The Power of Weak-Hand Statements
Strong-hand statements are what I call statements that strengthen the range of a speaker. For example, an obvious strong-hand statement would be a bettor saying, “I’ve got the nuts.”
A weak-hand statement is, as you can guess, one that weakens the range of a speaker. For example, a player bets and says, “I’m just on a draw, don’t worry.”
Strong-hand statements and weak-hand statements can be very obvious (like above). They can also be very subtle. A couple examples of more subtle ones:
A subtle strong-hand statement: A player bets the turn and his opponent asks, “You on the draw?” The bettor says, “I was never on a draw.”
A subtle weak-hand statement: A player bets a river board of A-6-3-7-3. After his opponent thinks for a while, the bettor says, “I don’t have the three, I’ll tell you that.”
Without getting into what these statements mean yet, let’s just say that these kinds of statements will generally hold the most meaning when heard from bettors, as opposed to the non-aggressors in the hand (the checkers or callers). The more significant the bet is, the more likely some meaning will be found.
Strong-hand statements are much harder to interpret than weak-hand statements. Bluffers obviously have an incentive to imply or state that their hands are strong, so you’ll hear a good amount of strong-hand statements from them. Players betting strong hands can also be very relaxed and enjoy telling the truth. I’m sure you’ve seen plenty of bluffers and players with strong hands say things like, “I’ve got the nuts, you should fold.”
But weak-hand statements can be very valuable. This is because most bluffers will avoid making statements that weaken their range. For example, a bluffer is very unlikely to make a statement like, “I don’t have the trips, I’ll tell you that.”
Bluffers, by and large, like to remain quiet. If they choose to talk, they would prefer to imply, however subtly, some strength about their hand. Or they’d just make some general, ambiguous comments that can’t easily be classified. What they don’t want to do is potentially make an opponent curious or suspicious by weakening their range. (Bluffers, in general, don’t like to talk about their own hand range.)
This can be very valuable, because a lot of less serious players will often talk about their hand strength. The main practical benefit of this will be that you’ll be able to more confidently fold when an opponent makes a big bet and makes a weak-hand statements.
Now let’s look at some real hand examples, to see how you might use this in practice. (These hands, and many more, are in the Verbal Poker Tells book.)
$2-5 NLHE cash game, witnessed by author
On a river board of T♥ 6♣ 4♥ 4♣ A♦, a player bets $100 into a pot of $200.
Her opponent asks her, “You have a full house?”
She immediately replies, “No.”
She’s implying her hand is weak in some way. Implying weakness when making a significant bet makes it unlikely she’s bluffing.
Results: Her opponent calls. She shows 6♥ 6♦, for a full house. When a player says they don’t have a full house, that is a huge warning sign. You have to ask yourself, “If this player were bluffing, or at all somewhat vulnerable or uncertain about where they were at, would they voluntarily remove a full house from their hand?
2010 WSOP Europe Main Event NLHE tournament
Dan Fleyshman is the pre-flop raiser and has bet the flop and turn. The river board is Q♣ 4♣ 4♦ 5♠ A♦.
Fleyshman bets 100,000 into a pot of 432,000. His opponent, Brian Powell, considers.
Fleyshman: “You’ll never guess what I have.”
Powell: “Aces full?”
Powell: “You hoping I missed those clubs?”
Fleyshman: “That’s part of it… I was very sad when the ace got there.”
Fleyshman has made a significant bet while making many weak-hand statements. This makes it unlikely his hand is weak.
Results: Powell calls with K♥ Q♥. Fleyshman has A♥ 4♥, for a full house.
Fleyshman is a pretty experienced player. Still, this pattern will hold true even for experienced players. Most experienced players will just err on the side of being quiet when bluffing. There’s just not much upside to trying such a fancy verbal maneuver, especially if you’re far from sure how your opponent will respond to such behavior.
2011 “JAX50K” NLHE cash game, Orange Park Kennel Club
On a flop of A♣ 6♣ 3♥, Rick Rahim continuation-bets $8,500 into a $8,500 pot. He talks almost the entire time during this hand.
His opponent Paul Petraglia raises to $17,000. Rahim then talks and thinks for a while, eventually shoving all-in for $36,400 total. After Petraglia doesn’t call for a few seconds, Rahim says, “I guarantee if you fold I’m gonna show the bluff. And I’m gonna piss you off.”
Rahim is implying that he’s bluffing. This weak-hand statement makes it unlikely that he’s bluffing.
Results: Petraglia calls with A♥ Q♦. Rahim has the same hand: A♦ Q♠.
Rahim is a talkative player. But even for talkative, verbally tricky players, this pattern will apply. In this hand, while Rahim may have been uncertain where he was at when he shoved, after a few seconds he becomes much more certain he is ahead. This is what leads to the goading weak-hand statement. (Goading from a bettor is also indicative of someone who wants a call.)
Sometimes players will volunteer these types of statements. Other times you may, when on the fence about a decision, decide to try to elicit such behavior. (I don’t recommend doing this often, as it reduces in usefulness the more you use it, as people realize what you’re doing. Plus it can just slow up the game if people are always trying to elicit tells.)
One way to prompt this behavior is to simply ask the bettor, “You got trip sixes?” Or whatever a strong hand would be.
If you do decide to prompt this behavior, here’s one tip for you: choose a hand that is not super-strong, but is more middle-of-the-road strong. For example, if the board is A♣ K♣ T♥ 3♠ 7♣, you shouldn’t ask the bettor, “Do you have the flush?” or “Do you have the straight?”
The reason you don’t want to ask about these strong hands is that, if your opponent is value-betting, these will often be the hands that your opponent actually has. If he has these hands, he will be unlikely to respond to you, because he’s not going to lie. That’s why you want to say something like, “You got trips, huh?” Something he can theoretically truthfully deny in the hopes of getting you to call.
As I’m writing this, just the other day, at a $2-5 NLHE game, I was on the fence when a pretty loose player shoved the river on a board of 6-6-K-A-T. I had AJ. I asked him a couple questions, one of which was, “You got the six, huh?” He said, “Maybe.”
Although this statement is, on its own, very ambiguous, in this context it’s a pretty clear weak-hand statement. If this player were bluffing, he’d be very unlikely to want to put in my head the idea that he might not have a six. I folded pretty confidently and he showed T-6, for the boat.
Worth mentioning: it’ll only be the presence of a weak-hand statement that’s valuable. Someone who remains silent isn’t giving you any information. In other words: the lack of a tell is not a tell, so don’t read much, on its own, into someone not talking or responding to your question.
The other caveat to this is that some players are verbally tricky. Some players have told me, “I like to say I’m bluffing when I’m actually bluffing.” Sure, this happens. But it’s much more rare than you think. And once you notice that about a player, you just remember that about the player for future reference. (For using poker tells in general, ideally you will have observed the tell in question being accurate for a specific player before acting on it.)
Also: I think most of these kinds of “tricky” statements will be confined to rather obvious attempts at reverse-psychology like “I’m bluffing” and won’t often be more specific-to-the-situation statements like, “I don’t have the trip sixes.”