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What Are Poker Tells?
A poker tell is an action, either physical or verbal in live poker, that gives away the strength of a player’s hand. There are typically 9 or 10 players at a full Hold’em poker table, so if you are observant at reading poker tells, it is not hard to pick up on them for future use.
You can find extensive literature on the art of reading tells. Consider the classic Caro’s Book of Poker Tells by Mike Caro, and the more recent Reading Poker Tells by Zachary Elwood. It is important to note that your fundamentals and solid poker strategy are much more critical to increasing your win rate than over-indexing on reading tells, which often is more of an art than a science. Think of poker tells as an additional data point to your decision-making, instead of the basis of how you play your hands.
How to Recognize Poker Tells
The governing concept, first articulated by Caro, is “strong when weak, weak when strong.” This means that players tend to default to deception in poker games, consequently playing their strong hands like they are weak, and their weak hands like they are strong. This is borne out of the common misconception that poker is all about bluffing, when in fact the modern game has evolved to a point where bluffing is one of a suite of different strategies and bluffing too often is easily exploited by experienced players at the table.
A word of warning: for tells to be reliable, you typically have to have played with that player long enough to ascertain if their tell is something they are really unaware of. Because literature on the subject has existed for a while, savvy players have been known to deliberately give off reverse tells (deliberately made counter-intuitive actions)—try not to fall for that.
How to Spot 5 Common Poker Tells
- The combative all-in. This is a classic example of “strong when weak.” In no-limit Texas Hold’em cash games, you will often see players going all-in on the turn or river. When they do, it is important to observe the manner in which they are putting their chips in. Is their body language menacing? Are they holding eye contact with you? If the all-in shove doesn’t quite add up, given the way that player has been playing the hand, there is a good chance that their holdings are weak and they are merely representing strength where there is none. Make the call.
- The chip count request. Another example of “strong when weak”, this is a fairly commonplace occurrence—a player eyes your chip stack, asks either you or the dealer to count them up, and then makes a big bet for a substantial portion of your chips. By putting the exact figure that you stand to lose in your mind, they are hoping to threaten you into folding and losing the minimum. If you have a good hand or even a medium-strength hand, do the opposite and call.
- The snap call. Let’s look at another example of “strong when weak.” This time, you’re the aggressor. You flop top two pair on a relatively wet board, a big hand, and you make a continuation bet. Your opponent makes a quick call. The turn falls, you make another sizable bet, and your opponent makes another immediate call. This often means that your opponent is drawing to something, and is trying to disguise that with snap calls to indicate that he isn’t scared of your aggression. Remember, strong means weak. If the opponent’s hand is fairly strong, such as top-pair top-kicker, they would have to think about not floating your continuation bet on the turn. If they were on a bluff, they would have to consider raising you to force a fold and take down the pot. Therefore, punish them by continuing to bet every street aggressively, but slow down if a dangerous card falls.
- The relaxed player. This is the other side of the divide: when weak means strong. Imagine an early-position player just put you all in, and while pondering a call you look across the table to try and get a read on her. She appears completely unthreatening—slouched deep into her chair, watching the television up across the room, fiddling with her cellphone—generally looking like she isn’t paying attention to the hand. Usually when someone is this comfortable in a big pot, they think they have it on lockdown and are trying to not scare you into folding. Disappoint them by making the fold.
- The tanker. Tanking in poker is when a player takes a large amount of time to make a decision. Often, this ends up being an example of “weak when strong.” If a player is first to act, tanks for a minute or two, and then gently, unobtrusively, slides their chips into the middle, it’s usually a sign of strength. They are tanking because they want to convey the illusion of indecisiveness when, in fact, all they are thinking about is how your chip stack would look atop theirs. In general, bet-timing usually gives away information, and good players know how to look out for, and react, to someone acting uncharacteristically fast or slow when it’s their turn.
2 Ways to Avoid Giving Off Tells
Now that you have a flavor of some of the things to look out for at the table, let’s talk about a few best practices you should adopt in order to lessen the chances that you yourself are giving off tells.
- In poker, a player’s immediate reaction to hole cards and community cards being dealt can often inform how they are going to act for the rest of the hand. The biggest mistakes amateurs tend to make is looking at their hole cards immediately upon being dealt them, or staring at the flop as it is being dealt. Remember, poker is a turn-based game, which means you don’t have to look at your hole cards or the cards in the middle in real time. Instead, use that time to observe how other players are reacting to either their holdings or the community cards, and use this to paint a picture of their general level of satisfaction with their hands.
- As a game of incomplete information, it is critical for poker players to randomize their betting patterns so as not to be predictable and, consequently, exploitable. There are some players that raise, say, four big blinds when they have a premium hand, three big blinds when they have a small-to-medium pair, and just call with the rest of their range. If your bet sizing is obvious, an experienced player would be able to tell exactly what kind of hand you hold just based off your betting patterns. To avoid this, mix it up—occasionally play trash hands the way you would play Aces, and keep them guessing.
Learn more poker techniques in Daniel Negreanu’s MasterClass.