Before getting to the specific tells, I’m going to describe some general indicators of anxiety and relaxation. If you know much about human behavior, a lot of the following information may seem like common sense to you. It’s still helpful to review it, especially if you have never tried to apply this knowledge at the poker table.
These descriptions are general tendencies and are more likely to be true of people who have nothing to hide. Because it rewards deception, the game of poker will tend to twist these natural behaviors in various ways. But even considering this, the following descriptions will still often be very accurate indications of the emotional state, and thus the relative hand strength, of a player.
Movement and stillness
People who are anxious are more physically tense than people who are relaxed. They hold themselves tighter. They don’t move as much. They are wary.
Think of a prey animal when a predator comes near. Think of a deer in a car’s headlights. The natural instinct of a frightened animal is to freeze, to not attract attention. Humans are no different; the instinct is fairly hardwired.
Someone who is relaxed has a looser body. They move their arms loosely. Their gestures are flowing. They are mentally loose and this translates directly to their body movements.
Silence and talking
Anxious people are less likely to talk freely than are people who are relaxed. Just like a frightened animal goes silent in an attempt to hide from a potential threat, anxious people go silent.
People’s throats literally contract when they are under stress. It becomes physically more difficult to speak. Nervous people may feel a dry, nervous swallowing reflex because their throats suddenly feel uncomfortable.
Anxious people who attempt to talk in a relaxed manner may find it difficult. They may talk a lot in an effort to appear relaxed, but their thoughts might not flow well or they may stop talking at weird moments. Anxious people avoid saying anything that could potentially offend an opponent or make an opponent suspicious.
What about relaxed people? They have the capability to talk freely, in a relaxed manner. They may feel relaxed enough to crack jokes. They may say aggressive or subtly hostile things to their opponents. They are more likely to be unconcerned with how other people view them or judge them.
Real smiling and fake smiling
People who are relaxed are more likely to exhibit genuine smiles. How can you tell a real smile from a fake smile? This is a whole complicated area of study in itself. But, in a nutshell, fake smiles don’t involve the eyes nearly as much as real smiles do. Fake smiles also don’t lift the corners of the mouth in the same way that real smiles do. Most people smiling to be polite, or smiling out of nervousness, have voluntary control over their mouth muscles, but they don’t have control over the muscles that indicate a real smile. (Although some people are better at faking smiles than other people.)
When someone is nervous, his or her eyes will tend to be open more. The whites of their eyes will be more exposed and visible.
People who are relaxed tend to have more closed eyelids; they show less eye-white.
This is the major area of difference between waiting-for-action fear and post-bet fear. This is due to the waiting-for-action fear being the fear of a threat, while the post-bet fear is more fear of exposure. The difference between these two types of behavior is the reason eye contact can be such an important tell. Here is how the two types of fear can manifest in a player’s amount of eye contact:
Waiting-for-action eye contact: A person who is afraid of someone (like a poker player with a weak hand who is worried that his opponent will bet) will tend to watch the other person carefully. The anxious person will keep their full attention on the potential threat as much as they can (as long as watching the other person will not increase the threat, as in the case of staring at a threatening person on the street).
Keeping an eye on the potentially threatening person prevents the possibility of being attacked out-of- the-blue. It can also serve another purpose: it can let the potentially dangerous person know that they are being watched and that they should also be on their guard.
A relaxed person who doesn’t feel threatened (like a player with a strong hand who is waiting for his opponent to act) won’t feel as compelled to watch the other person. His gaze is more likely to be unconcerned and unstressed. If he has the upper hand in a competitive situation, he may actually avoid eye contact with a competitor because he doesn’t want to intimidate the other person.
Post-bet eye contact: People who are afraid of being exposed (e.g., bluffers) will tend to make eye contact less than people who are relaxed. Making eye contact may be uncomfortable for them because they are afraid their fear will be sensed by others and their secret will be discovered. They would prefer to not look at the people who study them.
Relaxed people (like players with strong hands) are more capable of looking at the people around them with a loose, spontaneous gaze. Their thoughts aren’t on how they’re perceived or who they’re looking at. They don’t care if they make eye contact with people who are observing them, because it doesn’t much affect them.
This basic stress-related behavior informs many of the specific tells I will describe in the next sections.
You should always keep in mind that experienced poker players will have overcome many of the more instinctual emotional habits that mediocre players tend to have. When playing with players you know are experienced, you should be less likely to believe any emotion-based tells.
STUDYING RELAXATION FIRST
The best way to begin observing a player’s tendencies is to first observe him when he has a strong hand and is relaxed.
Ideally, you’d be able to first watch how a player acts in a few pots when he has a big hand. This would allow you to get a sense of how that player exhibits his relaxation. For example, does he get physically loose? Does he talk more? Does he throw out his chips in an aggressive way? Knowing how a player acts when they’re relaxed and not scared will let you easily see how their more anxious behavior differs.
In the real world, you don’t get to choose the order in which you learn about a player’s tendencies. But it’s still best to use a player’s behavior with a strong hand as a reference point for later comparisons.