The human body is a marvellous and versatile piece of biological engineering capable of performing the most accurate and precise delicate movements similar to that which a watchmaker or jeweller would need to make, to lifting an outrageous amount of weight like a world class power lifter.
As you will be aware, our brain controls our bodies and is not only responsible for controlling each of the 640 or so skeletal muscles that allow us to move around and perform our daily activities, but also controls the operation and function of each and every one of your organs, including your heart.
The subject of tells is a large and complex subject. It is impossible to cover body-language as it relates to poker, in- depth in this book, but to give you a good grounding in what tells are and how they work, we can give you some guidelines in what to look for and hopefully exploit to your advantage.
TELLS & THE HUMAN AUTO-PILOT
If our brains had to perform all of the tasks that run your body consciously, then it would be a disaster. If you had to think about when to breath in and breathe out, when to make your heart beat or make your hair grow as well as having all the effort in deciding what parts of your body you would consciously need to move just to sit down, you wouldn’t get anything done.
Instead, all of the stuff that can be done automatically is
performed by our unconscious mind so that we don’t even need to think about them. This allows our bodies to function like well-oiled machines, while we consciously tend to the more important things in life, like playing poker!
It’s just like putting a plane on auto-pilot, it just flies as if by magic.
So what does this have to do with poker you ask? Well, quite a lot really. When we experience emotions, our brains perform a sequence of actions that control the muscles of our bodies and makes certain parts of our bodies move accordingly. Although various muscles are targeted all over our bodies, you will be more familiar with those that are positioned around the face when watching your opponents play poker. When your facial muscles are targeted by your unconscious mind and movement triggered in response to an emotional event, then this is referred to as an Expression.
Unconscious expressions are one tool that can be used in poker in order to ascertain whether or not our opponent has been dealt a good hand, has got rubbish cards or has made a top hand on the flop.
Our facial expressions can be contradictory to our conscious actions and if our opponents are adept in interpreting this behaviour, then they would be aware that the $4,000 in chips that we have just raised is just a bluff to get them to fold so that we can claim the pot and that our hand is actually quite poor.
Unconscious behaviour is not limited to facial expressions. Our hands, shoulders, torso and feet all have parts to play and in actual fact every single part of our body can at any time react automatically to a given situation. This is where the study of Body Language comes in to play.
It is always best to spot your opponents facial expressions as soon as something happens that triggers an emotion, as that split second is when you will catch what’s really going on inside their minds, before they have a chance to consciously override their automatic reaction.
PUT ON YOUR POKER FACE
Some of the ways that poker players try to prevent others from seeing their facial expressions (and involuntary body movements) is to attempt to control these unconscious movements consciously. Seeing as these movements are unconscious, then they can be very difficult to control, so players tend to concentrate on just having one expression to elude other players to what they are thinking. This is commonly referred to as their Poker Face.
YOUR OWN BODY BETRAYS YOU
The conscious mind can only hold, on average, 7 bits of information at any one time and can only realistically concentrate on one thing at a time, rapidly switching its attention between them making it appear that they are all happening at the same time.
This is important to note when playing poker, as if a player is consciously trying to concentrate on playing poker as well as consciously keeping their poker face in check, something will probably give at some point. This will more than likely be seen in a body movement; the way you position your hands, they way that you hold your body and the way you point your feet are all ways that you can betray yourself.
These unconscious movements and facial expressions in reaction to emotional stimulus are called Tells in poker. We can use the tells produced by our opponents to improve our game.
We have already covered the most basic way that some poker players attempt to hide facial tells by developing their Poker Face. Other ways are more obvious, such as wearing large sunglasses to hide eye movements. Players also wear baseball caps and hooded jumpers (known as ‘hoodies’) to cast deep shadows over their face to hide their expressions from view.
The other way that players might attempt to hide tells, is to be consciously aware of a tell and then do the exact opposite. If this type of action if performed each and every time then the action of trying to hide a tell, becomes a tell in its own right.
ESTABLISHING A BASELINE
Before you can continue to identify your opponents tells, you have to establish what is called a Baseline. A Baseline is quite simply a visual record of how your opponent reacts normally to a given situation.
Say for instance, you notice that each time one of your opponents gets a good card that drastically improves his hand on the flop, he sits up in his chair and slightly leans over the table and takes a big breath.
If, later in the game, he moves all-in with a large stack of chips, but he slumps back in his chair while exhaling, his body has betrayed him and it is likely that he hasn’t got a very strong hand.
This is why it is important to study your opponents early on in the game and get to know their behaviour, otherwise referred to as Reading your opponents.
As you will probably be able to realise, there are an inexhaustible number of tells that can potentially be used during the course of a poker game. There are though, some more common ones that will get you started in identifying what your opponents are really up to.
As well as tells that can be seen when playing face to face, there are also tells that can be used to identify what your opponent is doing when playing online, when you are unable to actually physically watch your opponents during the game.
Here are some of the more common tells that can be identified when playing with your friends or in tournaments.
More commonly seen with beginners and not really avoidable, the nervousness and excitement of holding a big hand increases adrenalin and increases heart rate. This results in hands that tremble while handling chips or cards.
The only way around this automatic response is to get used to these types of situations. The more you are exposed to them, the steadier you will become.
If your opponent quickly glances at their chips on the flop, it is a sure indication that they have just made a big hand. By quickly glancing at their chips they are usually seeing whether they have ample chips to bet.
STARING AT THE BOARD
If you have ever looked at a person when they are trying to work something out or recall something that has recently happened or that they are familiar with, they seem to stare into thin air. This is because they are accessing and processing information in their brains. Their pupils will also dilate (get bigger).
If your opponent seems to stare in this way on the flop, it is a good indication that they have not hit a good hand and are calculating if they can make any other hands by visualising the cards in their mind.
INCREASED HEART RATE
When you get really excited your heart rate generally increases. Similarly, when your opponent makes a good hand, their heart rate will also increase.
If you are paying very close attention to your opponent, you may be able to noticed a movement in their chest where their heart is pounding. A better place to notice this increase in heart rate, is the large vein on the side of their neck that will pulsate harder that usual.
This type of technique is borrowed from Neuro-Linguistic Programming (NLP) and is part of a set of visual techniques called Sensory Awareness. The more you look for it, the more noticeable it will become.
If a player shows a disinterest in the hand that they are playing, but remains to have an interest in the pot, then it is highly likely that they have a strong hand and are trying to detract from it.
In this instance, it is also likely that the head will be turned more than the body and that their body will remain square-on to the table, whilst their head will be looking away.
STARING DOWN YOUR OPPONENT
You are out at the bar with your extremely attractive girlfriend for the night and notice some guy across the room giving her the eye. What do you do?
Yep, you’ve guessed it, you give him a right old stare, usually until he looks away, right?
This is because we feel vulnerable and are trying to look hard and be aggressive to frighten them off and this is the same process as in poker, eye contact is increased. We feel vulnerable if we are holding a poor hand and we are trying to intimidate our opponent to get them to fold so that we can claim the pot.
So if you are being stared down at the table when it’s your go to bet, it can be a sure sign that your opponent is feeling a bit insecure about their hand and are trying to scare your off by being aggressive.
OTHER TYPES OF TELL
Aside from the unconscious tells, there are also tells that players can play consciously. Here are some of the most common ones.
PLAYING THE OPPOSITE
This is when players play the opposite to how they would normally play with a given hand, in order to try to lure their opponents into thinking that they hold a top hand when they hold a poor hand, or they hold a poor hand when they hold a strong one.
This is one of the most common ways that players try to
deceive. If they hold a poor hand they may play aggressive, in order to get their opponents to fold. When they hold a good hand, they may play as if they are doubtful that they will win in order to get their opponents to raise, re-raise and fill up the pot ready for the taking.
Other players will expect you to act in a similar way and you may be tempted. But if you do exactly the opposite and play a strong game when you have a strong hand and vice- versa, then you will probably increase your chances in winning the pot as your opponent may think that you are playing strong with a weak hand.
BEING INSULTING OR DISRESPECTFUL
If your opponent starts to be a bit on the disrespectful side towards you after placing their bet, it is likely that they are trying to agitate you enough to make you call and fill up the pot.
Conversely, if your opponent starts being nice, chatty and friendly towards you after they have bet, the chances are that they are bluffing.
When playing online, it is not possible to look for unconscious tells or body language, due to the fact that you are playing over the internet and cannot physically see your opponents directly.
In this case it is necessary to turn your attention to game play and the way that they are ‘acting’ online, that will give us some insights into what they are thinking.
Every online poker room has a set number of seconds that each player has to respond before they are declared either all-in or folded. Although it is sometimes possible that a player’s actions will almost always be slow if they have a slower internet connection, the general speed of play can be a good tell.
Typically, a quick bet is a sign of weakness, and a delayed action is a sign of strength. This is largely because the player is calculating their strategy with what they perceive to be a strong hand, which of course takes time.
Watch how much time it takes the other players to take action and make a mental note of it. If they expose their cards at the showdown, see if you can determine what they slow bet with and what they fast bet with.
Take some time to think about your own play and whether or not you exhibit these tells by your speed of play. Adjust your strategy accordingly and strive to take a similar amount of time to act each time the action gets to you, not giving anything away to your opponents.
AUTO-PLAYS & CHECK BOXES
Online casinos make use of check boxes for options such as fold, raise any, or call any. When a player uses a check box their action comes immediately after the player before him, without delay. This is because they have effectively put their actions on auto-pilot and this can be used to your advantage.
When a player has checked raise any it is highly likely that they have a strong hand.
If your opponent uses the check box to check (pardon the pun) then you can make an educated guess that their hand is fairly weak.
When a player uses the check box to call any, then it may be safe to assume that they have a draw hand that has not yet been completed and they are definitely not ready to fold.
While these assumptions can never be 100% accurate, if you pay attention to other players actions, you can over time begin to draw conclusions and ascertain patterns based on a players use of check boxes.
The fact that a player feels strongly enough about a hand to make a decision even before seeing the actions of the players before him, should be a tell as to the strength of that players hand.
FOLD/FLOP PERCENTAGES OF YOUR OPPONENTS
Although it is not always possible to mark this percentage down exactly, you should over the course of several games get an idea of whether or not a player folds a lot of trash hands or if they are staying in for almost every pot.
If they seem to fold a lot of cards, then beware as they will probably be playing tight and only play strong hands.
If they stay in for almost every pot, it is likely that they are playing weaker hands and can be beat if you play a strong hand against them.
This strategy can be used equally both online and offline and helps you to determine the strength of a players overall game.
Online casinos have a Chat Box function that allows you to chat with your opponents and just like in a physical casino, a player who has got a lot to say for themselves creates an obvious tell.
If a chatty player suddenly shuts-up, it is likely that that are playing a strong hand and needs to concentrate. They are concentrating on the game.
If your opponents betting starts to become antagonistic, it may be because they are bluffing and hoping that their show of over-confidence will end in them bluffing you off the table.
Watch the chat box for players who are steaming or on tilt. A whining player or one who uses a lot of abusive language is probably emotionally unable to play good poker until he or she calms down. Don’t get involved in their issues and just concentrate on playing good poker and winning their chips.
WAITING ON THE BIG BLIND
When you ‘sit down’ at an online Hold ’em table, you will often have the option of waiting on the big blind to get to you or you can post a matching big blind and start playing immediately.
This a good way to tell how patient an online player will be and if they are not patient enough to wait on the big blind to get around to them, it could be that they will not be very patient about waiting on good starting hands. Expect a player who acts in this way to be a loose player.
The opposite holds true for players who do wait on the big blind and can be either patient or cheap. Both are pretty good qualities to have if you are playing poker online. Cheap players, even when they are not especially skilled will tend to wait on better hands since they are less likely to want to throw away their bets.
THE NEXT STEP
After you have become familiar with some of the simpler tells, you may want to increase your knowledge of body language and unconscious behaviour.
As you will probably realise by now, this subject is an in- depth study in it’s own right and is not directly linked to poker, but its methodologies can be used to determine human behaviour and its possible interpretation during the game.
Here are some ideas that can increase your knowledge and you may find interesting, but be warned, these techniques relate to human behaviour and once learned you cannot unlearn them. This means that if you learn to tell when somebody is lying, you will be able to detect when somebody is lying in every situation in your life, not just poker. Once you have switched these techniques on, there is no switching them off again. You have been warned!
STUDY MORE POKER TELLS
Once familiar with the basics, you can learn some advanced stuff. There are entire books that have been written on tells specifically for poker and these are well worth studying.
Additionally, keep an eye on your opponent when playing face-to-face, and learn to recognise certain actions and behaviours. A persons behaviour is always specific to them and is triggered by certain things that they react to. Learn to spot these signs early on in the game and you will be ahead of the rest.
You must remember to establish a baseline first, in order
to ascertain what is normal behaviour for them and what is a tell.
NEURO-LINGUISTIC PROGRAMMING (NLP)
Neuro-Linguistic Programming, or NLP, is the study of language and how it effects human behaviour. It is also the study of human excellence.
Taking it’s ideas from therapists such as Milton Ericksonnn, Fritz Perls and Virginia Satir, et.al, a library of methodologies were compiled that allows accurate interpretation of human behaviour and how it can be affected by interrupting certain strategical sequences of action, known as interventions, that can be used to bring about the required change within a person.
Used in many areas including therapy, life-coaching, education and business to name a few, NLP and its flexible structure has proven to be an asset in these areas and beyond.
Using elements of NLP for poker, there are a couple of areas which may be of interest to you if you wish to increase your knowledge, these are Sensory Awareness and Eye Patterns.
Sensory Awareness trains you to become extremely sensitive to what happens in our subjects body that you can see when observing them, when they react to certain stimuli. By training yourself to see these usually invisible unconscious reactions, you can ascertain what is going on in the minds of the person to which you are observing.
For example, if somebody is attracted towards you, it is likely that their skin colour will darken as their face flushes, the size of their lips will increase and their pupils will dilate. Similarly, if somebody holds a good hand in poker, they are likely to produce a similar reaction.
We have already mentioned in the chapter on Tells, that an increase in heart rate can be noticed by the increase in pulsating in the vein that runs up the side of the neck, just below the ear. Again using this in poker allows you to see whether your opponent is getting excited and therefore may hold a good hand.
The way that our eyes move when we are talking to somebody is not random. It is a sequence of patterns that we use unconsciously in order to access information in our brains.
Depending on the situation and questions that we ask of another, we can get an idea for what they are thinking by determining where they are accessing their information from.
Used in poker, we may be able to determine our opponents thought processes as they relate to the hands that they hold.
Another area that you may want to look at is Mentalism. The greatest mentalist of today is without doubt Derren Brown. Just by looking at you, he can tell you where you come from, what you do and the name of your favourite pet. This is by using a technique called Cold Reading and is used across the globe by psychics and the like.
Although it would probably take a lifetime to learn all of the techniques, one of the most favourite techniques concentrates on micro-muscle (ideomotor) movements.
Again, using the involuntary unconscious responses of the human body, we can determine certain factors. For poker, we are interested in the ability to Lip Read.
Having increased your sensory awareness, you will be able to look at somebody and ask them to say a word in their head. After a few repetitions, you may start to notice the slight, normally imperceptible, micro-movements of the lips as they attempt to make the shapes normally associated with saying the word out loud.
Wouldn’t it be good if you could ask your opponent what cards they had and ‘they told’ you? Well, take a year or so to learn this technique and you’ll be able to!
Recently highlighted in the hit TV series ‘Lie to me’, Dr. Paul Ekman’s life-long study on human facial expressions has introduced the idea that the human race uses unconscious ‘Globally Recognisable’ micro-expressions when trying to hide or cover-up emotions.
This fascinating area shows that these unconscious micro-expressions only last for about 1/15 or 1/25 of a second and are undetectable to the untrained eye. Emotions such as Fear, Surprise, Contempt, Excitement and Anger to name just a tiny few, can be recognised and if the person producing these expressions was recorded on video, it would be possible to play back, freeze-frame and see that these super-fast expressions are just the same as ordinary expressions that last a lot longer at around 1 to 5 seconds (aka. macro expressions).
This is a massive and fascinating subject that I personally find exciting.