In fictional depictions of poker, there’s almost always a player who gives away his hand strength by his physical actions at the table. These often subtle signs are known as “tells,” and they can sometimes provide clues as to whether or not a player is bluffing. Conversely, those who are trying to run a bluff should be careful to avoid them.

Keep in mind that spotting tells is an inexact science. A player who scratches his lip after the river card may not be betraying his hand. In fact, it’s just as likely that he’s got an itch. Being able to spot or guess the difference between the two is often what separates the pros from the amateurs.

Avoiding Traps

One of the major issues, especially when playing against professional poker players, is that it’s hard to be sure that they actually have a tell and aren’t setting a trap.

The best players know that their opponents are always trying to find any edge when they possibly can. So they understand that if they can make you think they have a tell they can use this against you in a big pot. Here is an example of how this can cost you a great deal of money, or even eliminate you from a tournament.

An Example

You’ve been sitting at the same table as Sam for quite a few sessions, and you’ve seen him lose hands or fold on what appears to be a bluff several times. Each time he seems to tilt his head slightly to the left before acting. This is the only time he seems to do this.

You end up in a heads up battle for a mid-sized pot and call his bluff based on this tell, and you win the hand. Later you’re in a pot with Sam where he has just moved all in creating the largest pot of the night. Based on the same tell as earlier you call and he turns over the nuts.

This single pot covers all of his previous losses and makes him a winner for the night.

It also makes your session a loser.

This same situation can easily be imagined in a tournament situation where you get knocked out on the false tell. So what can you learn from this? You can’t learn anything with 100% certainty.

That’s the biggest problem with tells. Nothing seems to be 100% accurate. Either he was setting you up with a false tell, it isn’t a tell at all, or it is a tell but is only 90% accurate.

The Truth About Poker Tells

When it comes down to the real truth about tells, they add a level of psychology to the game of poker that many just can’t handle. Beginners shouldn’t worry about tells at all. They should focus on mastering the fundamentals, instead.

Trying to use tells as a beginner is more than likely going to hurt your game. Even intermediate players probably shouldn’t worry about tells.

If you’re a consistently winning player, you can start trying to pick up on tells, but I would only act based on a tell in smaller situations. Don’t put your tournament life on the line based on a tell.

When you reach the level where your bankroll is continually growing, the next six months rent is paid, and you’re consistently the best player at the table you can start trying to use tells.

This may sound overly restrictive and cautious, but you don’t need to try to use tells until you master just about every other aspect of the game. And if we’re going to be honest, the players who actually master most aspects of poker are few and far between.

You can be a lifelong winning poker player without ever really using tells.

How Accurate Are Tells?

Also, even the best players rarely find tells that are 100% accurate. They may find subtle tells that are correct most of the time, but a true 100% tell is rare. So not only do you need to find a tell, you also need to assign a percentage of time you feel it will be a good one.

Don’t make the costly mistake of assigning a 100% accuracy rating unless you can afford to be wrong. Once you have assigned a number you need to use it to make decisions. If the pot odds are correct for a 100% read, are they still good enough if your read is only good 75% of the time?

A List of Common Poker Tells

The following list includes some of the most common tells. It’s rare to see professional poker players display any of these tendencies, and those who are worried about doing so often compensate by wearing sunglasses, hoodies, or other forms of apparel. Also you will see that many of them can mean two different things.

  • Shaking Hands – This can often be an indication that a player has a strong hand, perhaps even the nuts, but it can also mean a scared player is making a bluff. I have also played with older players who shake all of the time. Because there are so many different reasons for an opponent’s hands to shake I generally ignore shaking hands as a tell.
  • Posture – Players with a weak hand may slump in their chair or otherwise adopt poor posture. Those who sit straight up may have just the opposite. If a player leans forward towards their chips, it shows that they’re anxious to make a wager or they are acting strong when they are actually weak.
  • Glancing at Cards – If you’re playing against a beginner, keep an eye out for this possible tell. Most beginners don’t take notice of the suit at first glance unless they match, so peeking back at the cards after the flop can often indicate an off-suit hand. This isn’t useful in every situation, but it can be if three suited cards are dealt on the flop. It can also mean that they have an ace of the same color as the board but they don’t remember the suit.
  • Staring at Cards – When a player stares at his cards for a long period of time, it usually means that he has a weak hand. If he procrastinates before betting, it can also indicate that a bluff is in the making.
  • Acting Disinterested – This is a common tactic among novice players, as they try to convince others that they’re holding a weak hand. Signs include acting disinterested, shrugging their shoulders, and even sighing.
  • Quick Bets – In the case of inexperienced players, a look at the cards followed by a quick wager is almost always an indication of a decent hand. That’s because these rookies are still new to the game, and they haven’t yet learned to mask their emotions.
  • Halting Their Actions – When a player bluffs, they’re often nervous about being discovered. For this reason, they often stop any kind of motion and remain as still as possible. When a player suddenly halts their normal actions, this is a sign that they could be running a bluff.
  • Looking at Chips – When a player is planning to make a bet, it’s common for them to glance at their chips. This can indicate a strong hand. However this can also be the sign of a weak hand and the player is trying to figure out the perfect bet size to get you to fold.
  • Chip Stacking Method – This is more of a long-term tell, but it can still provide insight into the actions of an opponent. If a player stacks their chips in a neat and orderly fashion, then there’s a good chance that they play a conservative game. If chips are scattered all over the place, then they may be a madman who likes to take unnecessary risks.
  • Avoiding Eye Contact – Players know that the eyes almost always reveal emotion. When someone is afraid to look at you directly across a poker table, it’s often a sign that they have a weak hand and are concerned about being discovered. A player whose gaze bores into your soul, meanwhile, may have a monster hand (or he might be trying to overcompensate). This is a major concern even for the pros, which is why a lot of them cover their eyes with sunglasses.

Generally players either act strong when they are strong and weak when they are weak or act strong when they are weak and act weak when they are strong. This is more of a playing tendency than a tell, but figuring out which of these types an opponent falls under is usually more valuable than trying to read tells.

It’s also a good lesson to learn to switch back and forth in your own play. The more you’re aware of your own playing tendencies and possible tells, the more you can camouflage your play and use tells (or fake tells) against your better opponents.

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