ACTING STRANGELY EARLY IN A HAND

If a player is acting “strangely” in the early stages of a hand, before there’s much at stake, it often indicates strength.

Many of the previous tells in this section are examples of players “acting strangely” in various ways. “Acting strangely” is a relative term; it means someone doing something that is out-of-the-ordinary for them. So, for example, a player who usually looks focused may look down at pocket Aces and then look across the room, as if distracted. Or a player who is usually quite stoic may hit trips on the flop and get a very sad look on his face. Or a player who is in the middle of telling a story may hit trips and get suddenly quiet.

When you notice behavior that is unusual very early on in a hand when there hasn’t been much action, it should get your attention. Many players would be able to maintain more of a poker face, or hide their emotions better, if the pot was more substantial. But the fact that it is early in a hand and there isn’t much at stake can result in their defenses being lowered and allow more information to slip through.

This type of tell is more common in multi-way pots, especially pre-flop, because players who are heads-up are more cognizant of not trying to give anything away. Multi-way pots result in players’ guards being lower than normal.

A common situation in which you might see this kind of behavior is when it hasn’t been raised pre- flop (so the pot is small and multi-way) and the flop comes with a pair. A player might suddenly look kind of sheepish, or suddenly look down at his lap, or get quiet. Don’t make the mistake of seeing someone act suspiciously early in a hand and jump to the conclusion it’s because they’re bluffing; a more likely conclusion is that they’ve got a big hand.

RELAXED EYES

How relaxed a player’s eyes are can sometimes reveal how relaxed he is.

As has been said a few times, many players, when holding a weak hand and waiting for their opponent to act, will stare at their opponent. But some players will make a consistent effort to look at their opponent, no matter how strong or weak their hand is. Is there a way to read these players? There’s one major way that players in this situation can give away information, and it involves how relaxed their eyes are.

Let’s say you’re in a no-limit Hold’em game, and you’re heads up on the turn with a decent player. You’ve raised pre-flop and bet the flop. All you’ve got is AQ for over-cards. Now the turn comes; a K, which is a blank for you but possibly a good scare card.

As you contemplate a bet, your opponent stares at you intently. He often stares at you in these spots. The first few times you played with him, you didn’t think there was any information to be had from him in these situations, because he was so consistent in his actions. But there have been a couple times lately when you’ve been able to correlate a certain relaxation of his eyes with better-than- average strength. You look at him now and notice that his eyes are kind of at half-mast. You think back to when you’ve seen him waiting for you to act when he had a weak hand and didn’t want you to bet; his eyes in that situation were more wide, more alert.

Thinking about all of this, you decide to check to him instead. He makes a decent bet and you fold. You offer him ten bucks to see his hand. He obliges, showing the KQ for top pair on the turn. You add this information to your mental database.

The primary thing to notice about someone’s eyes is usually the eyelids and how exposed the whites of the eyes. Tension and anxiety tend to make a person’s eyes open more than when that person is relaxed. The eyes of someone who’s relaxed will tend to be more closed, with less eyeball exposed. (This is also true of some animals. Cats supposedly communicate friendship to other cats by looking at each other and slowly lowering their eyelids. Doing this indicates that they are comfortable and don’t pose a threat.)


This man is waiting for his opponent to act. In the photo on the left, his eyes are more closed, indicating greater relaxation and therefore greater possibility of high hand strength. In the photo on the right, his eyes are more alert and aware, indicating greater anxiety and therefore greater likelihood of a weak hand.

The speed of eye movement is another thing to correlate. A relaxed opponent is more likely to have eyes that move around freely, because his general relaxed body language also applies to his eye muscles. An anxious opponent, as we know, is generally more tensed up and still, and this behavior often applies to a player’s eyes. An anxious opponent may have a more frozen, self-conscious gaze, with more control over his eye movements. This kind of thing can be very subtle and is admittedly hard to spot.

You also might study their blinking tendencies. Some relaxed opponents will tend to blink more; some will tend to blink less. In my experience, reduced blinking is more likely to mean someone with a weak hand and increased blinking is more likely to mean a strong hand. (Increased blinking has been linked with lying in some studies, but in my opinion studies having to do with lying and interrogation are often very unrelated to how poker players behave, just because the motivations and emotions involved are so different.)

A relaxed person can behave many different ways, because they are relaxed and not worried about how they appear. For example, their eyes might move around more when they’re relaxed, but then again they might not. Their eyes might blink more, but they might not. Being relaxed includes a larger set of behaviors than does being anxious, because being relaxed allows for more room to behave different ways, whereas being anxious usually results in narrowing a set of behaviors to a smaller range.

The main thing you’ll need to do (as with most situations) is to compare how the opponent stares at you in this waiting-for-action situation when he’s weak compared to when he’s strong. You may notice that when he’s weak, his eyes don’t swivel around as loosely as when he’s strong, or that he doesn’t blink much, or that his eyes get slightly wider. Then you need to compare that information to the next time you’re in the same spot with him, and maybe you’ll notice a difference. Or if you don’t notice a difference, you will stop looking for that tell and focus on other things.

GLANCING AT CHIPS

Some players who help their hand will tend to quickly glance down at their chips.

The gist of this one is that a player who has helped his hand immediately glances down at his chips. This is an immediate reaction from a player who realizes he has a good hand and then looks to check on his potential profit by seeing how many chips he is able to put into play.

According to Mike Caro, who emphasized its importance, it’s not a conscious action, just an unaware, instinctual reaction that many players seem to have.

I think this tell is useful only in the lowest stakes games. It’s worth mentioning, but you won’t see it much; that’s why I put it last in this section. In my opinion, a player has to be pretty new to the game, and still very easily excited by good cards, to exhibit this tell.

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