Poker is a game of incomplete information. Gathering as many small clues as possible about the strength of an opponent’s hand can pay off in significant ways for players. Particular movements or facial tics that give off information about an opponent’s hand are  “tells” in poker

Reading poker tells

They can pay off for those who know how to detect and use them to their advantage.

Recognising a tell at the poker table involves some experience and observation, but what about at the virtual poker tables? 

Can online poker players find any possible tells from opponents in a game where physical movements and actions aren’t available? 

Believe it or not, some online actions can help give away the strength of an opponent's hands. 

“I'd say that any tell that's present online will be present live in some form,” says Zach Elwood, author of Reading Poker Tells and Exploiting Poker Tells

“It's generally the same dynamics. It's just that there's obviously much less behaviour to study online.”

 

Table of Contents

1 – Quick Actions

While some valuable online tells exist, Elwood believes quicker, more immediate actions can be some of the most critical signals in determining an opponent’s strength.

“When players take a long time to act, this doesn't tell us much, because they could be multi-tabling, using the bathroom, or whatever,” he says. “But quicker actions can have a lot of meaning, just as they can in live poker. In practice, the main thing that will be useful is quick calls. Quicker calls tend to mean medium-strength hands and will make strong hands less likely.”

For example, you raise a pre-flop and one player calls. On a flop of K♠8♣4♥, you bet, and the opponent calls immediately. Assuming they don't always call quickly, Elwood notes, this tends to make medium-strength hands like pocket Jacks or K-10 more likely.

“These are hands they quickly determine they're neither folding nor raising,” he says. “With a very strong hand, like a set, they'd usually at least consider a raise for a moment, even if they end up calling. With very weak hands, like 7-7 or Ace-high, they'd usually at least consider folding, even if they end up calling. 

“Quick calls tend to be quite reliable indicators of medium-strength hands.”

Depending on board texture, some interesting factors can also play into this concept. For example, if the flop came K♠8♠4♥, a quick call tends to make a flush draw unlikely. Most players will at least briefly consider a raise, even if they end up just calling.

That pattern becomes even more meaningful for aggressive poker players. They are more likely to look for opportunities to be aggressive. So, the times they quickly decide on a call are meaningful.

Another factor is how dry the board is. On something like A♣9♠2♥, it becomes more likely that a player who flopped a set would decide to slowplay and quickly call.

“They're more quickly able to reach that decision because there's not much they're afraid of,” Elwood says. “Whereas the ‘wetter’ the board gets, and the more draws there are, the more someone who flopped a set will at least consider a raise.”

When it comes to this type of tell, Elwood stresses that players should have a general sense of how quickly opponents act. 

  • If someone always acts very quickly, that may not have as much meaning. 
  • Also, the more skilled a player is, the less reliable the patterns will be.

2 – Bet Sizing

Keeping track with an opponent’s bet sizing may a more useful online poker tell. All players have to make a bet at some point. How much they wager at particular times and with specific hands can help players figure out their opponents.

  • Has your opponent bet small when he usually bets large? 
  • Perhaps that bet is to keep you in the hand and reel in a bigger pot?
  • It also could be a sign of weakness, depending on the situation. 
  • That small bet might also be a way to feel out the table to see if their marginal hand might be good.

A flop with two of one suit might see a player place a small bet in hopes of taking down a quick pot. Or,  at least, opponents may call, hoping to land a flush on the turn or river. These various scenarios can help you determine how a player approaches specific situations.

Players may sometimes put in large bets when bluffing at a pot. A big check-raise may signal significant strength in a hand and offer some insight that folding should become an option.

One thing has to happen to make use of these types of online poker tells – you have to pay attention. Reading, texting, or generally being preoccupied with other things can distract you from the task at hand. You won’t notice how opponents play particular hands, even against other players at the table.

Observing opponents’ bets and hands shown down can offer information to use when you’re in a hand against them.

3 – Taking Time

As Elwood notes, the time a player takes to act may not be the best determinant of what kind of hand they have. But that amount of time may, at least, offer some insight in some situations. 

  • Perhaps you’re playing a tournament and involved in a big hand. 
  • You bet the flop, and your opponent takes a long time to call. 
  • On the turn, you put in another big bet, and that same opponent again takes a long time to call.
     
  • Does this player have a marginal hand and is hesitant about making the call? 
  • Or is he just texting his girlfriend and barely getting in a call before the software’s online timer runs out? 

Tracking that player’s actions up until then may offer the answer to those questions.

Suppose this situation occurs at a big final table. In that case, it’s also a good bet that this player is taking things more seriously. That timing delay might have some meaning. If you think he’s hesitant, that may help you adjust your bet on the river to ensure a call and extract more chips.

Say you are running a bluff yourself and see this same player hesitant about calling the flop. A hefty bet on the turn might convince this player to send their hand to the muck.

On the other hand, players acting quickly with a call or quick raise may signal strength with such a commanding move. Those clicking the auto-call may not be thinking about their hands and may not be focused on the game. Some of these players might be exploitable at the table. 

Using of these kinds of timing tells can pay off at critical moments if a player remains observant at the online tables.

4 – Hand-to-Hand Combat

How players act with specific hands can also offer insight into how strong they might be. 

  • Is a player aggressive or passive with specific hands? 
  • What about a range of hands? 
  • Does a particular player always seem to call raises with weaker Ace-X hands or two face cards?

A player who can figure out these tendencies can often take advantage. Perhaps a player tends to open extremely large with a strong pair. In those instances, you may want to live to fight another day.

Gamer

Or one player might like to see flops with marginal hands even after facing a raise. This situation gives some insight on how to play post-flop against them.

Additionally, get a general idea of how other players enter pots. 

  • Do they come in with aggression or play it a little more passive?
  • These notions may signal a player’s general approach to the game. 

You’ll get ideas for shifting gears when facing this opponent, hopefully helping to rake and avoid significant stumbles.

  • A player who often limps into many pots may be weaker or less experienced. 
  • Savvy players will take advantage of this tell and weakness, using well-timed raises and aggression to accumulate chips. 

Occasionally some tricky players disguise their hand strength by tanking. They let their entire time bank almost run out before shoving all their chips in at the last minute. Often these players have strong hands but are hoping their late shove looks weak and will induce a call. 

5 – Chatting It Up

A less frequent online tell is tracking players who enjoy using the chat box feature. This information tends to have the same meanings as they do in live poker.

“Someone who chats when the pot is small, or when they're the non-aggressor – waiting to act, or checking, or calling – will tend to be on the weaker side, for a few reasons,” says Elwood, who also hosts the Reading Poker Tells Video Series.

“And the opposite is true for players making significant bets. If they're chatting, they're more likely to have a stronger hand than normal. And if they're betting and goading you in chat, that's a pretty reliable sign of strength and relaxation.” 

6 – Taking Notes

This concept isn’t a tell itself. But using a site’s player notes feature or keeping them yourself can help track opponents’ play and idiosyncrasies. You can also make a note of many of the tells listed here.

Taking notes helps track dates and specific situations about specific poker hands. Using that information later is easier if you see that person again at your table.

  • Add to those notes as new scenarios play out. 
  • Make a note of any obvious timing and bet sizing tells or overall player tendency changes. 
  • If a player has patterns within particular hands or hands of strength, enter that data as well. 

All this can add up to helpful information down the line.

If you run out of room in the poker software’s note-taking space or there isn’t one available, jot the information down in a notebook or on your computer. 

When it comes to poker, the Boy Scout motto of “always be prepared” can go a long way.

7 – Avoiding Pitfalls

While tells can be helpful, it’s also a good idea not to get too overly reliant on them. Elwood notes that a live skilled player may go a full day and only change a reading tell a few times or none.

“This is more likely the case when you're playing strong players,” he says. “So, it's good to keep that in mind because online tells will be even rarer as there are so few to spot. It should be a very small piece of your poker arsenal.”

Being aware of common patterns is helpful but not always a significant factor. But at times, tells can pay actual dividends.

***

Online poker may not offer the complete picture of information found at the live tables. But sharp players will be aware of how others play hands in general.

Online poker tells offer information that can help players as they look to accumulate chips. Conversely, savvy players can use these concepts in their strategy.

Shifting gears and playing hands in differing ways will keep opponents on their heels. 

Being aware of everything going on at the table will undoubtedly lead to poker success.

About the Author
By
Sean Chaffin is a poker writer who appears in numerous websites and publications. He is also the host of the True Gambling Stories podcast