Common Criticisms of Using Poker Tells

In Dan Harrington’s book, How to Win at No Limit Hold’em Money Games Volume II, he devotes a chapter to the importance of tells. It’s a great strategy book, as most of Harrington’s books are, but I think he does a disservice to the art of reading tells. I think his arguments as to why tells are not important are some of the most commonly repeated ones—and I think his arguments are mostly wrong.

Harrington, in his Evaluating Tells chapter, says he takes a “contrarian approach to the business of tells” and that he’s going to argue that “the whole science of spotting tells is more difficult and less useful than people suppose.” He says reading tells is “the icing on the cake” (which I agree with) and that it can get you that “last fraction of a percent of vigorish”. I disagree with that: I think being good at reading players can increase your live win rate a lot.

Here are Harrington’s arguments as to why reading physical tells is unimportant, accompanied with my arguments as to why he’s wrong:

Problem #1 – Finding tells is difficult.

The first problem he presents is that finding a tell is difficult. He says spotting tells isn’t easy, that sometimes people fold and you can’t see their hand, that you have to match people’s actions in certain situations to their actions in specific situations later, and that there are lots of people you’re supposed to be watching. He says “it’s a daunting task.”

I agree that reading tells is not easy. Poker is full of daunting tasks. This is just another one. Since when is the fact that something is difficult a reason to not study it?

In the course of even an hour of play, you can see many situations that allow you to correlate a player’s body language in certain situations to their relative hand strength. Also, live play can be extremely slow, especially in no-limit. There are plenty of opportunities to study your opponents when you are not in a hand, and studying them at this time will not often take away from other important fundamental observations about their play.

Problem #2: It’s hard to tell whether a tell is real or random.

Continuing with the same “it’s hard” argument, Harrington points out that it can be difficult to tell whether someone’s movement or gesture indicates something about the hand or just something random that they did.

Again, I agree it can be difficult to study people. Most poker players give up when faced with the difficulty of studying people. Does that mean it’s a bad idea to study people?

Problem #3: Is the tell real or deception?

Harrington points out that some opponents will actively send out false signals. This is basically another “it’s hard” argument. He says “you may have to observe someone for quite a while before you can sort things out.”

This is true; against decent players you’ll have to correlate their behavior to their hand strength a few times before you find tells that are reliable.

But you should remember: no one forces you to act on a tell. A tell’s importance should be weighted based on how reliable you think it is. If you feel, either because you’ve no prior knowledge of an opponent, or because you’ve seen him act several contradictory ways when in similar situations, that the player’s body language isn’t reliable, then you’ll simply discount it. When in doubt, just forget about it and play with your best fundamental strategy.

Problem #4 – It’s hard to tell what a tell means.

Harrington then thinks up the scenario where you have a sure tell on a player named Transparent Ted. You know when Ted stares at you after he bets that he’s got a good hand (this is not the tell used in Harrington’s book; just a more realistic one). Harrington then describes a river card that makes Ted bet and then perform his tell: i.e., stare at you.

But the board has a possible straight, a possible flush, and a possible full house. You have the lowest full house possible.

Harrington makes the observation that because your opponent could consider himself strong with a wide range of hands (some of which you beat, some of which you don’t) the tell has become meaningless. This point, although presented well, doesn’t hold much water. Sure, in this specific situation, the tell doesn’t help us reach a good conclusion. But for every situation with this amount of uncertainty, you’ll probably have five more where an opponent’s tell (if reliable) will more surely clue you into what they have and more surely decide your action. Not many boards are going to have a lot of huge hands possible, and the number of possible hands is even lower when you factor in being able to eliminate unlikely hands based on a player’s range.

Harrington accurately describes the process of finding a reliable tell: “It’s passed all the tests—you spotted it, it’s not random, and you’re sure [the player’s] oblivious to the tell, so it’s not deceptive.”

The funny thing is that Harrington concedes that it is possible to have such a tell on an opponent, but he still goes out of his way to present an unlikely hand to illustrate to us that tells are not that useful.

I think it’s pretty apparent that it’s easier to imagine scenarios where a reliable tell is important than it is to imagine scenarios where a tell doesn’t help at all. I don’t think it’s necessary to point out all the different ways where knowing when an opponent considers himself strong or weak might come in handy.

Even for tells that are not as reliable as the one Harrington describes, there is a lot of value. There are plenty of poker situations where the correct choice is not readily apparent from a purely logical perspective. There are often situations where two opposite actions can seem to have equal expected value. Reading a potential physical tell, even if it is only slightly reliable, means you have additional information that is not available to other players. Even if you’re right only a little bit more than you’re wrong in these potentially break-even situations, you’re adding to your bottom line substantially by making more-informed plays. A little bit of information can go a long way.

I think Harrington’s apathy to tells is a common misconception amongst winning players who concentrate solely on fundamentals. When you’ve had a lot of success at something, it is hard to imagine that someone else may know something you don’t already know. It’s easy to believe that because you’ve succeeded, your growth as a player has reached its highest point. Harrington’s success does support the idea that you don’t have to be good at reading tells to be a big winner at poker. What I’m saying is that I believe he’d be an even bigger winner if he was better at reading and using poker tells.

I picked Dan Harrington’s arguments because they were the best arguments I could find against tells, and because I think they represent many people’s thoughts on the subject. I think when examined logically, it’s easy to see that there is a lot of value in learning how to read tells, even if they are the “icing on the cake.”

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