In this day and age. with the internet, software and computers dominating the game of poker, there is something of a decline in the skills of old. The most important skill to have when playing in any live poker game is the ability to read the tells of your competition. You see this every year when some internet sensation reaches a live poker tournament and loses rather quickly to the seasoned professionals. The kid from PokerStars just doesn’t know how to read other players, but they can read him as plain as day. In this article, we’ll go over what poker tells are, common tells you should know about, what certain tells mean, and how to control your own tells.
What are Poker Tells?
In the game of poker, a tell is any change in a player’s attitude or behavior that betrays what they have in their hand. Since tells are usually unconscious behaviors, they can be reliable predictors of your opponent’s actions and intentions. To truly be able to identify the tells of others, you must be able to repeatedly recognize the tell and pair it with an action or behavior. For example, if a player pulls on his left ear before each time he raises, you can assume he has a strong hand every time he pulls on his left ear. But since poker is such a deceptive game, players often present tells on purpose in the hopes of deceiving others. The best tells are unknown to the player, subtle, and repeated.
Forms of Poker Tells
Poker tells can include both verbal and nonverbal communication. It may be the tone of voice, inflection or pitch. It may be eye contact or lack of, a physical move or tendency, or a twitch or tick that looks unnatural. Even the depth and pace of a person’s breathing can be a tell if it changes. Tells are created at the subconscious level, meaning they can be anything at all. The key is to recognize a single behavior that takes place before an action repeatedly. That way when you recognize the behavior again, you can predict with pretty good certainty what action the player is going to take (again). There are so many tells in poker that the list is endless. Here are some of the most common ones:
Common Poker Tells
This tell is typically a sign that a player has a weak hand and is bluffing. They unconsciously start wiggling around in fear that they will be discovered. Someone with a strong hand has nothing to worry about, so they tend to stay very still.
Signs of nervousness
Any sign that someone is nervous usually indicates weak cards and a bluff. Signs of nervousness include shaking, talking fast, sweating, rapid breathing, and a shaky voice. People who are confident in their cards and position tend to act calm and assertive, which is the opposite of this behavior.
Impatience and anger
These two tells always indicate that the player has a strong hand, and can’t wait to raise. Anger usually happens when the other players recognize the impatience and fold, so the pot is small. When players wait for a long time for a good hand, they get impatient to play on it when it comes, and then get angry when others don’t call or raise to add to the pot.
Playing with their chips
This tell is another one that indicates nervousness, but playing with the chips, or the money, indicates a player’s subconscious belief that they’re about to win a lot more. Inexperienced players in a big pot with strong cards tend to play with their chips. If a player is handling their chips, also pay attention to any shaking in their hands, which is impossible to fake.
Looking at or away from other players
Looking directly at another player is a way to try to display strength. It can be a bluff, or it can be real. Avoiding eye contact shows that the player is afraid to give away any information to the other players, so it indicates a strong hand or a bluff, depending on the player.
Involuntary movements are an indication that a player is completely out of control on the inside, and they’re trying not to show it on the outside. Experienced players will notice a twitch instantly, and figure out what it means very shortly after. If you have a natural tendency to twitch, you need to get it under control before you play any live poker.
These tells are any movement that seems fake or forced. It could be taking a drink, checking a watch for the time, removing a hat or sunglasses, etc. Any forced action looks stiff and unnatural, and poker pros notice these tells automatically.
Online Poker vs. In Person
When you are playing against real people in person, you can easily observe their movements, body language, eye contact, and hear their tone of voice and inflection (see more on that here). You are collecting a wealth of information about them as the game goes on. Playing online, you can see a player’s avatar sitting at the table. There are no visual cues for you to work with, but there are certainly some common tells that you should know for online poker games.
Keep track of the betting tendencies of others. Bet size is a good indicator that something is going on. Some players bet big hoping you don’t call, while others will bet larger when they have a good hand to try to raise the amount of the pot. If they usually bet light and suddenly bet big, get suspicious.
How long does it take the player to raise or call preflop? If it takes a long time, their hand is most likely weak. After the flop, taking a long time to act usually indicates a strong hand considering raising, or a weak hand considering bluffing.
Watch the Chat Box
Don’t use the chat feature yourself, but monitor any conversation at your table. Just like in person, strong is weak and weak is strong. Those players encouraging you to call don’t have a hand, and those that act like they don’t have anything usually have the best hand. Sometimes other players can give away what they’re holding just by using the Chat.
Exercise for the Poker Player
As an aspiring live poker sensation, we suggest you watch this excellent video on bluffing and tells. If there’s just one part of your body to focus on, to begin with, it’s this one!
Warnings/Things to Remember
Poker tells are a two-way street, so it’s important to remember that you give off your own tells at all times when you’re sitting at a poker table. That’s the reason why so many players wear hoods, hats, and sunglasses while they play because it reduces the amount of information your face is projecting. Most people are so absorbed with trying to read the tells of others; they forget to control their own.
Also, always remember that tells usually mean one of two things: strong cards or weak cards. It’s up to you to figure out which tells mean what, so you can play poker accordingly. Also keep in mind that many of the best players project false tells on purpose in order to deceive others, which is a kind of double deception. Poker players play for keeps, so be careful not to put too much weight into poker tells.
Poker Tells Conclusion
One of the most important skills that any poker player has is the ability to read poker tells. Tells are tendencies other players have that indicate the strength of their hand or the action they are likely to take. While old-school poker players have always been experts at reading people, the newer poker professionals seem to have a harder time determining tells during live poker games and tournaments. Tells can be virtually any action, from a blink to a twitch, to a shaking voice or hand. Once you recognize tells in other players, you can figure out what they mean and use them to your advantage, but remember, they’re looking for your tells and trying to figure you out, too! As always, good luck at the tables, and we look forward to reading your comments below!
Suggested Reading: Poker Tells Books
[amazon text=Caro’s Book of Poker Tells: The Psychology and Body Language of Poker&asin=1580420826] – by Mike Caro (Amazon)
This book is said to be one of the ten greatest books written on poker. In it, all of the secrets of understanding the meanings of other players’ tells is revealed. If you know when your opponents are bluffing, you have the edge.
[amazon text=Reading Poker Tells&asin=0984033300] – by Zachary Elwood (Amazon)
Professionals and amateurs agree that this might be the best book on the subject of poker tells. In addition to identifying tells and their patterns, it describes a great system to figure out and remember the tells of everyone at the table.
Phil Hellmuth Presents Read ‘em and Reap: A Career FBI Agent’s Guide to Decoding Poker Tells – by Joe Navarro, Marvin Karlins, and Phil Hellmuth, Jr. (Google Play)
In this unique book on the subject of tells, former Special Agent Joe Navarro uses the skills he acquired during his FBI career to break down the mystery surrounding poker tells. Techniques, examples, and illustrations all show you how to read the behavior of the other players, and they even cover silent tells that most people don’t know of.