Ideas

The Word

How poker players’ language gives them away

Until the arrival of the quants, reading ‘table talk’ was a form of art

Lesley Becker/Globe Staff photo illustration

On Monday, the Main Event of the World Series of Poker—a $10,000 buy-in, no-limit, Texas hold-’em championship taking place this year at the Rio hotel and casino in Vegas—begins its final televised round. The players of the so-called November Nine include local hero and, according to the World Series of Poker website, “perhaps the most unlikely final tablist this year,” William “Billy Pappas” Pappaconstantinou, an international foosball champion and amateur poker player from Lowell.

What viewers aren’t likely to hear from Pappaconstantinou and his eight opponents is a lot of “table talk”—conversation about the game—or “coffeehousing,” the poker term for chit-chat. Since the invasion of the “quants” about 15 years ago, serious poker has become a quiet game, played largely by 23-year-old math wizards in hoodies and sunglasses. But talking used to be a major part of tournament poker, giving rise to an elaborate system of verbal manipulation and scanning for linguistic giveaways, or “tells.” Although the art of table talk is now fading at the highest level, a peek into its lore reveals much about how the game used to be played—and perhaps how it could be played better, at least by recreational gamblers, today.

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Early poker players relied on language both to intimidate and to study their opponents. Video from the 1973 World Series of Poker Championship shows Walter “Puggy” Pearson going head to head with Bryan “Sailor” Roberts: “I’m not tryinga bust you now. I guess you tryinga bust me, go ahead,” Pearson says, as Roberts pushes in all his chips. Spectators clustered around the table implore, “Sailor, please have a hand!” Pearson shouts: “He can’t have one this big! Fuggedaboutit!” The taunting continues as Pearson shows off his pocket aces, trying to get Roberts to fold. But Roberts stays grimly silent, knowing he’s hit a flush, the stronger hand. Then the final card comes out, giving Pearson a full house—and knocking Roberts out of the game.

Pearson gets lucky here. But his goading of Roberts—the unnecessary jabber before he places a bet—is part of his game as well, a practice known as “making a speech.” When a player makes a speech, “they’re either trying to scare you out of the pot or they’re trying to make you think that’s what they’re doing when really they’re doing the opposite,” said James McManus, author of “Cowboys Full: The Story of Poker.” Pro Jamie Gold’s habit of discussing his hand openly has led to the restriction of the old-school style of speech-making under modern-day World Series of Poker regulations. But many of the earliest tournament pros, like Pearson and Thomas “Amarillo Slim” Preston, were famous for blustery speeches, part of an aggressive style of banter meant to put their opponents “on tilt.” And while these players were haranguing their opponents, they would watch closely to see what clues—“tells”—leaked out under pressure.

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Matt Matros, a poker champion and writer, learned his game from a chatty, old-school-style pro, Russell Rosenblum, who taught him the tricks of manipulating table talk and watching for tells. “Russell told me that if someone is incapable of speech, basically, they don’t have anything, because they’re nervous and they’re bluffing and they can’t put a sentence together,” Matros said. Another of Rosenblum’s moves was to pretend to guess a player’s hand: “You have two jacks?” In fact, Matros said, he’s actually stating a hand that’s close to his own in strength, and then checking the other player’s response: “If...the guy looks comfortable because he thinks ‘No, no, I’m better than that,’ you’re in trouble.”

While watching 100 hours of poker videos to write “Verbal Poker Tells,” his 2014 book aimed mostly at recreational players, Zachary Elwood saw players dropping linguistic clues left and right. One of his observations was that despite the perception of poker players as skilled deceivers, they prefer to be vague or skirt the truth. “Poker players will lie, but they like to get value for their lies when they decide to do them,” Elwood said. He also found that language habits change over the course of the game. Later on in a hand, a player who is voluble and talkative can be signaling confidence in a hand; but in the first round of bets, players dealt strong cards often go silent, anxiously strategizing. “They’re focused and they’re being cagey in that moment, whereas a player with a less strong hand has less to lose and they blurt out something,” he said.

As the nature of the game has changed, with older “feel” players pushed out by young, Internet-poker-trained, game-theory-savvy—and very quiet—pros, table talk has become less central. When Amarillo Slim went against up-and-coming pro Phil Ivey in the 2000 World Series of Poker, the aging star kept up a volley of chatter. Ivey, then only 23, ignored him and won, in a major upset. “That’s his game, not mine, and I’m not going to play his game,” Ivey said afterward. Today, only a few pros, like Daniel Negreanu and Phil Hellmuth, are famous talkers. The player most notorious for talking in this year’s World Series, Curtis Rystadt, was a loud amateur from Oregon who verbally harassed the other players at his table until finally, with silent glee, one of them dispatched him from action.

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Yet language remains integral to poker—at home and in cash games that are freer from the intricate regulations and etiquette of tournament games. And the old verbal playbook sometimes comes in handy even for the pros. Matros described going up at last year’s World Series of Poker against an amateur player, who before a bet said, “I don’t have the very best hand that I could have, but I think I have the best hand right now.” Based on the hedged confidence of this speech, Matros was, he said, “almost 100 percent sure that the two cards in his hand are two jacks, not any other hand in the world.” He called—and won the hand.

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Britt Peterson is an Ideas columnist. She lives in Washington, D.C. Follow her on Twitter @brittkpeterson.
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