An interesting aspect of online poker is so-called ‘Timing’ tells

When opponents react unusually quickly or take a long time to make a decision, that can often be indicative of the strength of their hand, their game plan, and so on.

With this in mind, does it follow that we should be conscious of our own timing habits? Should we be trying to avoid giving anything away, deliberately adding or taking away seconds when it’s our turn to act? And, as well as doing this to avoid being exploited, is it worth investigating the subject of timing in order to actually give out false information? After all, such a tactic could be a powerful weapon.

Before taking a look at how this might work in practice, there is an alternative route that also has its logic – namely taking exactly the same amount of time for every single decision we make. It might seem unnatural to have to wait a certain number of seconds over obvious folds, for example, but once we can get into that rhythm this policy does indeed rule out being exploited. Those observant opponents who are on the lookout for timing tells already lose out on a potentially useful edge, and there’s an interesting additional psychological benefit. If we’re disciplined enough, decision after decision, to plug a potential hole in our armour, then our actual plays themselves will be given more respect. Consequently, our noted deliberateness means we can get away with more bluffs.

While the non-committal approach to our decision timing might well make a lot of sense, this safety first policy takes away from us the ability to fool players and, in doing so, influence how opponents act. We could argue that taking advantage of how players perceive us, and how we can use our actions to manipulate the way they play, is simply too much an option to pass up.

How we might be able to use our timing to our advantage isn’t necessarily easy, and what will or won’t work with some players might be different with others. Furthermore, our opponents need to be at that stage where they’re carrying out even basic analysis during a hand. Fortunately, even at micro stakes, the tables tend to be populated by players who do indeed think, and what makes it even better for us is that most are still at a level when their thinking is rather predictable. This, in turn, makes our task somewhat easier.

Here’s an example… We are in the Big Blind with a pretty poor looking Qc4d when someone limps in and everyone else folds. Rather than checking instantly we make a point of ‘thinking’ a little first, thus disguising our strength by apparently considering a raise. Note that it doesn’t matter that we have a terrible hand, and that I used the word ‘strength’ deliberately to get over the point that our opponents don’t know what cards we have – that’s the point! It’s up to us to try to feed them (mis)information that suits us. The Flop brings a non-descript 8h 6s 2c, missing us completely. Again, we take our time before checking…

Now, let’s put ourselves in our opponent’s shoes. They could be thinking one of two things. From the moment the hand got underway they have seen us invest a lot of time thinking. It’s true that we didn’t bet, but nor did we instantly check. It’s perfectly reasonable to deduce from this that we have a holding worth putting some thought into, and which might merit a commitment. Just by taking our time, more often than not – especially at lower limits – we are going to create in the opposition’s mind the notion that we have a decent hand (when in fact we have nothing) which, in turn, is likely to influence their play. Now, if our opponent checks, they could well be thinking in exactly these terms, so when the Turn comes we can finally bet with some confidence and probably pick up the pot.

Alternatively, the opponent could interpret our thinking before checking as indicative of not having a good enough hand in which to invest further, leading them to react to our check with a bet. We can then throw in a hefty raise (because we’ve been lying dormant, waiting to pounce…) and let it dawn on our hapless opponent that they read us incorrectly. The desired effect is to make them feel like they’ve fallen into a trap that should have been so easy to see. Unless we’re pulling off some well-thought out, clinically executed bluff that we planned from the very first second (which is exactly what we’ve done), then we’ve simply fooled them. The most plausible action for them now – with another betting street to come – would be to cut their losses and fold. Incidentally, the reason why we can expect their bet to be an attempt to steal the pot after our apparent passivity is because, if they had a big hand, they’d simply be betting rather than being fancy and wasting an opportunity to make the most of their hand.

Remember that we can’t make a habit of such a play because it would look conspicuous but, used appropriately, it should pay better then routinely checking in this common pre-flop situation. Any means with which to steer a hand down a path of our choosing makes a difference.

Have fun!

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AngusD switched from pro chess to poker two decades ago and has been professionally involved in the game on numerous levels since the very beginning of online poker, including playing as a poker ambassador both online and at major festivals around the globe. He has written much about the game over the years, and brings to YPD a wealth of experience in all aspects of the poker industry. Meanwhile, his many years on the pro chess circuit (he’s an International Master and prolific author) afford him an interesting perspective on the psychology of poker.

· Published 27.12.2020 · last updated 27.12.2020

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