted.  If he’s bluffing, and he believes I’m looking for a hard swallow to confirm the bluff, perhaps this posture is designed to block his Adam’s apple from view.  This is less reliable, as many people become anxious just as a by-product of being stared at for a long time, and eventually everybody has to swallow.  And blink.

I have the ace of spades, so one thing for sure is that Glenn does not have the stone cold nuts, which would be an ace-high flush.  Would he put his whole stack at risk without the nuts, hoping or expecting to get called by a worse hand?

Let’s back up a little further.  On the turn, after the 3rd spade fell on the board, I checked and Glenn bet $80.  With top pair and the nut flush draw, I called.  Even though this gave me outs to improve to the nuts, I wasn’t happy about it.  Until the turn, I had the initiative, and now I gave it up by checking in a failed effort at pot control.  Glenn, being last to act, likely senses that I don’t have a flush and could be bluffing.  Or he could have a flush already.  Our history is very limited, and so far I haven’t seen him do anything particularly creative or aggressive.  If he’s value betting with something weaker than a flush, the top of his range would be sets or two pair.

Let’s back up again.  Pre-flop, I raised to $17 after one or two limpers, Glenn called and one of the limpers called.  If he had AA or QQ, he’d have re-raised pre-flop.  So the only set he can have is bottom set, for which there are three combinations.  Most low stakes players including most MAWGs, don’t 3-bet with AQ, and don’t call with Q3, but a lot will call with A3-suited when on the button.  His two pair combinations therefore consist of six combos of AQ and two combos of A3s.

On the flop, I bet $35, Glenn called, and the other player folded.

He cannot have a straight yet, nor can he have an open-ended straight draw.  Maybe he would call once with a gutshot straight draw, with a hand like KJ, KT or JT, or 54s.  But not always, so we shouldn’t put all of these combos in his flop calling range, and shouldn’t put any of them in his turn bet-for-value range.

Glenn cannot have the A♠ or Q♠ or 8♠ or 3♠.  What combinations of two spades would he have called my pre-flop raise with, considering that he’s on the button?  K♠J♠, maybe K♠T♠ or K♠9♠, less likely K♠ with any 7 or lower of spades.  Also J♠T♠ or J♠9♠ or T♠9♠.  Maybe 9♠7♠ or 7♠6♠ or 7♠5♠ or 6♠5♠ or 5♠4♠.  Low stakes players do love suited connectors in position.  Don’t you?  All these together make up 11 flush draw combinations, not a huge number.

Putting the combinatorics together, we get this picture of hands that might call pre-flop, call on the flop, bet the turn and shove the river:

  • 11 flush draws that got there
  • 3 bottom sets
  • 8 flopped two pairs
  • Maybe a rare 1 or 2 KTo with the K♠ that improved to 2nd nut flush draw + gutshot straight draw on the turn, then made the straight on the river
  • [??] naked bluffs

Glenn would need to be bluffing more than 1/3 of the time for calling to be correct.  Does his range include that many bluff combinations?

I can’t shake the image of his rapid blink rate.  He’s bluffing.  This isn’t a math decision.  I’ll have to risk 2/3 of my remaining stack (and my session has already gone sideways and backwards), but should call.

But I write a poker blog called “They Always Have It.”  For a reason.  Remember my recent post entitled “Hero Calling (is) for Dummies?”  I should fold.

I have a very specific live read on Glenn.  The poker mistakes I regret the most are those where I don’t trust my reads.  Here, I can only beat a bluff.  As strong as my hand might look, Glenn’s river shove represents a very polarized range.  I have to trust my reads; otherwise what’s the point of playing poker?  I should call.

Recently I’ve read a lot (and here) and written a little about the wisdom of folding.  Folding is the #1 way to exploit other poker players, as it denies them the opportunity to win your chips whenever they have the best hand.  Besides, MAWGs rarely make two barrel bluffs and rarely make all-in river bluffs.  I should know.  And he’s no longer blinking rapidly.  I should fold.

It seems like I’ve been running bad at the poker tables all year.  This final thought crosses my mind, tormenting me with the notion that whatever I do, and I need to do it soon as I’m holding up the game, it will be wrong.  Murphy’s Law and all that.  And that being the case, I should fold.  With folding mistakes, I get to preserve my chips.  With calling mistakes, not so much.  From experience, calling mistakes just hurt more than folding mistakes.  For once, I’ll err on that side.

And I release my cards back towards the dealer.  A small triumph for self-discipline.

Then Glenn, who previously had been so quiet and ordinary that I had no idea he was the BIGGEST MOTHER-FUCKING DOUCHEBAG ASSHOLE ON THE ENTIRE PLANET, turns over JT to rub my nose in the bluff.  %&#%*@$*!

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