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The Chips Speak

I received a comment to my last post and as I started to respond, I began to realize that the topic is post-worthy. The comment, made anonymously, asked:

Up 'til now I've been an online player but I'm slowly making the jump to live play. How much stock do you put into how people handle their chips?

Good question, if a little broad. The truth is, I put a lot of stock in how a player handles their chips. It will give you tells and information moreso than most things at the table. Here is a brief examination of the subject.

Right away, if you are sitting at a table and you see a player doing chip tricks, you have some information. If they are doing them well and doing a variety of tricks or difficult tricks, you have yourself a player. Whoever he or she is, you know that they are familiar with handling chips and likely have a good amount of experience playing poker. This does not necessarily mean that they are good, but it is a hint that they might be. It also shows that they have the tennacity to stick to something relatively tricky, especially when it comes to a variety of tricks or difficult ones. It is no accident that Antonio Esfandiari is great at card tricks (via his background in magic) and is a successful poker player. Both take dedication, commitment and practice. You can say the same for the guy putting on a chip trick exposition in the 1s. He is willing to work at his craft, and therefore you should be semi-cautious.

On the flipside, some players are going to attempt chip tricks or do semi-tricks, but are clearly still learning. Immediately, you know that they are not experienced in card rooms, but have the awareness of the game and chip tricks. You may have a complete rookie, and you'll know this from other things he does. In this case, have fun. The other possibility is an Internet player. He may know how to play, but live poker is still somewhat new. This is the start of a read, but there is a lot of other information you need about that particular player (playing style, clothes, demeanor) to get the full picture. The bottom line is if the guy in the sunglasses and baseball hat in the 2s start to shuffle chips and they keep falling over, you know that he is aware of poker, but he is probably not a master.

These are broad reads about knowledge of the game, but you can get a lot more information in particular situations by watching your opponents hands. Most players are conscious of the fact that people can pick up tells from their faces. That is not the case with hands. They are often forgotten about, so watch what your opponent is doing and try to see how it matches up with the hand they eventually show.

There have been several occasions where I've caught players shuffling their chips when they were nervous about a hand. I'll see them shuffle chips, make a mental note of which hand they use, what denomination of chips, how they shuffle them and how many chips they shuffle, and then when showdown happens, I try to match that information with his hand. Sometimes the particular details, like which hand he uses or denomination of chips, don't matter, but other times they might. For instance, some players might grab big chips to shuffle when they are confident, because they expect to bet soon. I'm not saying that this is definitely the case, though, because someone else might just grab whatever chips they have handy. It is a case by case analysis, but overall, if your opponent is shuffling chips, he is doing it to calm his nerves and is likely nervous. Likewise, if you see your opponent playing with his chips in any way, he is probably doing it to ease his nerves and is weak. I imagine it is all related to players who "shuffle" their cards, placing one underneath the other and repeating, usually in a scissor motion. That is a well documented sign of weakness and has received the HoP stamp of approval.

There may be other ways a player handles his or her chips that would provide you with valuable information. Betting is a key example. In general, follow Mike Caro's weak-means-strong and strong-means-weak approach. If a player slams his chips on the table, he's acting strong and is likely weak. If he bets daintily, he wants to seem nonthreatening, so he probably has a monster. This is not always the case, as with any read. I suggest you watch your opponent and decide whether or not he is an actor. Most intermediate players are, whereas beginners are not, and the advanced players switch it up depending on the situation; but overall, once an actor, always an actor.

Here are a few other random tidbits. If a player bets out and leaves his arm in an extended position, it can often mean that he is bluffing. He fears recoiling his hand because it might appear weak. Likewise, if a player bets and, in doing so, knocks over his chips, and then goes about correcting his chips stack, it is also a sign of weakness. His nerves cause him to fix his sloppiness, therefore soothing his nervousness and, subconsciously, restoring his appearance of strength.

Here is a final one, and then I ask that any readers offer additional input. This gem is also in Caro's Book of Poker Tells (one of HoP's three highly-recommended poker books for new players). If a player stacks his chips neatly, he is likely a tight player. If his stack is loose and wild, his play will likely be loose as well. The chips reflect a player's state of mind. For the tight player, everything is in order. If those little color tabs on four edges of chips are all lined up, just fold against the guy. He either has OCD or he is playing GCoxian poker (and likely a bit of both). If his chipstack is mixed up, go ahead and call or raise with a premium hand. Of course, if he just won the last hand and hasn't had time to stack his winnings, I suggest you do the exact opposite. Most players who win a big pot will fold marginal hands when they still have to stack up their winnings. In those cases, the appearance of his stack has more to do with temporary issues than his overall mindset.

Share and share alike, I always say. If you have any suggestions as to what you can read by how a player handles his chips, fire away a comment. Before I leave you all, I would like to just throw on a quick disclaimer. Reads are all very personal. Each player acts in a different way. There are general tells that indicate a certain thing, but don't overly rely on that read alone. It doesn't make sense to call someone down with Ace-high because you see that she did not recoil her arm after betting. She very well could be bluffing with bottom pair, OR this particular player might just have had a stiff elbow. My point is, reads are an integral part of the game, but they are not the end of the game. Get to know your players first and see what tells they show. Keep an eye out for the one's listed here. But always act with caution until you are able to get enough overall information to accurately place a tell.

Until next time, make mine poker!

posted by Jordan @ 5:23 PM,


At 6:34 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

On the flipside, some players are going to attempt chip tricks or do semi-tricks. These players, who often fail to shuffle two stacks of three chips or fidget with their chips in a pre-set but unimpressive demeanor, are likely the rookies desperate to prove themselves. If you see the guy in the sunglasses and baseball hat in the 2s start to shuffle chips with and they keep falling over, you know that he is aware of poker, but he is probably not a master. Of course, always beware gross assumptions, but it is a starting point from which to start your reads. Likewise, if you see a guy taking his top chip in a small stack and putting it underneath the other 4 chips and repeating, or twirling a chip around to no real effect, he is probably completely clueless as to poker, but just wants to look like he knows what he is doing."

A great post on chip handling, but the problem with the paragraph above is I probably look like the guy you described above when I play in a casino. I played two years online before I played live in a casino. There are no chips online. So I'd be a little more careful there. He could be a great player and just hasn't had much experience with chips.

At 10:30 PM, Blogger Jordan said...

You are right. It definitely requires an addendum. I should mention that those players may also be Internet players. For that reason, SOME are trying to prove themselves competent at a live table. All of these ideas are very general. I focused on the chips only. The look of the player and other indicators will help you parse out who is the rookie, who is the Internet "pro," and who to look out for. Nice catch.

At 10:00 AM, Blogger Heather said...

90% of people who play internet poker are generally not very good their first several times live, because the games are, for the most part, TOTALLY different - I think Jordan's points in this regard are pretty dead on, even if he doesn't have my blog linked.

At 1:33 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

I thought they were pretty dead on too. I was just referring to one point. I won right away playing live, but I also played low stakes.

At 4:41 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

There is another, less-discussed, side of this issue. How should you handle your chips at the table to give away as little information as possible?

My live casino experience is very limited. So far I've been counting out the chips I want to bet directly in front of my stack and then slowly sliding them toward the center of the table. I try to do it the same way each time.

I've spent countless hours shuffling chips in friendly home games (sometimes my arms ache the next day from all the unusual hand motions), but I wouldn't dream of trying to shuffle my chips in a casino, at least not at a table where the stakes actually mattered to me. If I'm playing 1/2 limit, yeah, I might try a bit of chip shuffling. In a tournament or at any limit where it might hurt, I'm a rock, or as close as I can get to one.

At 5:06 PM, Blogger Jordan said...

Personally, I'll shuffle chips, but only between hands. During hands, I try not to do anything so overt. I don't mind people seeing that I can shuffle chips. I am all for the belief that you should give off as little information as possible, but I don't think it is the only way to control tells. The other way, which I naturally tend to do, is to catch my own tells or send out fake tells. In either instance, I know what information I am sending out there, so I can react accordingly.

At 5:18 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Great post! For those of us too stingy to buy all the great poker books, thanks for the reminders. I read Mike Caro's book a year ago at the library, but only a few things stuck with me.

I'm around a dozen casino visits at the moment--all low stakes fixed limit--and I think I put a lot more thought into tells the first few casino visits than I have in subsequent visits. I was almost in awe of the amount of information given away at the table on my first visit. I imitated TV poker by waiting to look at my cards until the action was on me... of course this just made the locals mad at me for taking so long--which I quickly picked up on.

When I visit a casino now, I have a lot of fun at the table. I try to play sound poker, try a bluff or two, while getting in as many hands as possible. I think my goal for a casino trek is to play as well as I can, while still having fun.

In my experiences at casinos, you can tell the newbies by their demeanor at the table. If I'm sitting at a 3/6 limit table and calling for time, walking around behind my chair contemplating a call, I might as well be wearing a "Moneymaker" T-shirt. The guys I watch out for are those with a smile on their face, who feel at home at the casino.

At 4:04 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Good stuff! I'm the same Anon from the previous post (no blogger account).

Sorry the question was vague. The part I was referring to was how people handle their chips when they bet, call, or raise. Not if they shuffle before action reaches them, etc.

I think you can draw logical conclusions from seeing chip tricks and shuffle techniques but I wasn't sure how much stock to put into pot splashers, careful chip stackers, casual chip tosses, and so on.

I hear Foxwoods calling me this weekend so hopefully some of what I read here comes in handy. I play a lot of 300 NL and 400 NL on Bodog and do well, so 1-2 NL at Foxwoods shouldn't be so bad.

Thanks for writing up your thoughts!

At 5:56 PM, Blogger Jordan said...

Anon, I thought I touched on betting as well, but the basic rule is that if they are looking tough (throwing their chips, slamming them hard) they are weak. If they are quiet and reserved, they are strong. But really, first figure out if they are an actor or not.

At 8:53 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Yep, you did a good job of touching on betting. I was just clarifying my question after the fact once I realized how vague it was.

At 6:36 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Good post Jordan, I like what you say and if we just add in “no one tell always means the same thing” to both our blogs I think we will agree 100%. The important thing is to recognize that these things mean something. Each player must figure out what it means in that situation. In a lot of the games I play in when someone has just won a pot they will often call with very marginal hands. Their logic, they might be on a heater. Although I would not say that the consequences are worse in NL or Limit, they are very different is how you get caught. If anyone would care to comment of a few of my tells (Jordan does not like them all) let me know what you think. How to Spot a Poker Tell


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