Let James Woods Be a Lesson: How to Avoid Poker’s Table-Talk Tax

Do you remember when James Woods beat Doug Polk?

It was one of the highlights of the 46th Annual World Series of Poker (WSOP). The pair clashed in the second round of the $3,000 No-Limit Hold’em (NLHE) Shootout.

Both players reached the heads-up phase with 60bb (big blind) stacks – that’s a lot of poker.

Doug Polk is one of the toughest heads-up players in the world. James Woods has a school named after him in Family Guy.

Despite being strung together with high-tension wire the match started off in jovial fashion. Both players radiated inquisitive smiles, joked and shared a few laughs.

They were tight. They were buddies. Then out of nowhere Woods drove a chasm between them when he said he was done talking.

Doug Polk
Polk: “It was a little cold, but he was just doing his thing."

“It was a little cold, but he was just doing his thing,” said Polk.

The Courage to Say "Shut Up" in Poker

It was the smartest move in a game that wouldn’t stay still. It took Woods four hours to write the underdog story of the series.

And it wouldn’t have happened had he not found the courage to tell Polk to shut the f**k up.

It takes courage to tell someone to stop talking. The person on the end of the cease and desist can become perturbed.

If the words aren’t delivered right they can come off a little gaudy; rude even. So it’s not unusual for a poker player, especially an amateur, to allow words to fill their shell and throw them off their game.

Losing the match is more acceptable than the possibility of upsetting someone.

Applying Focus is a Different Proposition

From a physical perspective humans can do more than one thing at the same time. I can type this article and read. I can edit and eat a Kiwi fruit. I can scratch my balls and cough.

But applying focus on two different things is a different proposition. That we cannot do. When you stop watching the poker games and instead start communicating to other poker players, two things happen.

First, you start switching your attention, sub-consciously, between the people you're holding court with and the game at hand. Secondly, you lose time when you switch between the two tasks.

Roberto Romanello
Knows when to chirp, when to clam up.

Big Stack = Chirping Chips

When focus is not required hopping between tasks is not a problem (think walking and talking). But when you need to apply focus the brain will separate the tasks and divide the brain power needed to ensure both tasks are completed.

This is why you would probably keep your mouth shut if you had to cross between mountains on a very rickety rope bridge.

One of the game's greatest talkers is World Poker Tour (WPT) and European Poker Tour (EPT) champion Roberto Romanello. The Welshman believes his use of the vernacular is what gives him his edge.

But there are two important factors to take into consideration. If you watch Romanello nursing a stack with a low stack-to-pot ratio he is generally quiet. As that stack grows, so does the use of his mouth.

He calls a big stack ‘chirping chips’ and the more his opponent’s hand him the looser his tongue becomes.

“I don’t play the game with the top players,” said Romanello. “It doesn’t work on them. They are too experienced.”

How to Maintain an Edge

I believe, despite talking being one of Romanello’s best tools, he still loses an edge because our brains are not able to focus on two tasks at the same time with equal efficiency.

This is why it’s vital that Romanello has (a) enough chips so his tournament is not affected should distraction become -EV, and (b) he uses his gift of the gab against weaker players to ensure he still maintains an edge when multi-tasking.

It was in Doug Polk’s interest to talk to James Woods. He had an edge and multi-tasking wouldn’t have created too much of a problem for Polk. There is also value in as much as continual talking would have created a lack of focus for Woods.

Six Degrees of Concentration

Remember your brain has a finite capacity.

If you want to reduce your poker table-talk tax then remember these critical points:

1. The brain has a finite capacity to take on board external stimuli. Each time you divide that capacity you weaken your intensity on the task at hand. That will cost you.

2. If you're playing with someone who talks a lot, you can take advantage of him or her. He or she will not be as focused as you.

3. Learn when it’s good to talk and when it’s good to shut up. If you are extremely deep stacked, at the beginning of an event or playing with weaker players then feel free to socialize. If not you're better off focusing on the game at hand.

4. If you're much better than your opponents, talk to them to gain a stronger edge.

5. The more time you spend talking the more difficult it will be to find a high level of concentration towards the game.

6. When your focus moves between activities you will lose time. Experts say we lose 28% of an average workday to multi-tasking.

Let James Woods Be a Lesson

James Woods 1
Find your inner Woods.

It’s tough to tell someone to stop talking to you at the poker table.

It feels awkward and uncomfortable.

But if you want to be successful when you play poker you have to learn to be comfortable with that uncomfortableness.

James Woods was and he went on to create one of the biggest upsets in modern poker.

All because he didn’t want to pay the table-talk tax -- and neither should you.

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2020-03-29 18:47:53

Do you think its ok to just sit through a whole tournament and never say anything other than “call”, “fold”, “raise” etc?

2020-05-13 11:28:40

Hey Spence,

This is of course a ‘best practices’ sort of piece but ultimately your playing session is what you make of it.
If you’re sitting at the table with a few buddies and just want to have a good time – there may be all sorts of banter.
However, when you’re playing to make a small profit, you can’t ignore certain practices that give you somewhat of an advantage.
Like not talking helping you gain more mental focus or not letting you give away many physical tells.
Having said that, many pros use talking to their advantage, like snuffing out other players, throwing them off, and building a certain table ‘image’.
You should play around with that and see what sits well with you when you’re playing your own sessions.

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