Pro round table: How important is speech play in poker?

Get three world class players in a room and ask them about the importance of speech play, and guess what? You can’t shut them up!

PokerPlayer: How important is table talk and speech play when playing live?

Joe Hachem: Everything that happens at the table is important. You’ve got to listen to what people are saying, what their tone is and what they’re talking about. Even if I have my iPod plugged in I’m watching what people are doing and how they’re acting. You can get a lot of information from people by listening to them when they’re relaxed and comparing that to when they’re in a hand.

Steve Paul-Ambrose: I don’t think it’s the first thing you need to focus on when you learn how to play poker but there is definitely information to be gained. Often it’s not even during a hand, but rather before the tournament begins. By finding out which players someone is friendly with you can gain an idea of what they might play like. That really helps, because a lot of the online guys will sit there without talking so you need to pick up information wherever you can.

Do you try to engage players in conversation because you think it will increase your edge over the table?

Victor Ramdin: I was playing this guy who kept playing back at me all day long. He was beating the hell out of me and I realised at the break that things weren’t working for me, so I decided to make friends with him. I chatted to him about where he was from and got friendly with him rather than have him as my enemy – my day became a lot easier after that. Other players can take things really personally, so if you give them trashtalk they might not muck that J-9 in the big blind when you raise them. I find that happens a lot more with the internet players I face.

So if you get friendly with people do you find they sometimes call instead of raise and check instead of bet?

JH: You’ve got to be able to adapt to different situations. A lot of guys are so nervous about giving off any information that they don’t talk or smile – they just sit there and outplay you. You’re getting absolutely nothing out of them. Sometimes when I get moved to a new table everyone goes quiet and doesn’t say a word. I can’t play poker like that, so usually I try to soften them up a little and get people relaxed and off guard in order to get information.

SPA: I was at a table at the WPT Championship with Victor and Joe Bartholdi [who went on to win it], but it was one of the most relaxed tables I’ve ever been at. Victor was friends with everyone and just demolished it. He raised every pot and everyone would fold. He even showed the most ridiculous fold I’ve ever seen. He raised on the button and the big blind shoved for 35 big blinds and Victor folded Queens. He showed that he was willing to make big folds, and yet everyone still let him run over the table. He’s a friendly guy!

And how do things change if you go the other way and start aggravating someone?

VR: Well, I played against this Asian guy who called me all the way down near a final table with pocket threes. I fired at the flop, turn and river and still he called. I said, ‘Are you f***ing nuts? This isn’t kindergarten poker.’ The guy took it personally, and you know what? He pummelled me. Every raise he would come after me. I flopped a set and he called an all-in on me with a gutshot – a single gutshot! That’s what happens when you really get under someone’s skin.

JH: A big mistake that we’ve all made is when you let things get personal. A guy can just have your number for the day. He’s not chasing you, it’s just that every time you pick up a hand he picks up a better hand; every time you hit a flop, he hits a better flop.

VR: A better way of putting it is that you’re his bitch for the day!

JH: We’re all susceptible. Sometimes you’re like, ‘Really?! That’s how you want to play it?!’ And you end up shoving it all-in drawing dead against someone. Sometimes I have to tell myself that 99% of the time these guys are only playing back at me when they have something, so why am I taking it personally?

So is the best advice to keep quiet, stay calm and not give anything away?

SPA: It probably is if you haven’t played much live poker. A lot of online players tend to be technically very good, especially preflop, but if they take on established live players in mind games they’re unlikely to get the best of it.

What kind of reaction are you looking for when you question an opponent?

JH: For me it’s all based on conversations that I’ve had with them out of a hand – how they reacted to questions they answered truthfully, such as where they come from, what they do, and comparing that to when they’re in a hand. How’s he responding? Does he look uncomfortable now? That’s how it works the best. I don’t think anyone can say, ‘I saw his eyes move to the left’ and then act upon that single thing. The reality is that you need something to gauge their actions against, and making these comparisons is what I use to decide whether I’m on the right track or not.

How much weight do you give to your physical and verbal reads?

SPA: I don’t have nearly as much experience as Joe and Victor on this so I only trust my live reads in marginal situations. I really don’t go looking for it but if I feel something is a clear call I don’t try to convince myself otherwise. That would be my advice to most players.

JH: Victor and I are totally different from Steve in this area. We’re a lot more about feel.

VR: Greg Raymer and I had a very big argument about this because we were talking about the importance of numbers against the psychology of poker. I play with 75% psychology and 25% numbers and Greg disagreed strongly saying it’s a numbers game. I said, ‘Listen to me, brother, how many times do you get Aces in a day?’ There are some players that you can continually steal blinds from, for instance, and you just need to work out which players they are.

JH: There are definitely two schools of thought. Some people have the constitution where the numbers mean everything, whereas I will fold sometimes even if the numbers tell me it’s correct to call. The gut instinct you get in hands is your subconscious mind picking up all the little bits of information and telling you that something is right or wrong. Often these conversations convey information that the conscious mind wouldn’t necessarily recognise, but the subconscious picks it all up and processes it. That’s your gut instinct.

It sounds like verbal sparring helps separate who can play the player and who just plays the cards. Would you agree?

VR: Well, I’m in my element when I can take pots without having to show my hand. If this is my game and how I win tournaments, why are the numbers even relevant? Even if the percentages say you have so many cards to hit but you can outplay everyone at your table without showing your hand, why would you take a race when you know you have the ability to win it all back in other spots?

JH: Young guys aren’t looking for spots – they only care about their chipstacks.

SPA: It’s not about picking a big spot – it’s about picking every spot. If I can get my chips in good for the price the pot is laying me then I’m happy.

JH: That’s why you can walk away from the table and be less emotional than I am!

At the WSOP Joe, you had quad fours against one of our writers, Steve ‘HillyTheFish’ Hill, and you were very talkative. Can you run us through that hand?

JH: I’d been torturing the table all day. They didn’t dare look at me. I was running good and I knew that everyone wanted to make day two so they could go home and tell everyone, ‘I made day two!’ It was the last hand of the day and I was under the gun so I knew I wasn’t going to play the hand. But then I got greedy. I had enough chips so I thought I’d go after it. I raised with 4-2 and I could tell your mate was petrified. He’s got A-K and he says, ‘I was hoping to have 2-7, why do they have to give me that?’ He’s already given away the fact that he’s got a big hand but doesn’t want to play. The other guy just calls in the big blind with his Queens.

Your mate got off easy because he didn’t put any more money into the pot but the other guy lost a lot because he didn’t raise me out of the hand. Just before the flop was dealt the buzzer went off and everyone started applauding but I told the two other guys in the hand that they hadn’t made it to day two yet.

On the river you made a very quick re-raise with the nuts…

JH: It was a fast reaction of making and saying the minimum re-raise and it can throw players off. He knew he was beat but I didn’t give him time to think.

So to summarise, how should you go about using verbals to help you at the poker table?

VR: It’s about getting to know a player and learning how they play. My personal way of approaching it is learning how those players will react to certain situations, and all my successes in poker have come from key spots where I’ve known the player. And if you make someone your buddy they will often let you off the hook with what they say.


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