In poker, players potentially convey meaningful information with every action they perform. Often at the tables we are confronted with the hard task of telling truth from fiction in the information given off by our opponents.
Today I’d like to focus on one specific category of information that opponents give us — the voluntary show. I’m referring to situations where a player bets, others fold, and before being delivered the pot the player willingly shows his hand. Usually the winner in this spot just mucks the cards unseen, as there is no obligation to show. But once in a while the player will show one or both cards.
What should we make of this nugget of information?
As with most questions in poker, the best general answer is “It depends.” That’s not very helpful, though. Let’s see if we can pick out some of the factors that might be useful in decoding this data. To do that, I’m going to divide the voluntary show into four categories, each defined by the intentions of the player who without having to decides to show his cards.
1. The Voluntary Show as False Propaganda
We know that poker is a game of deception, so a lot of times our first instinct is to assume that any voluntary disclosure of information is false propaganda. Now, it’s not like an opponent is going to be sneaking cards out of his sleeve and showing you ones other than what he was actually playing. Rather, he is trying to use the true information of these particular cards to create in your mind a false generalization about how he plays.
On the first level of analysis, then, a player showing a bluff probably wants us to believe that he’s a frequent bluffer. Why would he want us to believe that? Because it’s not true. If he were genuinely a player who bluffs a lot, he would not want you to know it, because you’ll call more often, thus foiling his strategy.
Conversely, if the player shows a strong hand, he probably wants us to believe that he always has the goods. But, again, that’s unlikely to be so. It would be self-defeating to make that known if it were true, because a player who is consistently strong when betting wants calls, not folds.
This first-level analysis holds particularly well if a voluntary show is being made early in a tournament or cash-game session. This is usually a player trying to create a particular image, intending to play the opposite way thereafter. This is a crude and amateurish approach, because it’s pretty transparent, but it is quite common.
The obvious adjustment, then, when faced with a later close decision, is to be more inclined to call if your opponent has gone out of his way to convince you that he only bets his strong hands, and be more inclined to fold if he has tried to establish an image of being a frequent bluffer.
Simple, right? Well, not really. Several considerations arise to muddy these seemingly clear waters and create other categories of intentions for the voluntary show.
2. The Voluntary Show as Truth in Advertising
One reason why you can’t automatically assume players are trying to deceive you when voluntarily showing their cards is that certain players actually want to establish a true image of how they play.
Why would anybody do that in a game that requires deception in order to maximize profit? I can think of several reasons, including:
- The player is primarily interested in poker as a social experience, rather than a money-making venture. This is especially likely to be true in the setting of a home game with easy-going players who know each other well and play together frequently.
- The player fears having his big pocket pairs cracked, and is not confident of his postflop play. For him, showing a premium starting hand says “Don’t mess with me,” because he really doesn’t want to face the difficult decisions that the possessor of such hands usually has to make on later streets if opponents stick around.
- Some people just get a strange pleasure out of letting everyone know how they play — and then actually playing that way! This lack of deception is not exactly the road to poker riches, but they take pride in being straightforward. This will not be the case for frequent bluffers, but it’s not hard to find players who boast about never bluffing, and are telling the truth when they do. They may find bluffing too scary, or worry that they have a tell, or just find something generally dishonorable or distasteful about bluffing.
In all of these cases, the player showing his cards is actually trying to communicate the truth about how he plays, not trying to deceive.
3. The Voluntary Show Without Strategic Purpose
Meanwhile there are also players who have no particular strategic intention whatsoever in what they’re showing. These can include:
- The player who loves to show a bluff just to revel in the fact that he got away with it, and it has nothing to do with whether he bluffs frequently or rarely.
- The player who has a favorite junk hand and loves showing how he can win with it.
- Players who are drunk or complete novices at the game. Both types might have no clear idea if they were bluffing or value-betting in a particular situation.
- Players whose motivation has nothing to do with establishing an image, but who are only stroking their egos. Showing bluffs lets them feel clever. Showing a strong hand makes them feel like they have the game mastered.
- Similarly, some people desperately want the approval and respect of the other players. This is manifested by showing the hand along with an explanation. E.g., “I had to bluff, because it was the only way I could win.” Or, “With aces, you can’t give people free cards to beat you.” To these people, having opponents view them as skilled players trumps any strategic considerations.
4. The Voluntary Show as a Targeted Message
Finally, you can also run into players who are being selective about their image. These will tend to be more experienced, sophisticated players. They are capable of projecting different images to different opponents simultaneously.
How is that possible? Well, these players know that even though their cards are exposed to everybody, the person who will pay most attention and remember most vividly is the one who had the most money invested in the pot before folding. That’s a simple but powerful psychological truth about the role that strong emotions play in forming memories. Such players, then, are primarily focused on making an impression on the last player who was left in the hand, and any effects on other players are secondary.
These deeper-thinking players are much more difficult to decode than those discussed above. It will usually take a lot more observation to figure out what thought process lies behind their show/don’t show decisions. However, I think the two most common patterns they’ll be using are these:
- Show hands selectively to punish erroneous decisions. This strategy sees poker as psychological warfare. It says that you should never reward an opponent with a sense of relief that he made a correct decision, but only torment him with the knowledge that he made a mistake. Since we’re talking about hands shown voluntarily, in the absence of a showdown, that means that this kind of player will typically be showing only bluffs. The key to detecting this motivation is that the hands he voluntarily shows after everybody folds are mostly or exclusively bluffs, but his bluffing frequency is revealed to be much lower when his hands go to showdown.
- Show hands selectively to reinforce a particular player’s erroneous tendencies. This strategy says that you show bluffs to players who tend to call too often (even if they folded this time), and show strong hands to players who tend to fold too often. In both cases, the person showing is trying to keep that opponent in his familiar, comfortable, and mistaken patterns. Detecting this strategy requires you first to have figured out which players call too often and which fold too often, then to determine whether the person showing is doing so selectively consistent with those observations. This will require a ton of careful watching. But if you can pick up on it, you can figure out what that player thinks of you by what he chooses to show you — and that knowledge will be pure gold.
A player who shows his cards when he doesn’t have to is giving you information, but he is not giving you its interpretation. Getting that right is entirely up to you.
Robert Woolley lives in Asheville, NC. He spent several years in Las Vegas and chronicled his life in poker on the “Poker Grump” blog.