When I play poker, I watch my opponents carefully. I watch how they act when they have weak hands, how they act when they have strong hands, how they talk, how they sit, where they look, how they physically place their bets, and many other tendencies. Over the years I’ve learned to read average poker players very well. It hasn’t been something that’s come easy. It has taken dedicated study.
Some poker tells result from ignorance or mental laziness. Most poker players don’t know that they might be being observed very carefully, and so they give away a lot about their intentions. They might stare at their hole cards when they have a weak hand. They might show an obvious intent to fold, or call, or bet. They might call quickly when they’re weak, or bet quickly when they have a big hand, or have other noticeable bet-timing tells. These kinds of tells aren’t related to extremes of emotions, but are just a result of the player not making an effort to “balance” their behavioral patterns.
Other poker tells result from emotional states, like anxiety, excitement, and relaxation. Many players tend to avert their eyes downward when they bluff (as liars are prone to do). Many players become very still and silent after bluffing, due to anxiety. Many players have a tendency to make more eye contact when betting with a strong hand, due to being more relaxed.
Unless you are a natural reader of people, learning to read poker tells is like learning another language. Learning to read poker tells means learning where to look for tells on a player’s body, and when you should look for them. It means having an internal catalog of human gestures, expressions, and verbal statements, and knowing how to correlate that information with the behaviors of a specific player.
You should think of poker tells as being like any other observation you might make about an opponent. Just as you give weight to how reliable a player’s betting patterns are, you can give weight to how reliable a player’s tells are. If you are very uncertain about the reliability of a tell, you wouldn’t assign much weight to that information. But if you have observed a player for a while and are confident about his behavioral patterns, his tells will impact your decisions.
Tells should seldom be your sole reason for doing something. The large majority of the time you should just be playing your best fundamental poker strategy, just as you would play online, in the absence of live tells. Some games will be tough, and you will only infrequently spot a tell that influences your decision. Some games will have several players who have a lot of tells, and your play will be drastically changed.
But you should never fall in love with tells; always remember that tells should influence your play only when you have solid reasons to trust their reliability.
While tell-reading is only a small part of playing great live poker, it’s a powerful weapon to have in your arsenal. In my opinion, making good reads can add between 10% and 30% to a good player’s win-rate. Also, if you’re playing against experienced players and you haven’t worked on eliminating your own tells, this will drastically reduce your win-rate. If you’re playing live for significant stakes, and you aren’t very good at reading tells or at hiding your own tells, you won’t be making anywhere near your maximum profit potential.