Living Dangerously

I caught a re-run of Casino Royale while doing some post-Thanksgiving lounging. In one of the poker scenes, Bond calls down the villain, Le Chiffre, and loses a big pot, leading to the following exchange:

Vesper: This is me in character pissed because you are losing so fast we won’t be here past midnight. Oddly my character’s feelings mirror my own.

Bond: It was worth it to discover his tell…

Mathis: What do you mean, his tell?

Bond: A twitch he has to hide when he bluffs.

Physical tendencies, or “tells,” are one of the most misunderstood parts of poker. Bond’s reasoning amounts to a near perfect storm of bad practices.

1) Calling to see the opponent’s cards

For this to be a good idea, the information gained must be reliable and it must be valuable enough to recoup the money lost by making the bad call. It almost never is. The best time to gather information on opponents is when you’re not involved in the hand. Then you can devote your full attention to observation and you don’t have to risk anything to get the information.

2) Overestimating the reliability of the tell

During the hand Le Chiffre’s eye twitches and he put his puts his finger on his temple. Since he turned out to be bluffing, Bond identifies this as a tell. The problem is, he has nowhere near enough information to make the connection. For the tell to be reliable he’d have to see Le Chiffre do the same thing several times when he was bluffing, and consistently not do it when he was value betting. But most likely it’s just a random tic that has nothing to do with the strength of his hand. At this point the “tell” isn’t just useless, it’s actually very likely to cause Bond to make a mistake, because he’ll be basing his actions on a random behavior rather than his cards and the betting.

Of course it’s a bit silly to analyze a poker hand in a Bond movie, like analyzing formations in a football movie. But while most everyone understands that sports movies don’t present a realistic depiction of football, many poker players try to play like Bond, latching onto a random physical tic and ascribing to it all sorts of meaning. Recently I was accused of cheating by giving a hand signal to a friend during a hand. The accuser said I had put my hand on my head and tapped a finger, a similar gesture to Le Chiffre’s in the Bond movie. I wasn’t aware of making the gesture, but I suppose I probably did it. He didn’t offer any explanation of what this gesture might mean or how we would use it to cheat. We weren’t actually cheating, of course – the gesture was random and meaningless –  but he had convinced himself it was part of some elaborate scheme. Given that someone needs a high threshold of proof before accusing someone else of cheating at the poker table (or should, anyway) it makes me wonder what kinds of beliefs people hold about tells but never give voice to.

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