A system for interpreting tells

In most poker tell books, tells have been discussed without much of an organizational framework. They have been presented either as long lists or in categories that can seem a bit arbitrary. I believe my method of thinking about tells will improve your ability to understand and remember tells.

There are no tells that mean the same thing regardless of situation. Everything is situational. You can’t say something like, “When this poker player stares at me, he’s got a weak hand”—it doesn’t work like that. You might say something like, “when this player stares at me when it’s my turn to act, he’s got a weak hand”, or “when this player slouches in his chair after he bets, he’s got a strong hand”, because those are specific situations. The biggest mistake I’ve seen other poker tell books make is not emphasizing the importance of the situation.

I’ve divided tells into three primary categories, depending on when during a hand a player exhibits them.

The three primary situational categories are:

– Waiting-for-Action Tells

– During-Action Tells

– Post-Bet Tells

Waiting-for-action tells are tells that players exhibit while they are waiting for an opponent to act. Waiting-for-action tells can reveal either a player who wants you to bet or who doesn’t want you to bet.

During-action tells are tells that players exhibit while it is their turn to act. These include such tells as how long it takes them to bet or check, or the physical manner in which they bet.

Post-bet tells are tells that players exhibit after making a bet. Post-bet tells can reveal either a player who wants a call or who doesn’t want a call.

Now I’ll explain these categories a little more with some examples of hands.

Waiting-for-action tells

Let’s say you’re heads up with a player and it’s your turn to act. Your opponent’s waiting-for-action tells are the tells he might exhibit while it’s your turn and he’s waiting for you to act. This could be either when you are first to act or when your opponent was first to act and he has checked to you.

Some examples of waiting-for-action tells are:

– An opponent staring at you when it’s your turn to act
– An opponent who avoids looking at you when it’s your turn to act

– An opponent holding out chips as if he’s going to call if you bet

During-action tells

Let’s say you have checked to your opponent. Your opponent’s during-action tells are the tells that he exhibits while it is his turn to act, as he checks, bets, or raises. These can be bet-timing tells (how long it takes to make a bet or to check) or behaviors associated with the physical act of betting.

Some examples of during-action tells are:

– An opponent waiting a long time to bet
– An opponent saying “I bet” in a confident voice
– An opponent throwing chips forcefully into the pot

Post-bet tells

Let’s say your opponent has now bet. Your opponent’s post-bet tells refer to any tells he exhibits after he bets.

Some examples of post-bet tells are:

– An opponent smiling slightly after betting
– An opponent avoiding eye contact after betting
– An opponent’s eyes getting slightly wider after betting

The importance of categories

The situational categories I’ve described are intellectual constructs; they are not completely perfect and can overlap slightly. But they are very useful for organizing your thoughts and observations about tells.

Without a framework for thinking about tells, you can easily be overwhelmed by the immense amount of information present at the poker table. One confusing fact is that some common tells can appear exactly the same, but can be opposite in meaning. For instance, one common tell that indicates waiting-for-action weakness is for a player to stare at you while it is your turn to act. Another common tell for post-bet strength looks exactly the same; after a player bets, he will stare at you.

Again: these two behaviors look the same but have opposite meanings. If you didn’t know to distinguish between waiting-for-action tells and post-bet tells you might think something like: “Oh, in an earlier hand, I saw him staring at me before I bet and he was weak. Now he’s gone all-in and he’s staring at me in the same way. He must be weak again!” Then you’d call his bet and lose and you might think: “This poker tell stuff is for the birds.”

This kind of basic misunderstanding is something I think happens often with people just starting out at learning tells. I think it also accounts for a lot of players’ mistrust of using tells.

Make no mistake about it; you have to work at noticing and interpreting tells. Unless you’re playing with very weak competition, it doesn’t come easy. You’re basically learning how to see in a new way to take a confusing mass of information and turn it into something usable. Having a good mental framework for observing tells will help you take the flood of sensations at the poker table and form it into coherent observations.

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