A GUIDE TO POKER TELLS
KEEP A CLOSE EYE ON YOUR OPPONENTSPoker has many different strategies and techniques players can use to get an advantage over opponents, but none is more coveted than learning to identify poker tells. Being able to read another player provides a huge advantage in live poker, which is why people spend so much time trying to learn the skill. If you’ve never heard the phrase before, or unsure how it can help you, read on, and learn everything you need to know about poker tells.
WHAT IS A POKER TELL?
Poker tells are an action, either physical or verbal, that gives away the strength of a player’s poker hand. Most of the time, a poker tell is unintentional; a nervous tic that is hard to hide. However, some crafty advanced players try to broadcast fake tells, to misrepresent the true strength of their cards. Reading poker tells is a hard skill to learn, but it's well worth investing a bit of time in.
TYPES OF POKER TELLS
There are hundreds of poker tells to watch out for, possibly thousands—everybody reacts differently when under stress and poker tells can take some very strange forms. Most tells will fall into two categories, either physical or gameplay. Physical tells, as the name suggests, focus on body language; fidgeting, shaking or other changes in normal behavior are the most obvious. Gameplay tells are when a player betrays the strength of their hand through an action during the game, such as their betting pattern, chip stacking, or continually checking their cards. While most tells will be either physical or gameplay-related, some might not fit in either category but are every bit still as valid. In the popular 1998 poker film Rounders, during the climactic showdown, Matt Damon's character, Mike McDermott, discovers villain Teddy KGB, played by John Malkovich, will smugly eat an Oreo every time has a good hand. It's highly unlikely that your opponents at the poker table will be so obvious with their tells, but it gives you an idea of the strange types of behaviors to watch out for.
RECOGNIZING POKER TELLS
Some of the pros are so good at reading other players; you would swear they were psychic, but these skills are often built up over years; very few people can pick up tells in the opening few hands. Identifying poker tells relies heavily on establishing a baseline for a player's normal behavior. Knowing standard poker tells is useless if you can't figure out when someone is acting abnormally. They could be jittery and fidgeting because they drink a lot of coffee or talking a lot because they are an anxious and nervous person. For tells to be reliable, you will usually have to observe a player for a significant amount of time. Depending on how perceptive you are, it could take hours.
Spotting accurate poker tells is hard, don't let anyone tell you differently. People are unpredictable and often do weird and contradictory things. Beginners are incredibly hard to read because they haven't played enough to know how to play properly. A beginner who has a full house might bet low simply because they don't know it's a good hand, or they might over-bet on a 7, 2 because they don't know any better. There is, unfortunately, no sure-fire way to get an accurate tell every time.
COMMON POKER TELLS
Observe other players’ body movement, especially the feet and hands, nearly everyone gets nervous before a big hand, which is why this is the easiest tell to identify. Shaking, fidgeting, or twitching means they've probably got a high-ranked hand, and their body’s natural fight-or-flight response is coming into effect.
Look for expressions on other players’ faces when they pick up their cards; is there a villainous smile, or do they look like they've just seen a ghost? Facial expressions are a great tell to watch out for because it's tough to hide every tiny smirk or frown.
TALKING TOO MUCH
Talking is the easiest way to get a read on someone; their tone of voice can often betray their cards, which is why most pro tables are eerily silent. A shaky voice can mean nervousness, brought on by having good cards, or because they are lying through their teeth, have just made a big bet and fear getting caught. Being overly talkative can also be a strong indication of what cards another player has, especially if they've been silent for the whole game.
Be observant and watch everything that happens at the table, even the slightest change in someone's behavior could give an insight into their cards. If another player has been phased out for the whole game, then suddenly becomes very interested after the deal, there is a high chance they've been dealt good cards. Always be alert for rapid and unexpected changes in other players’ behavior.
Looking away, especially after a big bet can mean there is a fear of being caught out. When people are lying, they tend to look elsewhere and avoid eye contact as a reflex. It's usually an involuntary action, while staring someone dead in the eye projects strength and is generally what people who are telling the truth do.
A general rule of thumb, especially when up against newer players, big bets mean good cards, small bets mean weak cards. Depending on how experienced the other player is, this can obviously be manipulated.
SLOW PLAY AND INSTANT CALL
If you've played a bit of poker, you've no doubt seen players who love to slow play and limit their betting until the final rounds, but they still instantly call because they can't contain their excitement. If someone is so eager to be in the hand, they call immediately, regardless of the pot size—beware. Another indicator could be they have the correct amount to call already set aside ready for when play gets around to them. This is a good indication of strength, especially if they then bet heavily on the turn and river. Snap calls can also indicate they are drawing for something, a flush or straight and they are trying to appear strong. Regardless of what the real reason is, if another player is instantly calling your large bets, be very suspicious.
COMMON POKER TELLS THAT INDICATE STRENGTH
- Fluid Speech
- Impatient during the betting phase
- Drawing in a big breath before betting
- Glancing at other chip stacks, sizing up other players
COMMON POKER TELLS THAT INDICATE WEAKNESS
- Holding breath
- Biting lips, chewing tongue
- Covering mouth
- Fake joviality
- Wringing hands
ONLINE POKER TELLS
Online poker has gained considerable popularity since its debut in the late 90s; many players are starting to prefer it over the live version for the simple fact you can play from the comfort of your own home. Because it's all online, and you can't usually see the other players, online poker is a lot harder to read poker tells, but not impossible. Physical tells are out, but gameplay ones are still viable.
AVOID SHOWING POKER TELLS
Once you know what poker tells are, and how to identify them, it's easier to avoid doing them yourself. Knowing is half the battle, once you have a decent understanding, you can even try to give off false tells, and add a whole other element to your skillset.
DELIBERATE POKER TELLS—THE GREAT POKER ACTORS
Poker is a game of deceptions and falsehoods, and some players take this concept far more seriously than others. Poker actors are players who go to great lengths to give off false tells, often changing their normal behavior and speech patterns to make the ruse believable. They are mostly intermediate to advanced players and know enough about the game to make the performance believable. Two common examples of poker actors are the overly relaxed player and the tanker.
A relaxed player will do everything they can to appear unthreatening; they will slouch in their chair, talk very little, and pretend to have their attention focused elsewhere. If someone is unnaturally calm, there is a good chance they are a poker actor and will try to lull you into a false sense of security before unveiling a monster, soul-crushing hand.
Tankers will take a suspiciously long amount of time to make a decision on a big hand, before casually sliding their chips into the middle like they are paying for something at the shops. A tanker’s main goal is to convey an illusion of indecisiveness to lull you into a false sense of security and draw you further into the hand. Their choice will already be made; they are just prolonging it to get a read on you. This is a perfect example of pretending to be weak, when strong.
Poker actors can come in all shapes and sizes and will often try to exploit common poker tells and create an illusion of weakness when they actually have the best hand on the table. There will generally be at least one poker actor at the table, but they can usually be identified after a few hands. If someone displays above-average poker skill and knowledge of the game but makes simple beginner mistakes, odds are, you’ve got yourself a poker actor who is trying to deceive you.
ONE LAST THING YOU SHOULD KNOW
By now, you should have a rough idea of what poker tells are and understand a few of the common ones to watch out for. It's worth noting no tells work one hundred per cent of the time. People are unpredictable and do weird things, especially when under stress. Some players are just jittery by nature, and every hand will make them shake like a leaf, whether it's a straight flush or a pair of twos.
Nearly every table seems to have ‘the talker’ as well; that one person who just won't shut up the whole game. The same exact tell can mean completely different things for two different players, which is why it's so hard to read other players. Some people spend way too much time searching for unconscious poker tells and forget just to play the game. Poker tells can provide a treasure trove of information to give a massive edge over your opponents, but don't expect them to be correct every single time and don’t waste all your time looking for them.
This article is a reference article to poker tells in general. It is for information and entertainment only. It is not related to, nor a reflection of, Global Poker, its products, content, or its games.