Learning to identify a strong player as quickly as possible can help you avoid making precious mistakes (like playing hands with them) and also help you to camouflage your own abilities. In a recent Vegas trip where I played some higher buy-in events with strong fields, I did a lot of thinking about how I was able to pick out the strong players very quickly. Sometimes quantifying what you are doing helps you to do it better, and I definitely learned some things from trying to make sense of the intuitive process of identifying strong players.
The initial appearance tells were obvious, and I didn’t need to do much thinking about them. The 24-year-old with the Beats by Dre headphones, an ipad, a $10,000 Breitling, and a hoodie? He’s an online player, probably backed, and almost certainly aggressive. The 60-year-old with the gold Rolex and a 30-year-old wife? He didn’t make his money playing poker, and he’s not going to be as aggressive or as much of a hassle to play with. And the 45-year-old guy with the nice button down shirt is probably a tourist. The 40-year-old in a Tap Out shirt and hair plugs didn’t make his money playing poker either, and he’s probably a gambler.
But not everyone with Beats by Dre is an online monster, and not every 30-year-old with a WSoP hoodie is a fish. And making the assumption that they are who they appear to be can be very expensive. Watching a player’s behavior can be much more telling than their appearance.
The first thing that may tell you about an opponent is how they approach the table. Do they know other players, and are their friends strong players? Do they appear to be comfortable or is this one of their first times moving from table-to-table in a tournament? Their approach can tell you a great deal about how they are likely to play, but I find the most useful tell is in the eyes.
When strong players approach a table, they are looking for information immediately. They check each stack and scan each face, stopping briefly on faces they recognize and assessing how many chips are in each stack. They want to know how their position will be affected by the stacks near to them and how the table is likely to play.
When working with a student this week, we referred to this approach to the table as Shark Eyes. A shark seems to see everything, and they are taking in as much information as possible. A fish doesn’t look over the table in the same predatory way, they just want to get to their seat and see how close the blinds are. They may complain about being moved into the blinds, but they aren’t looking for the more important information and they don’t look like a predator.
If you watch new opponents carefully as they approach the table, you’ll quickly see the difference in how they look over the table. Any player who looks like a hungry hawk soaring toward a field of mice is almost certainly a strong player and will be a force to be reckoned with.
When you combine the Beats by Dre and the Breitling watch with eyes of the predator, as I did a few days ago, you have definitely found a strong online player. In this case the player who moved in to my left had all of the trappings of an online player, with a bad case of Shark Eyes, and I knew he was going to be trouble. It didn’t take long for me to get his screen name, and then I knew a little about his game because he actually used to work for PokerXFactor with me and I had seen a few of his videos.
Mr. Shark Eyes was Dan “Wretchy” Martin, with over three million dollars in winnings online. And while he was a nice guy, I wasn’t sad to see him bust soon after he arrived at the table. But wouldn’t you know it, another guy with Shark Eyes was moved into that seat. This one was tougher to read, and without the eyes I wouldn’t have picked it up so quickly.
The player who moved into Wretchy’s seat had facial hair, a rarity for an online player, but he was young and definitely had the eyes. He wasn’t wearing a pricey watch, listening to headphones, or looking at his ipad, but after seeing his bet sizing (very small preflop raises and small flop bets) I could tell he was an online player. I was able to strike up a conversation and get his screen name, and wouldn’t you know it, another poker coach.
Mr. Shark Eyes #2 was Mark “pimpindonks” Schmidt, one of the biggest winners in sit and go tournaments online over the past few years. Mark also made a large number of training videos for sharkscope.com and has an impressive resume in multi-table tournaments. The monsters aren’t hiding under my bed, but they were in the seat to my left. Lucky for me they had Shark Eyes and I was able to stay out of pots with them right from the start unless I had a hand that I was willing to play a big pot with.