Looking for Tells

A tell is a hint that a player gives you as to what the strength of his hand may be — either through the way he bets or the way he physically behaves around the table. Successfully interpreting the tells of your opponents will make a huge difference in any given session you have at a Poker table.

Watching the right place at the right time

It almost goes without saying that in order to watch for tells in the first place, you need to be watching people. This tends to be easiest to do when you’re not playing in a hand, but rather just sitting back and taking it all in. Although the other players not in the hand are watching television or reading the sports pages, you should be keeping an eye on your opponents. See how they face each other and how they react as they win or lose, bet or fold.

You’ll likely pick up more watching the table when you’re not involved in the hand because you don’t have that evil mix of paranoia combined with overconfidence or underconfidence that’s present when it’s your money on the line.

Also, you need to get out of the habit of immediately looking at your cards as soon as they’re dealt, as well as the community cards as they’re exposed. Instead you should watch the players around the table and see how they react as they see the cards for the first time.

Who’s acting and who isn’t?

Of course people know you’re looking for a tell and will intentionally try to throw you off. What you need to figure out, then, is who is actually inadvertently showing a tell and who is merely trying to make your Poker experience even more confusing.

The number-one rule of tells

Because people associate bluffing with lying, they tend to interpret that as meaning you should act in the opposite manner to what people would expect. And this is the biggest tell of all, especially in beginning- to-intermediate play: Players will most often intentionally act as though their hands are the opposite of what they are.

A player who is bluffing will bet in a very aggressive fashion and stare you right in the eyes. A player with a strong hand will casually lay a bet and look away.

A whole lotta shakin’ goin’ on

Another thing to keep a close eye out for is someone who is physically shaking as she goes to place a bet. I’ve seen many beginning players assume that this means a player is bluffing, and nothing could be further from the truth. A shaking player always is holding a good starting hand or has made a big hand on the board — it’s nearly impossible to fake the nervous rattle of someone with a great hand. When you see it, it’s the real thing, and you’re in trouble. Fold and ask questions later.

Watching other people’s hands

There is so much surveillance and counter-surveillance in the world of tells — especially if you’re playing against more experienced players — that we find it difficult to get a truly accurate read on the players involved. Did we really just catch something, or are they faking it? Hmm.

There does, however, seem to be one fairly reliable version of a tell and that is how people use their hands at the table. I don’t mean hand as in the two cards they’re holding, but rather hands as in that part of the human body that is attached to a wrist.

Shaking hands typically indicate a crushing hand, but you can pick up a surprisingly larger amount of information from watching people’s hands:

Many people will hold their cards in a certain way (for them) if they’re planning on folding a hand. This gives you a chance to look behind you on any given betting action to see how many callers you might get.

People thinking of betting will often fondle their chips before it’s their turn to bet. Many intermediate players do this to make you think they’re either going to bet or call in an effort to get you to not bet because they would actually fold otherwise — yet another version of acting in a way that’s opposite of how they’re actually thinking.

People who suddenly hit big hands, especially on the flop, will often flinch with their hands.

People who recheck their hole cards after an all-suited flop (for example, all spades) were not holding two spades to begin with or they wouldn’t be rechecking.

People who check their hole cards twice pre-flop (or give their hole cards an exceedingly long stare) often have a very big pair. For some reason, people with large pocket pairs need to look at them again.

One signal for checking is to tap the table when it’s your turn to bet; some people, as hard as this is to believe, will tap it one way for a true check (say with just an index finger), but do another (say, rap the table with a fist) if they intend on check-raising.

In No-Limit, players who are becoming short stacked will often count out their stack relative to the size of the blinds. What they’re doing is figuring out how many big blinds their stack represents, and on a surprising number of occasions, you’ll find these people pushing all-in soon afterward. Anytime you see someone counting out a stack in such a fashion, you should be leery of the all-in play behind you when you’re first to act. Be sure to play tighter in these situations so you won’t be afraid to call the raise.

Listening to what people say

You can find out quite a bit just by listening to people talking at the table.

When people say the obvious

The most obvious tell of all is the player who announces his hand every time the cards are exposed. He says things like, “Now I’ve got two pair,” “I’m sittin’ on a big flush draw,” and so on. Many players either ignore the chatterbox or don’t believe him.

When you run across a player who’s decided to become the MC of the Poker table, your task becomes pretty easy: Hand him the microphone and listen to

what he says. On those rare times when you do see his cards, see how they line up with what the player is saying. It’s very possible that you’re hearing nothing more than some player spewing static that he somehow finds “funny,” but you’ll find a surprising number of times when it’s actually a tell (whether it’s lying [which you then mentally reverse] or telling the truth).

Also when players show a big hand at a table to prove they weren’t bluffing, it’s fairly common for others to chime in about what they were playing. And while this isn’t 100 percent foolproof, the things the other players say tend to be more accurate than not (because those people don’t really gain anything by lying about the hands that they folded). Keep track of what those players said they had, what their relative position around the table was, and try to remember the way they acted as they went through the betting phases.

Listening to those who already know

Also keep an eye on how players who are very well acquainted with each other react to each other. For example, if you visit Las Vegas in the off-season, it’s common to sit at a table with four or five retirees who know each other. These people play often enough, and know each other well enough, that it’s not unusual for them to know (and often openly announce) the tells of all their pals.

In these cases, if you see one player always backing away from another in a given set of circumstances, you should start doing it too. There’s no need to play against Lonnie for 20 years just to find out that he always snorts when he has Big Slick — especially when Big Sal has already done the investigation (and reporting) for you.

Keeping track of the mundane

Keeping track of mundane conversations that have nothing to do with the card game you’re playing is a good idea. The way people behave when they’re responding and reacting to the world around them can be revealing.

For example, someone takes a sip of coffee and says, “This is the best cup of coffee I’ve ever tasted!” If it is a great cup of coffee, then you know what the person sounds like when she’s telling the truth. You can watch her body posture and any other little detail that seems relevant. Likewise, if the coffee is actually closer to sludge, you’ve just seen how she reacts when she’s lying.

Involuntary reactions

Many people have involuntary reactions to their play. We mention hand shaking earlier in this chapter, but there are also things such as sweating (people with big hands pre-flop tend to sweat) and racing heart rates. Phil “The Unabomber” Laak plays with a hooded sweatshirt, sometimes drawing it all the way up. Phil Hellmuth plays in a track suit with the collar turned up. Both of them do this expressly so you can’t see their veins pounding in their necks.

When you watch for involuntary reactions from your opponents, don’t forget to factor in the raw importance of the event you’re seeing. Anyone making the final table of a major tournament will, by default, be wound up tighter than usual.

In general, though, the more keyed up a person is, the more likely he is to have a big hand.

Failing all else …

You can sit and analyze and analyze your opponents and the situations you’re in, and if you’re not careful, you will overanalyze them. If you find that you’re driving yourself bonkers and you’re not able to get a proper read, you do have a couple more options.

Look at the hand positionally

If you find yourself getting overly confused with the situation, forget trying to read your opponent for a tell. Instead consider her betting pattern on this particular hand and how it could relate to starting hands of different types. Consider nuances such as trips, flushes, and straight draws. Don’t forget to factor in her actions on the hand pre-flop and be certain to consider the player’s position at the table.

Trust your gut

The reason you’re able to live, breathe, eat, drink, and play Poker is because your ancestors made it through some pretty dark times. They did this by fleeing from the big scary things that could eat them and pounding on the little annoying things that were threatening but beatable. These epic battles, fought over eons, ended up putting you at a card table. And you still hold all these fight-or-flight impulses. You should listen to them.

When all else fails, trust your instincts. If it just really feels like you’re being trapped, you probably are. Fold.

If there’s just something basically wrong with that lady’s last big bet — it just doesn’t feel right somehow — call it. This isn’t math and it isn’t science — it’s instinct. Use it and you’ll be right more than you’re wrong.

Just fold already

Okay, what started all this was that you were confused by the tells you were seeing. Then you looked at the hand positionally and couldn’t come up with any hints as to what that psycho on the other side of the table might have. Then you wanted to try your gut feeling, but the hot dog you had for lunch is burning a little too much to get the right kind of read.

In cases like this, especially as you’re starting out, you should just fold. Sure, you’ll lose some equity and occasionally be bluffed out of a hand. But one bad fold costs you a lot less than a string of bad calls (which is what happens if you’re chasing an opponent who’s actually trapping you).

You can always fold now and just play the next hand. The cards will be different there, and you’ll have a whole new set of possibilities. Don’t let your impatience with a hand — or especially your current stack size — affect the quality of plays you’re making at a table. If you think the quality of your play is suffering, take a break and evaluate your situation. Figure out if you should buy in for more or just call it quits for the day.

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