Waiting-for-action tells: Strength

Waiting-for-action tells refer to those tells that a player exhibits while he is waiting for an opponent to act. The tells in this section are waiting-for-action tells that indicate a player has a strong hand. They are in a very rough order so that the tells I consider most important are listed first.

LOOKING AWAY FROM YOU

Some players with good cards will tend to look away from you when it is your turn to act.

It’s a no-limit Hold’em cash game. You have Kd Ks.
You raise pre-flop and get one caller: a fairly tight player who you’ve been reading very well. The flop comes 2c Td Qs

Your opponent displays his typical sign of weakness by staring at you while you wait to act. You bet and he calls. You wouldn’t think he would exhibit the staring-at-you tell so much if he hit a Queen, so you put him on a Ten, a pair of Jacks, or a Broadway straight draw.

The turn puts another Ten out there, so the board reads 2c Td Qs Ts.

As your opponent waits for you to act, you see him behaving differently; instead of staring at you, now he is looking down at the table, and occasionally glancing toward the television in the corner. You have been in this same spot several times with this opponent and you know what it means; he’s hit his hand. In this case, he hit trip Tens. You know if you bet you’re getting raised. You check to him and fold to his bet.

Some players, when they hold strong hands, will tend to avoid looking at their opponent. There are two basic reasons for this:

They don’t want to intimidate their opponent: Many players with good hands don’t want to potentially scare an opponent out of the pot, or prevent an opponent from betting. They want to appear as innocuous as possible in the hopes that their opponent will decide to shove some chips towards them. (This can be an instinctual behavior or a conscious behavior.)

They have less reason to study their opponent: A player with a strong “no-brainer” hand has less incentive to actually pay attention to his opponent. Players, even good ones, are less likely to study their opponents when they hold a really strong hand that plays itself.


You are contemplating a bet. This man, your opponent, is looking completely away from you, seemingly unconcerned. For many players, this will be an indication of strength.

You will see this tell displayed in varying degrees of subtlety. On the more obvious side, a player will look very far away from you and refuse to even meet your eyes. I’ve seen some players reposition their bodies in their chair just so they could more easily look in a far-away direction. Sometimes it’ll appear that something across the room has caught your opponent’s eye, and the current hand is the last thing on his mind. Sometimes he might look in your direction, but not directly at you: maybe to the side of your head, or above your head, or down at the table. Sometimes the player may even seem to be looking at you but will have a faraway, thousand-yard stare. As with all tells, you’ll have to see how this general tendency plays out in specific people. The primary thing to look for is a lack of eye contact.

This is a good place to remind you that this tell will only be true of some players. Without correlation beforehand for a specific player, you should not trust this tell. Some players who are waiting for you to act will always look at you in a consistent way. Some players will be more likely to stare at you when they have good hands. As always, correlation is key.

LOOKING DISAPPOINTED

Some players with good hands will tend to look somewhat disappointed with the situation.

Like most tells, this one can vary greatly in subtlety. You will see the extremely obvious acts of players who will shake their head and exhibit Caro’s poker clack with a disgusted look on their face. And you will see players whose actions are less an act and much more subtle; they look slightly disappointed, they wear a slight frown, they slump their shoulders a little bit.

Often, a player will subtly slouch his shoulders and lower his head; this can be an instinct to appear smaller and less threatening. This is an important postural change to recognize because it is common to see when a player holds a strong hand. Their height may shrink by a couple inches. Their shoulders might move inward slightly, making their chest appear smaller. They will have a vibe you would consider slightly dejected.

It can be difficult to judge the nuances of a person’s expressions in the heat of battle. One way to objectively judge someone’s general “vibe” is to imagine what you would think of that person’s expression if you were to see them in other situations; for instance, if you saw them walking down the street or sitting in a coffee shop. This kind of distancing can help you reach a better decision about what kind of a demeanor they are projecting.

You should also keep in mind what a player’s baseline expression is; some people just have a naturally sad or angry look.

Disappointed faces

Try this facial expression—stretch your lips outward and slightly downward on both sides, which will stretch your lips thin. Now shake your head and imagine that you just heard your poker friend tell you he got busted out on the bubble of a huge tournament, and think to yourself, “That’s too bad.” You will find that your eyebrows probably lower a bit, too. This stretched-out mouth expression is one that will appear in varying degrees when a player wants to appear weak.


This player is waiting for his opponent to act. He looks vaguely disappointed or maybe saddened by the situation. For many players, this will indicate strength (assuming they don’t usually act like that).

Acting vs. not acting

Caro classified this type of tell as a “tell from an actor”, but, as I said earlier, I think that that’s a simplification. I have caught myself exhibiting this type of tell (and others) when I was trying my best to not give away information, so I know that these tells aren’t necessarily conscious attempts at acting.

Think of a predatory animal making itself smaller to avoid detection. A poker player with a big hand displays similar behavior by making himself smaller and less threatening when he is trying to catch his “prey”. A bit dramatic, maybe, but I think it’s a similar concept: it’s behavior that is more instinctual than conscious.

Honest expressions of disappointment

Inexperienced players will sometimes be telling the truth when they look disappointed. This is more likely to occur in multi-way pots. (See ‘Indicating a Fold’ for more about multi-way situations.) It is also more likely to occur when a player has low morale. In both of these situations, a player is not as worried about concealing the weakness of his hand because he has given up on any chance of winning that particular hand. But the higher the stakes you’re playing, the more careful you have to be that someone is not tricking you with an elaborate act.

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