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Long pause by a poker player leads to two different opinions

Feb 28, 2017 3:00 AM

In a column published in a recent issue of the Sunday Los Angeles Times, Alex Outhred, a professional poker player and coach, discussed a rather intriguing topic: the significance of a player taking a long pause while playing a hand of Texas hold’em. He didn’t say it, but that could be a very valuable tell. The topic caught my immediate attention. To say the least, I was curious; and so I decided to do some research.

What is a “long pause?” What does it mean?

World-famed poker guru David Sklansky (Ref. Hold’em Poker; published way back in 1976 by Gambler’s Book Club) says a long pause is 15 seconds or more before making a call. Sklansky is highly regarded as one of the all-time poker greats. He has authored numerous poker books and has won three bracelets in major poker tournaments. He is a sought-after speaker about poker concepts.

In his column, Outhred opined that a long pause “suggested that he (your opponent) was considering a raise.” On that basis, you would put him on a strong hand. Of course, that would be valuable info for you as the hand progressed – assuming that interpretation is correct.

Outhred is a poker coach as well as professional poker player with many big tournament wins to his credit over the past 13 years.

Contrary to Outhred’s interpretation, according to Sklansky, the long pause indicates “he (your opponent) almost always is considering folding.” And then he adds, “It is very rare to see a possible raising hand pause this long.”

Well, what do you know? Two poker pros with diametrically opposed interpretations of the significance of a long pause. Which one of them is correct, or perhaps neither?

My response is to say it is common for players to pause while contemplating a decision during the playing of a hand. Some call, “time.” I often do that when I am making a difficult decision. The situation can make a big difference.

In my opinion, the length of the pause largely depends on the player’s skill level. Less-skilled players just sit and (ostensibly) think. (I believe many such players are just plain numb.) It’s not likely an unskilled player will pause for more than a few seconds.

On the other hand, the more skilled player may be trying to analyze the situation before acting. That takes time. We can’t fault him for taking a little extra time – 15 seconds or more – to consider the situation; a lot of money could be at stake. Win or lose!

By way of example, let’s say our hero, a fairly skilled player, is in a limit game, and an opponent to our hero’s right has raised on the turn; now it’s a two-bet to hero. Twice as many chips are at risk. Is the potential reward worth the risk? There are a lot of factors to consider. That could easily take more than a few seconds to contemplate – very likely, a long pause.

If our hero decides to call after his pause, based on his read of an opponent who had just raised, most likely he has a decent hand, but one that could easily be second-best. On the other hand, if hero re-raises after his long pause, then there are two possibilities: (1) He has a powerful hand – a monster, perhaps even the nuts; or (2) he is bluffing, hoping to force opponents to muck their cards.

To conclude – the length of the pause is hard to interpret. Certainly, it is not a reliable tell. There are so many factors to be considered.