Poker Tells vs. Math

Most people believe that poker is all about reading facial expressions and using tells.  As a result, when people find out that I am primarily an internet poker player, I am often asked if playing poker on the internet is harder because I cannot see the people and judge their reactions.  I’d like to expand on the answer that I normally give in response.

Poker is mainly about math, not reading people or tells.  At the primary level, it is about odds, such as am I getting the right odds to call with my flush draw? how often will I flop a set?  or how big a favorite is AA over KK?  Basic poker math and memorizing some odds can help you get right answers to these common questions and knowing these numbers are necessary to becoming a winner.  Those are the easy questions to ask and answer and they have nothing to do with tells.

The secondary level is about ranges.  In poker, a range considers all the possible hands someone would take a particular action with.  For example, if you have KK, but your opponents range is AA(meaning he only does something with AA), you had better be getting great odds, because you are about a 4-1 underdog.  If you have KK and your opponents range is AA, KK, and QQ, you are 50/50 against his range.  Getting an opponents exact range down is difficult and takes a lot of practice.  Determining a range is mostly math and how your hand fares against someone else’s range is strictly math as well.  This is also necessary to becoming a winner at poker and it comes up in every single hand and affects the outcome of every decision.  In live poker, tells might have a small impact in determining how wide someones range is, but because most decisions are clear cut mathematically and having a tell doesn’t help change them, it therefore only has a small impact on your bottom line.

The tertiary level of poker thinking is to take things like how often someone folds and other tendencies and to put that together with an opponents range to determine what the correct play is.  Again, the vast majority of the time, the answer is so clear cut that it can not and should not be overridden by tells, unless your opponent were to actually say what he had and you were to believe them.

Playing poker on the internet provides me with an enormous amount of statistics for analysis and allows me to go in further in depth in the three levels mentioned above. Having worked on poker for so long, I have a base of knowledge that allows me to adjust my play based on whether my opponent opens 35% on the button or 40% and whether they bet the flop 50% or 60% thereafter.  I have done analysis on a broad array of players with varying and specific tendencies.  Creating this  base of knowledge is virtually impossible in live poker and the translation of that skill is the reason that players who have been successful playing poker on the internet have had little trouble translating that success to live poker despite their lack of practice reading people.  Most successful live poker players who cannot transition to internet play blame it on the lack of live tells, when in actuality it is analysis of situations mathematically that needs to be improved.

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