Poker is a game of incomplete information. Without knowing your opponents’ hole cards, you’re forced to take into account all the information you do have available so that you can make the most well-informed and ideal decisions. Poker tells (often in the form of body language) make up a substantial amount of where this information comes from. It’s a very important aspect of the game that you need to be aware of and use to your advantage if you want to dominate your chosen game.
Now don’t dismiss this topic immediately if you only play poker online; while there aren’t going to be as many tells to go by, there are still some to be aware of and that you can use to start crushing your stakes. (We’ll elaborate on what some of these online tells are later on.)
With that, let’s discuss the fundamental elements of understanding and reading poker tells.
WHAT ARE POKER TELLS?
As mentioned, poker tells (or poker signs) are typically involuntary and/or subconscious actions (but can also be conscious, deliberate ones) made by poker players during gameplay. They can give players at the table valuable information on the strength of another player's hand, what type of player they are, their habitual tendencies, etc.
Because tells are there for everyone to see, alert players will be able to capitalise on these poker signs and use them to their advantage by successfully counteracting their opponents’ play. Some live poker tells may include body language, facial reactions, and how players bet. Some online poker tells may include betting tells; timing tells, and HUD tendencies. (We’ll elaborate more on what are some specific tells you can keep an eye out for, both for live and online poker, a bit later on in our Poker Tells List.)
HOW TO NOTICE POKER TELLS
At the poker table, awareness is key. Take an honest moment and ask yourself the question, “What do I normally do when I’m not currently involved in a poker hand?” If your answer is to watch the TV, do something on your phone, or simply divert attention anywhere other than the poker table for that hand, then you are missing out on valuable tells and information that you can us in future hands!
Just imagine! There’s a massive $500 pot brewing in your standard $1/$2 game at a casino. You see your opponent do something uncharacteristic before he puts in his river bet – something unique to him – but you’re unsure of what it means.
Surrendering to his relentless aggression, you decide to fold your hand and give up the massive pot on the river. The player beside you says, “Why’d you do that? Didn’t you see the way he moved his lips before he bet? He was obviously bluffing!” Little did you know, just a few hands before, your opponent had done the exact same thing with his lips as he attempted to run a huge bluff on the river.
In that situation, the opponent called and picked off a bluff, exposing this tell to those who were alert and attentive. In this hand, after you fold, your opponent laughs hysterically as he flips over his 7-high and wins the huge pot with a successful bluff. If you were only paying attention a few hands before, you would’ve been able to use that information to your advantage in making the correct decision.
Just think – that’s a 200bb+ pot, and you made the incorrect decision. Imagine how it would feel to have that 200bb+ shipped over to you after you confidently picked off his bluff! Imagine how many more 200bb+ pots you could pick up if you started noticing tells and ultimately developed an understanding as to what they meant!
Do be aware that merely noticing tells is not the endpoint, though. Not every tell is going to mean the same thing from one player to the next. Certain individuals act differently in particular situations, and you must take their patterns and habitual behaviour into account to ultimately assess the deeper meaning of the tell.
Not all tells are given off equally either. Beginners may try to fool their opponents more with their tells and be more over-dramatic, while professionals may only let the subtlest of subconscious movements tip off their holdings. Tells do change from one player to another, and it’s your job to figure out the level of your opponents and how to interpret their tells.
Ultimately, the possibilities are truly endless regarding how much more money you could add to your bottom line by first noticing, then reading (analysing) poker tells and using them to assist you.
HOW TO READ POKER TELLS
Every tell means and reveals something, and through study, analysis, and re-analysis, you can become a pro at spotting them and figuring out their actual, deeper meaning. From the way that players stack their chips to how they’re seated, to all the details concerning how they make each bet, there is almost always information that you can use to your advantage during a poker game. But, as mentioned, the first step is to notice them.
Over the course of your first few orbits of hands, you might notice an array of player-specific tells, but be unable to get the full information on what they specifically mean. Maybe you’ll have to wait a few more times before you see your opponent’s hand at showdown and can correctly determine what that tell means. Other times, you’ll be able to notice “standard” tells and correctly deem their validity instantaneously.
To understand the deeper meaning behind each tell, you must first clue into each opponent's habitual behaviour.
- What do they normally do when they’re comfortable and have a strong hand?
- How do they handle their nervousness when they’re drawing or bluffing?
- Do they get quiet and reserved when they have a strong hand or when they’re running a bluff…or both?
- Do they do different actions from one hand to the next that subtly give away the strength of their holding?
Some tells that you’ll pick up on will come from simply noticing normal behaviour (i.e. what they do when they have a strong hand vs. weak hand). Other times, (i.e. for better players), it may simply be noticing the smallest of differences from how they normally act overall (as there won’t be many general tells to distinguish “strong from weak” in the first place). After that, it’s your job to determine how much weight you want to give the tells you pick up on in ultimately deciding how you should act.
Many of the results of top pros distinguish themselves and their results from other players simply by using poker tells to their advantage. Poker is a game that carries with it extremely high variance and, as a result, only the best of players are profitable (and usually only marginally, at that) over the long run. To maximise your profit margin, it’s always important to try to gain an edge (however slight it may be) over your competition. Fully utilising the information gained from tells can be a great starting point to separate yourself from the pack.
Now you don’t have to be anywhere near as good as the top pros to increase your profit by reading tells. And, just think of the difference you could potentially make to your bb/100 if you improve your tell-reading abilities! The possibilities are truly limitless!
HOW TO LEARN ABOUT POKER TELLS
In the original days of poker, the top players were pioneers of the game in terms of poker tells. There was no previously existing information available to listen to or read and assimilate in order to help them get an understanding of “poker tells” – and how to use them fully to their advantage.
The best players still take the initiative to notice the smallest of subtleties to continue enhancing and improving the “tells” part of their game. However, there are many resources available to help you get a basic understanding of poker tells.
Arguably, the greatest resource detailing a comprehensive number of poker tells and what they mean is the book titled Caro’s Book of Poker Tells, written by poker pro, Mike Caro. This book is an essential part of any avid poker player’s library, especially for the live player. Not only will it give you an abundance of physical tells to look out for, but it will also give you a fundamental understanding of what you should normally be looking for. (For example, the “strong means weak and weak means strong” body language – a concept that we’ll be elaborating on later on.)
The internet also provides a multitude of articles, videos, and training resources you can download or purchase that elaborate upon the concept of reading poker tells and what you should be looking out for during gameplay.
While these “guides” will provide a generalisation of some things you should begin to notice, you must be aware that certain players will have certain involuntary tells. These are the ones that you want to pick up on, and these guides may not touch upon them!
Ultimately, applying this knowledge and practising the art of reading tells every time you play will improve your tell-reading ability, causing you to notice very subtle nuances that might be easily overlooked by the amateur poker enthusiast.
HOW TO HIDE YOUR POKER TELLS
Just as you can pick up tells from other players in order to gauge the strength of their hand, you must remember that other players can pick up on nuances given off by you, too, and use those tells against you!
Let’s elaborate on 5 tips you can use to hide and disguise your poker tells. These will be aimed toward live poker tells in most instances, but can also be applied to online gameplay in some parts, too:
- Use What You Already Know: Go through preliminary materials (like those listed above and later on in this article) to give yourself an introductory knowledge about poker tells. You’ll then have the information necessary to know what you should and shouldn’t be doing at the poker table in order to give off the least possible information. Some things to consider are:
- How do you stack your chips?
- How long does it take you to bet when bluffing vs. value-betting?
- Where do you look after you see your hole cards/community cards?
- How do you make your bets (i.e. all the same way or different depending on the strength of your hand)?
Ultimately, having a knowledge of what to look out for in the first place regarding tells, will allow you to know what and what not to avoid doing during gameplay.
- Focus On Consistency: Players’ tells may be conscious or involuntary, but it’s the small differences in how they act when they have good hand versus when they bluff that can ultimately lead to their demise. The best players, though, have disciplined themselves to act almost exactly the same way from hand-to-hand (regardless of their actual holding), in order to disguise the true strength of their hand and avoid other players being able to pick up on this. For example, they always put their bets out the same way; they’ve learned to control their emotional response so as to not make any reactionary tells; they maintain the dead-pan “poker face” throughout the duration of their gameplay. Essentially, they look and act like robots in an attempt to not give anything away. Similarly, if you can ensure that you do the same thing the same way all the time from one hand to the next (regardless of your actual holding), then you’ll be well on your way to successfully eliminating your own tells.
- Study Yourself: If possible, watch and study your play to see if you give off any noticeable tells (so that you can then correct these for future gameplay). For example, in Season 2 of High Stakes Poker, a notable pro mentioned that, upon watching himself play in Season 1, he noticed an ample number of tells that he gave off at the table. He added that he was going work on fixing those so that he wouldn’t give off the same info in Season 2. Now, it would probably take a high-level tell-reader to notice some of the smaller tells that he gave off (and the more practice you have in reading and understanding tells, the more second nature it becomes to notice and assimilate them). But if you ever have the opportunity to watch your own play after the fact (i.e. on TV or recorded video), take full advantage of it so that you can learn not to make the same “tell” mistakes in future sessions. Preventing your opponents from capitalising on these simple yet profound subtleties will add so much to your bottom line over the long run.
- Know How Closely Your Opponents Are Paying Attention: In disguising and hiding your tells, it’s also important to know which opponents are paying close enough attention. The reason for this is so that you can try to throw them a curveball and deceive them into making the incorrect decision (i.e. when they’re relying on the information of tells too much).
For example, let’s say that you (being entirely consciously aware of all your actions) decide to cover your mouth (subtly) and place out a smooth bet to try and bluff on the river during one hand. Luckily for you, your opponent folds in this instance, but you opt to show your bluff anyway after the hand finishes.
A few orbits later, you’re dealt the nuts and want to extract maximum value on the river. You know that the opponent you’re up against in this hand is a very focused and competent player. He pays attention to details and in doing so, he overvalues reading tells and tries to use them to his advantage all the time. With the best possible hand, you do the same relaxed movement over your mouth and smoothly overbet-shove the river, going all-in. (NOTE: To the amateur, doing this “tell” purposefully again would mean nothing, as they’re not paying close enough attention to think anything of it one way or another. However, against this opponent, you’re confident he’ll likely see that tell again and make a hero call.)
Lo and behold, your assumption was right: the villain calls, and you win a $1,000 pot! Ultimately, knowing what level your opponents are thinking on will help you make optimal plays against them – sometimes by using “reverse tells” in your arsenal!
- Have a Preset “Tell” Routine: Similar to the deceitfulness of the last point, some poker players and authors suggest having a preset motion of tells (i.e. hand across mouth, hard swallow, shrug of the shoulders, etc.) that they simply continuously rotate through, from one hand to the next. (All done so in an effort to keep their opponents off-balance and guessing as to what your “tells” mean.) Your tells of course (being randomised) are absolutely meaningless! To the keen observer, though, they may pick up a false tell from these actions and make a mistake later on.
Another thing you could try is to have a pre-selected list of false tells that you can use (similar to the last point), but mix it up according to where the “seconds hand” is on your watch. When you’re in a hand and want to throw in a false tell, look at your watch, and make the corresponding tell. For example, if the second hand is between 0 and 10 seconds, maybe shift your eyes from side to side; when it’s between 11 and 20 seconds, maybe you choose to purse your lips for a brief moment. Again, these have no actual meaning, but can be used to help throw off your astutely alert opponents.
- Miscellaneous Gameplay Tips: There are a few tips you should follow while playing not only to protect your own tells, but also to notice those of your opponents, so that you can continue to capitalise on their play:
- As the community cards are dealt, don’t look at them straight away! Always look at your opponents first to see if you can pick up any tells (i.e. where they look or what reaction they give, if any). The cards will still be there for you to look at later on anyway.
- Memorise the value and suits of your cards right from the get-go. If you have to ever re-check your hole cards, it can give clues to your opponents about what you may have (especially regarding drawing hands, like flushes – if you’re checking on the suit).
- If you ever notice an opponent’s tell, do not let on! Keep it quietly to yourself, so you can continue to capitalise on exploiting it in the future and add valuable money to your bottom line!