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Understanding Poker Tells

Poker is a game based on information availability. We never know for sure how good or bad our rival’s hand is. But because poker involves human interaction, we can sometimes get the necessary information from other players. It will be based on changes in their behavior and the manner of the game indicating the strength or weakness of their hand. These are called “poker tells”.

It’s to the advantage of a player to observe and be able to understand the meaning of his opponent’s tells. Sometimes a player may even fake a tell hoping to induce his rivals to make irrelevant judgments. So, today’s lesson is devoted to “tells”.

The Two Forms of Tells

Poker tells come in two forms and depend on a player's behavior and bets he makes.

Betting patterns are the main tells. By studying the way a player bets both past and present, you will have all the necessary information for being able to decide how to act. These patterns will tell you everything: for how long does a player bet having a good/bad hand? When is he bluffing? How does he bet in different situations and why? How do his bets depend on bluffs? Learning and analyzing tells does take some work. But being able to collect this information will help you understand what actions you should take.

Behavior at the table. Behavior is the most interesting part of this topic. Recently, in one of the major poker tournaments, a player went allin in a tough hand. Another player, who he had been playing with for three hours, noticed him holding his breath (tell 1) and not moving (tell 2). He was drinking from his bottle, and it was obvious that he feels uneasy (tell 3). He was sitting slanting and awkwardly (tell 4), he was wrapping his leg around the chair leg (tell 5) and covered his mouth (tell 6).

Remember, some of these tells are more reliable than others, and guessing the reliability of each of them is an art form. Many tells mean strong with one player and weak with another, so it’s up to you to tell the difference by being observant. Sometimes you can notice players showing discontent and then making a bet. A small cbet is a very useful tool as it will provide additional information about a rival. The main rule is that weakness usually conceals strength, and strength conceals weakness. But anyway, make sure to consider all the factors before making a decision in each specific situation.

A List of Poker Tells

The below list should only be used as a general guide. Let's consider offline tells first.

Tells before the cards are on the table

If a player buys his chips in a noisy, bustle, extravagant manner, he’s likely to play the same way.
Conservative way of dressing often means conservative game style.
Sloppy chips handling means sloppy game.
If a player handles his chips like he doesn’t really know what he’s doing, most probably he’s a novice.

Tells indicating a strong hand

  • Fluent speech
  • Shaking hands
  • Relaxed lips
  • Ear to ear smile
  • Wide open eyes
  • Watching the flop
  • Raising blood pressure, red in the face, tense veins on the neck or head
  • Breathing rapidly
  • Impatient, ready to bet
  • Suddenly leans back in his chair, relaxed
  •  Suddenly sits straight, becomes attentive
  • Moves fingers or hands towards the middle of the table
  • Raising fingers, eyebrows, nose, shoulders, etc.
  • Puts chips into the pot in a delicate manner
    Stares at the flop and players
  • Cheek muscles start to stretch
  • Some try to behave as if relaxed, look away and then bet
  • Enlarged pupils of eyes
  • Tries to conceal his cards more than normal
  • Pretending to have bad cards, making noise (weakness conceals strength)

(picture 2)

Tells indicating a weak hand

  • Rambling, involuntary, slow, broken speech
  • Holding breath and "freezing"
  • Putting chips into the pot with force
  • Staring at you (strength conceals weakness)
  • Holding chips in hand
  • Checking hole cards after the flop
  • Handling cards carelessly
  • Breathing through their mouth when worried
  • Licking lips
  • Holding lips tense
  • Biting lips
  • Clicking tongue
  • Covering mouth
  • Screwing up his eyes
  • Winking eyes
  • Shining eyes
  • Rolling eyes
  • Covering eyes with the hand
  • Fake smile
  • Biting nails
  • Hugging oneself
  • Hands and arms pressed to the body
  • Rubbing hands, arms, legs, nose, lips, etc.
  • Pressing one's hand nervously until it turns white

Ask questions detect tells

Questions are a handy tool to use for reading your rivals. Ask them any questions when out of the game and concentrate on their speech style. It might be about where he lives or if his drink tastes well. Later on, ask the same question when his cards are good and compare the results. Here are some more questions that might help you learn about your rival:

  • Do you play cards online?
  • How long have you been playing poker?
  • Are books on poker of any use?
  • Who was the last to bet?
  • How many chips do you have left?
  • Did I bet the right number of chips?
  • Was that your bet? (when you know exactly that it wasn't)
  • Did you raise preflop?
  • Is your hand complete?
  • Have you got a set of sixes?
  • Is this your cup/meal/glass?

Online Poker Tells

Since there’s no real contact with a rival, physical tells mentioned above won’t be applicable here. Yet, betting patterns are the most reliable of all poker tells, therefore one should get focused on them when playing online. Watch how betting patterns change. Try to keep in mind the way other players act and react. Long thinking before calling can sometimes mean a weak hand. Yet, the reliability of these tells might vary, since some online players can be reading a book, being busy with some other stuff or just play at multiple tables at the same time.

Searching for poker tells doesn’t come naturally. You must constantly monitor the situation at the table, betting process and everything going around. Once you learn to read cards the only thing left will be reading people!

The practice is the key point. At the very beginning, it will be the most difficult element. Try not to take it too seriously, just play and practice. For example, one night at the casino or at home take a sit and just watch other players. Sudden interest might indicate holding good cards. If you keep training, it’ll become a habit to be observant at the table.

It might also be useful to learn to give off false tells about yourself. So that everyone will think you have a strong hand. Bet the flop and watch the others fold. Watch the players and their reaction after you've acted.
Poker tells are fun!

Tells are fun and worth studying. Very few players concentrate on this part of the game. So you’ll have an advantage if you manage to master it. It doesn't really matter whether you like chatting or not, invent your own style. It will become even more important when you start playing against advanced opponents. Phil Hellmuth says reading people makes up 70% of the professional game. Poker tells won’t make you money right on the spot, but over time they will add to your profitability. In any business, if you manage to increase profits by 10% 30%, you can consider yourself successful.

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