Playing online poker profitably requires a number of different skills. Aside from hand ranges, the size of your (value)bets and calculating odds, there are some other aspects to the game that involve less maths, such as 'gameflow', 'image' and 'timing tells'. In this article we will be discussing the latter.
A timing tell is one of the most important poker tells you can use when playing online poker. A timing tell is basically the time your opponent takes to make a decision, whereby he might be giving away information about the strength of his hand. Some players become very predictable as a result of the time they take to make decisions.
One of the classic timing tells is the quick call on the flop, which often represents a weak made hand or a draw. Furthermore, a quick 4-bet preflop often indicates a bluff or a "weaker" all-in hand such as AK, while a slower 4-bet often points towards a hand like QQ+. Many of these tells can be found at the lower limits with the less experienced players, but when paying close attention, you can also find these at the higher limits. You might see a player who always makes a quick pot bet when bluffing, but takes a little longer and bets 2/3 of the pot when he has a strong hand he wants to get value out of.
In order to profit from this tell, the first thing you should do is make sure to switch off the 'animations' at your table. If you don't do this, it will be harder to keep track of exactly how long your opponent is taking to make his decision. Lets say you have the animations switched on. If you call a bet of another player and he is first to act on the flop, then you will slowly see three cards appear one by one. If your opponent has this animation switched off, he will see the flop directly and can already spend some time thinking about his actions while you are still waiting for the flop to appear. Once you then finally see the flop and your opponent bets after 5 seconds, he might have already been thinking about his move a little longer, in which case you would be picking up a wrong tell.
When talking about online poker timing tells, you don't really need to consider the statistics for this player, as you are purely focussing on the time he takes to make a decision. No matter if the player bluffs a lot or not, you are only taking into account his thought process at that moment. Of course it can be handy to know whether a player is very aggressive or not, but timing tells are solely about the read you make as a result of the time taken by your opponent. Therefore we will also not get into discussing options like 3-betting, raising, leading etc in this article.
Example hand 1
This hand was played in a $109 Freeze-Out tournament on FullTilt. We are playing around 40 big blinds here with an average stack against an opponent with twice our stack.
Seat 1: Wooter (6,107)
Seat 2: bellbop (2,734)
Seat 3: Phil273 (4,661)
Seat 4: bhub69 (3,575)
Seat 5: joejoewhittaker (13,325)
Seat 7: BorgataBoss1 (14,645)
Seat 8: seiles777 (21,287)
Seat 9: Joe McGuire (4,085)
bhub69 posts the small blind of 80
joejoewhittaker posts the big blind of 160
The button is in seat #3
*** HOLE CARDS ***
Dealt to Wooter
Joe McGuire raises to 395
Wooter calls 395
joejoewhittaker calls 235
*** FLOP ***
Joe McGuire checks
Wooter has 15 seconds left to act
*** TURN ***
joejoewhittaker bets 825
Joe McGuire folds
Wooter calls 825
*** RIVER ***
joejoewhittaker bets 1,925
Wooter calls 1,925
*** SHOW DOWN ***
joejoewhittaker shows Ace King high
Wooter shows a pair of Queens
Wooter wins the pot (6,765) with a pair of Queens
In this hand we flop top pair with a possible flush draw, but we have little information to know whether we are ahead or not. We check behind and see a King appear on the turn. Now the MP opener bets 2/3 of the pot. The King can easily be used as a scarecard, so we won't be throwing away our Queen that easily. We call and see a card appear on the river that many will see as the worst possible card to come: the Ace.
But this doesn't necessarily have to be the case. Our opponent could have missed his draw, or could be holding a lower pocket pair that he turned into a bluff. In this situation we are, of course, never convinced that we have the best hand, but then suddenly we get an important piece of information: villain fires out a bet of ½ the pot after about two seconds.
At this point you should be thinking about the following: if he is really going for a value bet here, why isn't he taking more time to think about exactly how much to bet? He would also have to take one last look at the board to see which hands could beat him at this point. A more reasonable assumption would be: on the turn villain realised that he has to bluff in order to win the pot, so there aren't many river cards that would have changed this. Once you call his bet on the turn, he won't need much time to think about what bet to make on the river. When he then fires out his next bet after less than two seconds on the river, its not hard for us to conclude that our Queen is good here.
The principle behind timing tells is quite simple: if a player takes a while before making a decision, he has a number of options that he is considering. If he doesn't take long to decide, then that means there is only one correct move for him, one that is 'obvious' and doesn't need to be thought about. This brings us back to the classic timing tell of the fast call on the flop indicating a weak made hand, just like the quick preflop call is often a sign of a low pocket pair.
Sometimes these simple moves can also lead to completely different things. Lets say, for example, a player decides straight away to slowplay his Aces. This player won't need a lot of time to think about what to do now either, this will depend on the type of opponent he is slowplaying against. It is, therefore, very important to properly interpret the information that you receive. Of course there are also numerous examples of people 'abusing' these timing tells. I'm sure all of us have used timing tells to mislead our opponents before. The best advice is to not make use of timing tells if you even have the slightest suspicion that your opponent might be misleading you. I would also recommend to make notes on all kinds of noticeable tells, or reverse tells you spot amongst your opponents.
Lets say you see an opponent raising preflop and then quickly firing out big bets on every street. The fact that he didn't have to think long about his decision suggests that he had already made up his mind beforehand. Now you can draw conclusions from this: how many hands are going to raise preflop and expect to fire a bet on every street? Only the big hands.
Another situation: if an opponent calls your c-bet on a very dry flop, and quickly checks when an Ace appears on the turn, it is often obvious that he is planning on either calling 3 barrels or folding after the 2nd barrel. The Ace has created an all-or-nothing situation in terms of his turn and river decision. On the other hand, if he takes some time to think before checking again after seeing the Ace on the turn, it is likely that he is revising his decision of continuing with the check/call that he showed on the dry flop. As you can see, the situation can suddenly change even within a hand. If a card comes down that forces a player to re-evaluate the strength of his hand, this often becomes apparent as a result of him changing his timing. For example if a very weak hand suddenly turns very strong on the next street. At first he might have made his decision very quickly, but if he then suddenly takes a couple of seconds longer to make a decision, this is often an indication that the situation has just changed for your opponent, so you can take this into account.
Example hand 2
The following hand was taken from a Sunday Warm-Up tournament that had been running for about 30 minutes. We are sitting on a good stack against a player who pretty much has a starting stack in front of him round about 100 big blinds.
Seat 1: Pepitos83 (9600 in chips)
Seat 2: crazycat78 (16910 in chips)
Seat 3: Wooter (17300 in chips)
Seat 4: LUNOID (9725 in chips)
Seat 6: g0lfa (9880 in chips)
Seat 8: flopkr1 (7135 in chips)
Seat 9: jdog_fl (9450 in chips)
LUNOID: posts small blind 50
g0lfa: posts big blind 100
*** HOLE CARDS ***
Dealt to Wooter
Pepitos83: calls 100
Wooter: raises 300 to 400
Pepitos83: calls 300
*** FLOP ***
Pepitos83: bets 200
Wooter: raises 500 to 700
Pepitos83: calls 500
*** TURN ***
Pepitos83: bets 500
Wooter: calls 500
*** RIVER ***
Pepitos83: bets 1500
Wooter: calls 1500
*** SHOW DOWN ***
Pepitos83: shows (high card Ace)
Wooter: shows (a pair of Sevens)
Wooter collected 6350 from pot
We find in the big blind and we have one limper in front of us. We make a standard raise to 4bb and the limper calls. The flop comes and villain donkbets ¼ of the pot. Based on our preflop action and his weak donkbet, we decide to raise to 700. He calls and on the turn we see the . Without thinking very long he fires out another relatively low bet. There is little point in raising at this point because he has made it pretty clear that he is not going to fold his hand. We call his bet to see what happens on the river.
The river is a . The flush draws and possible straight draws have missed. There aren't a lot of hands that have improved on the river. Our opponent immediately fires out a bet of 1,500 and without thinking too long we call and win the hand against a missed 7-outer.
The thoughts that should be going through your mind on this river are: every Jack or two pair like J8 or 32 that he could have played would have had to think longer after seeing the King appear on the river. The same can be said for KJ, because then his thoughts about the hand will change and he will have to think about how to get the most value out of his hand. Or he would have to think if maybe my hand improved because, according to him, a pair of Kings is surely in my range. Every draw that misses here doesn't need long to realise that the only way they can win the pot is by bluffing. Because we only called on the turn, our opponent could think that he might have a shot at picking up the pot on the river if he doesn't hit. Taking into account the information we receive from this fast river bet, the chance has increased that our middle pair is good and that a call here is appropriate.
You can, of course, also make use of this by giving away timing tells yourself. A nice example is the auto-check. Lets say you are in a blind battle against a tight villain. He opens preflop, you call with, for example, a pocket pair and hit your set on a rainbow flop. A fun thing to do in this situation is click the auto-check button. Players will often think that you pressed the check/fold button or that you are not really interested in the pot. You can hereby extract a bet from a hand that would almost never call you on the flop. Be aware of what you are doing, what kind of information you are giving away to your opponents and how you can use all these things against them.
The main point this article is trying to make is that you need to make sure not to give away timing tells yourself. By taking the same amount of time with every, and I mean every decision that you make, you can be sure that your opponents cannot pick up any timing tells from you. By doing this you do, however, eliminate the possibility of using these timing tells against them to mislead them.
Apart from detecting other player's timing tells, also concentrate on varying your betsizes, not only the size, but also the numbers. A simple example is that many players, when bluffing, type in bets like 3176, but every time they want to get value out of a hand, they use their mouse to go up in steps of big blinds (when the big blind is 800, clicking 3 times makes it 3200).
Be aware that the content of this article is not generally applicable in every situation, but depends greatly on personal reasoning. This really goes without saying; the whole aspect of timing tells is more intuitive. Also be aware of the skill-level of your opponent. The more experienced players will often know what kind of timing tells they are giving off and you can therefore expect them to use these to mislead you. Things like insta-cheking would also not be recommended against these players, as they will often figure out that you are trying to set a trap. It is extremely difficult to explain the concept of timing tells in a way accepted by everyone. Of course it is also not the case that a quick call on the flop indicates a draw or a weak made hand more than 90% of the time.
All in all, timing tells can never really give you total security that your read is correct and that your bottom pair is good, but once you become better at spotting timing tells, you increase the likelihood of you making better calls and spotting more bluffs. A timing tell is an information source that is free and helpful, so I would recommend you learn how to master it as much as possible.