Reading poker tells is primarily about sensing fear and the absence of fear (otherwise known as relaxation). Most discomfort at a poker table is a form of fear. Everything from the sheer terror of a degenerate gambler who’s bluffing with his case money, to the small discomfort a decent player might feel when he continuation-bets a flop he hasn’t connected with. Most of the tells I will describe in the following chapters are just variations on the theme of sensing an opponent’s amount of anxiety or relaxation in specific situations.
When a player is waiting for you to bet, you are looking for clues to help you determine if he is fearful of you betting or not fearful of you betting. After someone has bet, you are trying to determine if he is fearful of being called or not fearful of being called. If you can figure out how fearful a player is, then you have probably answered the question, “What does this player want me to do in this situation?”
So what does fear look like at the poker table? Well, it can look very different, depending on the situation. I’ll explain, using the two main categories I introduced in the last chapter: waiting-for- action and post-bet.
The most potentially fear-inducing situation for poker players is making a pure bluff (meaning a bluff that has a zero or nearly-zero chance of winning if called). The money being bluffed is at stake, as is the entire pot. Adding to the tension is the fact that the bluffer’s opponent has an opportunity to study him after he bets. His opponent’s decision might take some time, maybe even minutes, and the bluffer has to sit there and act cool under his opponent’s scrutiny, all the while doing his best to not give his weakness away.
When a bluffer feels fear, it is the fear of someone afraid to be found out. The bluffer is, for all intents and purposes, lying. In some ways, he is feeling the same anxiety a guilty criminal might feel when being interrogated by the police. Now I’ll contrast this fear with the fear of someone who doesn’t want his opponent to bet.
A player who has a weak hand, and who is waiting for his opponent to act, is more likely to feel a different type of fear. The player wants to win the pot, but his opponent might prevent him from winning the pot by betting into him. This player feels threatened by his opponent, and would prefer that his opponent didn’t bet; this can be either because the waiting-for-action player wants to get a cheap showdown, or because he himself might decide to bluff. In any case, his opponent betting would be a bad thing for him.
This opponent is not under as much stress as a bluffer. And his fear is different; it is more defensive or wary than guilty. The waiting-for-action player with a weak hand can’t be said to be lying, and it isn’t his turn to act so he doesn’t feel the pressure of being observed. He is merely threatened by his opponent, and would like to prevent a bet.
I described post-bet fear as being akin to the type of fear a criminal might feel when being interrogated by the police. You might describe waiting-for-action fear as the kind of defensive fear you might have when you’re walking alone down a dark alley at night, and you see an intimidating person walking towards you.
The difference between these two types of situations is why I have separated the tells in this book into waiting-for-action and post-bet. (During-action is the third category, but it’s not nearly as important as these two.) A player with a weak hand can exhibit very different behaviors, depending on if he’s waiting for his opponent to act or if he’s the one who has just bet. You should keep this in mind when reading this book and when observing tells.