Sunday, June 24, 2012

When to look at your cards?

Steve Zolotow, in his column for Card Player magazine, June 13, 2012, writes this (page 40):

I hope everyone avoids looking at their cards until it is their turn to act. There are two reasons for this. First, you can't reveal anything about your hand because you don't know it yet. Second, you can focus on your opponents and not on your cards.
I have, of course, heard this argument before--many times, in fact. When I was first learning about poker by watching television shows like World Poker Tour and Celebrity Poker Showdown, I specifically remember hearing both Phil Gordon and Annie Duke explain that looking at one's cards before it is one's turn is an amateurish mistake.

I disagree.

I understand perfectly well the arguments made in favor of waiting to look. But what advocates of this position usually omit, or perhaps do not grasp, is that there are countervailing arguments.

First, waiting to look until it's your turn means that the whole game runs more slowly. That is not a small consideration.

Second, to quote Phil Ivey, "If you have tells, work on them." If you're giving away information by body language or facial expressions when you check your hole cards, that's a problem you need to fix pronto. Whether you give off that information a few seconds after you get your cards or only when it's your turn makes little difference. You need to not be spewing such tells, period. Of course it is the case that your action (fold, call, or raise) will also be giving off information, but that is a separate matter. You don't want your face and body to be saying one thing and your bet a contradictory thing.

Third, if you wait to look until it's your turn, all eyes will be on you as you do so, because everybody is waiting for you to act. Thus, if you do have tells, the way to be sure they get maximal attention from opponents is to wait until everybody is watching you while you check your hole cards. On the other hand, if you do it when most other players are doing it--as they receive their last down card--they're all busy with their eyes elsewhere.

Fourth, if you wait until it's your turn, you're likely to give off information by how long it takes you to decide what to do after looking at your cards. Raise or not? If so, how much? Even if your face reveals nothing, the delay in action can suggest how complicated or difficult your decision is. I say let that decisional time pass while other things are going on.

I don't usually like appeals to authority in argument, but it is definitely not the case that all the best players in the world wait to look until it is their turn to act. These days we are getting more and more live broadcasts of late stages of big poker tournaments. Just watch--you'll see that there is a lot of variation on this point among the greats. Though T.J. Cloutier seems to be pretty much vanishing from the tournament scene now that he is, sadly, in the twilight of his life, I clearly remember him addressing this controversy in one of his books. He said that he likes to give a quick glance at his cards as soon as they arrive, then direct his attention at what how the other players are reacting to theirs. I agree with him. It takes literally one second or less, so you won't be missing much.

I like having my own cards in mind as I watch the other players act. Often my default decision about what to do changes. A completely crap hand becomes raiseworthy if I'm in late position and everybody has folded. Marginal hands like A-8 and Q-J can go from being planned raises to being folds if there is any action before it gets to me, or reraises if a raise comes from a habitually frisky player. And so forth. I would be stunned beyond belief if any of my opponents can read on my face these changes in my thinking as the action unfolds.

For what it's worth, I've noticed that Cardgrrl adopts a compromise position. She looks at her cards when the action is about two seats to her right. There is an argument to be made that this tactic incorporates some of the advantages of both of the more common approaches (looking immediately, or not until it's your turn). It's worth considering.

I don't mind that there are differences of opinion, preference, and style on this question. What bugs me, though, is how dogmatic many proponents of the Zolotow/Gordon/Duke position are about it--insisting that theirs is the only right way and any deviation from it is a clear error. I just don't buy it.


Michael said...

I could never understand why so many players adamantly subscribed to that theory.

I think you explained the counter argument very well. For me the biggest benefit is to start formulating what I want to do when the action gets to me.

There is still plenty of time to watch others act at the table after looking at your cards.

lightning36 said...

Too many times in poker there is supposedly a "right" way to do something. Sometimes I wait to look at the cards while other times I sneak the quick peak.

Is it just me that is surprised by the number of dogmatic people and views in poker?

NT (aka Cardgrrl) said...

I don't do what you describe deliberately. I try to look at my cards as they are dealt, quickly and unobtrusively.

Sometimes there is a player or players in earlier position that I want to keep an eye on, so I will delay looking until I have observed their action.

Sometimes I "look" at my cards (again) while actually observing the behavior of the players to my left.

I agree that timing tells are much more common and problematic than facial or body language tells, and I much prefer to have had chance to consider my options BEFORE the action gets to me.

Wine Guy said...

I agree with you. While I can see the basis behind it, I would subscribe to your statement that, if you wait till it is your turn, everyone is now watching you.

Having just come back from Vegas, and played with all the sharks at the Rio for 4 days, I can agree that even these young guns will look at their cards as soon as they get them, then do a recheck when it is their turn (or if you are like me, old and forget things that quickly!)

~Coach said...

I agree with you also. Reason #3 is my big thing - you'll have EVERYONE looking at you when you see your cards. Afraid my eyes might start spinning if I peer down and see AA... ;)

Anonymous said...

I think you should stress a little more how much it slows down the game and the cost of that.

On a direct note, let's say the dealer pitches 30 hands/hr to a table which all pre-looks. Now, let's say that every player at a 10-handed table takes 1 extra second to act when it's their turn - instead of 30 hands/hr = 2 min/hand, you now get 2:10 min/hand = 27.7 hands/hr. 7% of a winning player's profit evaporates simply because "hold your horses, it'll just be a second."

Indirectly, for those of us who play relatively small stakes, there's really no point in the hoodie-sunglasses-iPod routine:

1. People don't pay enough attention to you to see your tells even if you give them.

2. People don't know how to adjust even if they saw your tells.

3. Peoples' obvious leaks (e.g., playing trash hands, not getting value out of their non-monsters, calling down hopelessly) generally outweigh their non-obvious leaks (e.g., tells).

Maybe in higher stakes games these conditions don't apply as much, but at least on the LHE side, there's just no reason to worry about tells or metagame at all until about 30/60.

Anonymous said...

Good post Grump,

I play low level limit where 99% of the players play what they have no matter what, yet you always have a couple 'pros' who insist on waiting until every eye is on them before they slowly peek at their cards and then hollywood every decision. Good grief...