STRATEGY

Live Poker: Reading Poker Tells and Body Language

When you sit down at a live poker game, whether in a casino or a home game, you have one aspect you cannot see online; namely you can see your opponents. Unfortunately, this also means they can see you and your poker tells!

You might be thinking ‘what information can an opponent actually use against me, tells aren’t important’.

Lots of live players are in this camp; they refuse to believe that even though 2/3rds of all human communication is non-verbal that there is no such thing as tells, furthermore those that do think they exist, fail to realise the significance of tells.

Establishing a Baseline

The most important thing to do when trying to work out players tells and what they mean is establishing a baseline reading. For instance, the punter that has come straight off of a hot streak on blackjack and has a bet on the current match on T.V might be hard to read because if he looks happy. Maybe he’s winning his bet. Another consideration is how much winning money or winning the game of poker means to the individual. A multi-millionaire playing on a £1/£1 table (£250 max buy in) who is playing to pass time is unlikely to exhibit any signs of psychological stress when facing large bets. Unless the wealthy person has a competitive side , they are going to be tough to read.

A limitation of live tells is the accuracy. Not every time a player exhibits a tell will correspond to the same meaning.

Leaning away in disgust from a river card only says the player didn’t like that card. Unfortunately, it doesn’t tell us their exact hand strength or if they will fold if we get aggressive.

Reverse Tells

Lastly, good players will understand that you are looking for tells and can appropriately start using reverse-tells. A reverse-tell is when a player deliberately manipulates their body language to tell a different story than their cards ought to suggest. You can counter reverse tells relatively quickly if you are watching the game properly. They are liable to be much longer in duration than their real counterparts. This is because most body language is controlled in the emotional part of the brain or the limbic centre. This evolutionary throwback will mean that emotional state will manifest in outward behaviours. If the tell is correct, the person will be trying to limit its exposure. Trying to make sure it’s a long duration so you see it!

Common Live Tells

Here is a non-exhaustive list of common live tells, and their general meanings:

  1. How does the player handle their stack? A wild pile of disordered poker chips will often indicate a more aggressive loose play style . While a tidy neatly ordered stack often means a tighter more conservative player.
  2. How are they breathing? It’s hard to intentionally control breathing, shallow breaths or attempts not to breathe loudly often means the opponent is weak.
  3. Trying to appear as normal as possible, avoiding significant gestures, movements or speech are often a sign that the opponent is bluffing and doesn’t want to be noticed! This is not to be confused with feigning disinterest with the hand which means a radically different thing.
  4. We’ve all seen the opponent that declares a big raise, looks relaxed turns around to drink his glass of fizz. This is a supreme tell of confidence. Trying to look aloof and disinterested in the hand often means they are trying not to scare off callers. This means they have a strong hand.
  5. Checking hole cards when the flop/turn brings 3 or 4 to a suit. This often implies that they can’t remember the suits of their cards. They would probably remember if their hole cards contained two of the same suit. Generally, this means they won’t have the flush on the flop.
  6. Territorial expansion/ contraction.

    This means how much space an opponent is occupying at the table and with his hands and posture, with weaker hands they take up less room, because they feel less confident. The further forward their arms go on the table compared to their usual location the better their hands.

  7. Happy feet, adopting the stance of a runner ready to leave the starting blocks, while jiggling is the only way to see, particularly if you are seated next to the player, it is also very often a tell of having a good hand.
  8. Elevated chip tossing; how a player puts his chips in when betting or calling establishes how good a hand they have meekly pushing the chips in is weaker than if they toss the chips in a high arc towards the centre of the table.
  9. Fake tells which are often badly done by accident by poor players include sighing very clearly rolling their eyes and making a fuss about not liking their hand. They often have the best hand and are trying to make you call; I have a friend that always used to do this. I now call this pattern ‘Gabe Facing’ in his honour.

Poker Tells Conclusion

Which other tells can you spot at the poker tables? Some are generalised to everyone, sometimes opponents will have a tell unique to them. Just make sure to make a note of these actions (at least a mental note, but written is even better). Then, what hand you see at the end to work out what the tell means.

Live-tells aren’t the be all and end all of poker skill, and they are not the holy grail, but when you use a variety of tells which agree with the same story, and this matches the opponents previously shown hands when they showed those tells, the accuracy increases. When used in conjunction with the opponents history, and bet pattern you can work out if their tell is accurate and what they mean.


Greg has been playing poker for the last 7 years, you can currently find him on Cash Game tables from £20nl-£100nl under the username BarrattG1. He currently writes poker articles and does coaching of micro stakes Mtt and Cash players. He uses a generally sound mathematical approach to odds and poker and uses this in conjunction with meta-game to create spots to profit from.


Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *