Beware the sigh – a reliable poker tell

Lee Jones
Published by:
Posted on 11/23/2021

When I was a kid, I had to cut the grass at our house. It was in the deep suburbs of Washington, D.C., and we had a big front yard. As in, we used to play baseball on it. So I’d drag the lawnmower out of the carport, look all the way out to home plate, and… sigh.

You know what that sounds like. Keep that sound in your head.

There I was at the Oaks in Emeryville a few nights ago. It was the normal $3/5 no-limit hold’em game. Except that we were playing a “winner straddle,” meaning that whoever won the last pot would put out a $10 straddle, and the action started to that person’s left. Many other rooms formalize this with a device known as a “rock” – it’s the same thing.

This time, the straddle is under-the-gun-plus-2 (UTG2), so the action starts UTG3. After a couple of folds, the guy in the hijack seat opens to $20. Wait, what? Yeah, he’d been doing that all evening, including with aces. Apparently, he didn’t get the memo that when there’s a straddle, that’s the new big blind. All your opening raise sizes should be adjusted to the straddle ($10 in this case) and not the official big blind ($5).

Anyway, he opens for $20. I have AK♠ next to act in the cutoff and 3-bet to $90. “That’s a pretty big 3-bet, Lee.” Yes, it is, but I needed to make up a bit for the tiny opening raise. A normal 3-bet to a $20 open would be more like $60-70, but I wanted the pot heads-up, and didn’t want to offer an attractive price to people behind me. Also, I probably had the best hand and he wasn’t likely to fold – it’s always good to print Sklansky$.

Anyway, my plan works, the original raiser calls without hesitation, and we go to a flop heads-up with $190 in the pot. I watch him, not the flop, and am a little surprised to see him lead right into me for $100. Hmmm – that must be an interesting flop. I look at the flop, it’s A♣-Q-T.

On that board, he just led right into me after I 3-bet? Folding seems out of the question, and raising slightly suicidal given his line, so I call.

With $390 in the pot, I watch him again while the dealer puts out the turn card.

His shoulders slump, and I hear the most terrifying sound you can hear at the poker table: he sighs.

Remember the sound I told you to keep in your head? That sound that I’d make as a 12-year-old, staring out over an unkempt sea of green in front of our house? Yes, that sound. And then he bets $240.

I turn and look at the board. The board is now A♣-Q-T-K . I’ve just turned top two pair. I look at him, and his shoulders are still slumped, but he’s silent.

I make the most obvious, easiest play I’d make all evening: I slide my cards, face down, toward the dealer.

My opponent in this hand, he’s a great guy to have at the table. He’s pleasant, he’s courteous to the dealers and staff, and tips well. Whether he wins or loses, he’s welcome in any game I’m in. But beyond that, he has another great attribute: when he wins a hand without having to show, he shows anyway. Maybe he’s proud of the poker gods smiling on him – I don’t know.

But he gently turned up A J and pushed those cards, and $3, to the dealer. A gentleman and scholar in every respect.

There are few things in this world that you can count on. Furthermore, poker players are notorious liars, prevaricators, and dissemblers. But once in a while, the truth shines through like a xenon headlight, and I promise you – ladies and gentlemen, I promise you – that when they sigh, they have it.

And conveniently, there’s an action that comes with it, just to eliminate any soupçon of doubt in your mind: a big bet. My opponent bet 60% of the pot on the turn, and I’m sure he would have shoved his remaining $500 on the river, had I been silly enough to call the turn.

Visualize a bright Saturday morning in April, with baseball season just getting underway. And a 12-year-old boy contemplating spending the next two hours of his life cutting grass instead of a dozen better things he could be doing. Visualize the sound that boy makes.

Then when you hear that sound, fold.