Do you have a tell when you play poker?
Do you show your emotions when you get good cards at the flop?
Have you ever thought about that?
What is a tell in poker, actually?
Whether you are a seasoned player or you’re just a beginner, you must have heard about poker tells or even noticed a few yourself. A poker tell is that involuntary (or intentional) action or facial expression that could give away your hand or serve as a means for bluffing if you are really skilled at it.
Many experts recommend that players play their own game instead of paying too much attention to tells around the table.
However, even if you don’t base your playing tactics on reading other players’ tells, it’s still a good thing to learn how to spot, read, and interpret them. It is a fact that it can come in handy when you are one of the few remaining players in a game and every move counts.
How to Read Poker Players
Reading a tell in poker is no easy task, and it takes skills and knowledge, especially if you don’t have much experience and are just learning how to play poker. On that note, if you still don’t know all the poker terms you might need in a game, now is the right time to get familiar with them and start your games with confidence.
To distinguish someone’s tells from their regular behaviour, you would need to observe that person for some time and learn about their default actions to spot their tells.
When playing poker, you could be sitting at a table with five or ten people you’ve never seen before. Hence there is no way you could know their tells beforehand. And unless you are a really observant person, it typically takes some time to get to know the players and later read the room and pick up on everyone’s little tells.
Most Common Poker Tells
It’s true that every player behaves differently at a poker table, and everyone has their own habits and their playing tactic. Even if yours doesn’t base on reading other players’ tells to guess the poker hand combination they might have, it wouldn’t hurt to learn a thing or two about the most common poker tells and practice this subtle art every time you play.
#1 Defensive Movements
Defensive movements usually happen when a player has a weak or medium-strength hand. So, for example, when a player is waiting for their turn and reaches for the chips like they are ready to play when you are making a move, it signals that they have a weak hand.
Why is it a good tell? Because a player with a strong hand wouldn’t want to let you know that they have a strong hand and give you a reason not to bet.
There are a lot of nuances to understanding different defensive movements, a plethora of small, almost unnoticeable movements can offer you with a lot of information that you can act upon. For example, if a player is hesitant for a couple of seconds before checking or calling it could imply that he is trying to show to everybody at the table that he has good cards and that he is invested in the round, however that could also be an indication that he might be bluffing.
When a player shuffles the chips a bit on the river before checking, it could clearly indicate a weaker hand than they want their opponents to think they have. Any kind of movement toward the chips when a player signals preparedness to check or call the bet, even when it’s not their turn, could be a clear sign of a weak hand.
If the game boasts a big bet, it is likely that a player exhibiting defensive movements (and holding a weak hand) will fold.
If you notice that a player is showing any form of nervous gestures and acting a bit awkward after a check, that could also mean that they hold a weak hand and are not entirely comfortable with their previous decision.
You should, however, note that these are all indicators but are not necessarily always true, and it would be good to observe a person and find at least a couple of tells before drawing your conclusion. Understanding the difference between the default profile of an opponent and his poker tells can save you from misjudging a situation, a proper assessment will make your knowledge of poker tells much more reliable.
#2 Impulsive or Hesitant Decisions
Impulsive or hesitant decisions that deviate from a person’s usual behavior could be their tells in certain situations. If you manage to read them, it could give you clues about their hands in the game. These tells might not be all that subtle, meaning they should be easier to spot than others.
Let’s look into some of the most common impulsive or hesitant decisions poker tells:
Instantly calling a bet could be a bluff to hide that a player has a weak hand. The player quickly ruled out the idea of raising the bet. Also, this particular tell usually occurs when the bet is not too high, and the player can call. If the bet amount is significant, you can expect players with weak hands to fold.
Another thing you should consider is the time the previous player took to think their decision through. If they took a long time, the player playing right after them could make their call immediately, which wouldn’t be a bluff.
Hesitations and Pauses When Betting
On the other hand, experts say that hesitations and pauses when betting are signs of a good and strong hand. These actions indicate that a player weighs if they should raise the bet or call the current one. Players betting weak hands avoid drawing too much attention to themselves and want to appear confident when making the call.
Double-Checking Hole Cards
Players that are waiting for their turn to act and double-check their hole cards in the process probably don’t have a very strong hand. But, players that double-check their card after making their bet are probably calm and confident they made the right decision.
Hole Card Apex Position
Card apex position is the point when a player checks their hole cards by lifting a corner of their cards to the highest position where they can see them clearly, but not lift their middle parts from the table. A tell could be if a player takes longer to look at their cards because it potentially means they are from different ranks and suits.
Taking Longer to Make a Decision
Also known as tanking in poker, this action implies that a player has a strong hand and is taking their time to make a betting decision. They might also want to appear indecisive as a way of bluffing when in fact, they have a solid hand in place.
#3 Weak-Hand Statements
Weak-hand statements are usually made by players with strong hands, as bluffers are not likely to weaken their hand range easily. They stick to neutral or strong-hand statements instead to try to strengthen their position.
For example, a player could say: “I was afraid you’d win, but I think you have a weak hand,” before going all in on the river. It is an indirect weak-hand statement by someone who might not have the strongest of hands but is confident of winning.
The thing with weak-hand statements is that they bear more meaning if they come from bettors in the game instead of checkers or callers. If you are good at reading poker tells, you could learn a lot from this kind of statement.
Strong-hand statements, on the other hand, are more difficult to interpret as bluffers can use them to strengthen their position, and a player with strong hands can simply be so relaxed and confident that they don’t have a problem with such statements.
To goad someone means to provoke or annoy someone into acting or reacting to your provocations. In poker, goading comes in the form of one player trying to provoke another to take action. So it’s not physical goading, of course, but verbal action aiming to shake the opponent.
Experts and professional poker players believe that goading is more likely a sign of a strong hand than a weak one. There are two arguments that can support this claim:
- People who bluff tend to try and avoid any attention, and they would also like to avoid inciting the opponent to call out their bluff
- Players are afraid of looking stupid after a failed goading attempt, which is why goading is attributed to players with strong hands
Examples of goading statements include something along the line of:
- “I dare you to call”
- “Oh, I’m pretty sure you’re going to fold after this.”
- "Just fold already, stop wasting time."
Like with many other tells, these are also open to interpretation. It is not likely that a bluffer would say something like this and end up looking stupid if another player calls their bluff, but it’s not entirely impossible, either.
Irritation also tends to be interpreted as an action prompted by a player with a strong hand, similarly to goading. The reason for that is that players with a weak hand don't want to stand out and agitate their opponents in fear of them calling the bets higher.
Here are some examples when players with strong hand can act irritated:
- A confident, laid-back player is more likely to be cheeky and make rude remarks to provoke other players
- Irritation can come in the form of impatient gestures, such as tapping a watch, or making rushing statements to players taking a long time to make a decision.
- Saying "No" to the question "Will you show your cards if I fold?" is considered a sign of having a strong hand
- The way you say "No" also carries value - saying it aggressively, rudely or dismissively implies you have a strong hand
It is a common opinion that bluffers don’t want to make such remarks and risk angering opponents with stronger hands further. Again, this is also open to interpretation as there are always exceptions, especially when we know that some statements could be understood in many ways.
Poker Tells Worthy Mentions
Apart from the ones mentioned, there are other tells poker players can pick up from their opponents. Prerequisites are that you know the people you play with or that you are good at reading body language and gestures.
Making Eye Contact or Looking away
These are quite straightforward, as making eye contact indicates strength, whereas looking away probably shows insecurity and bluffing. Some players don’t shy away from eye contact during the entire game, so it could be more difficult to read them, whereas some are simply shy and avoid all eye contact, and in those situations, this is not a very reliable tell.
Handling Chips and/or Cards
One of the most straightforward poker tells are the shaky hands. They are almost impossible to fake and are a clear sign of nervousness. Also, if players handle their chips decisively and beforehand, they will likely have a good hand.
Eyes Glance at Our Stack Depth
This is considered to be the action of a player holding a strong hand. Whether the glance is brief or long, it is considered to be a sign that a player is looking at how much they could win from other players.
Strong Eye Contact
Strong eye contact is a sign of weakness. A player trying to look confident and intimidating is probably just trying to make their opponents uncomfortable, which is not something a player with a strong hand would do.
Sudden Better Posture
This action could indicate that a player’s luck has suddenly changed, and their odds seem better after they were dealt better cards. The body language poker players display during the game could tell you a lot about their hand, but only if you know how to read the signs.
In-Depth Knowledge Hub on Poker Tells
Experts have written books about the subtle art of spotting poker tells, elevating the skill to a whole new level. If you are looking for a good read on the topic, you can resort to “Caro’s Book of Poker Tells” by Mike Caro, which was first published in 1984, and is based on the principle “strong when weak, weak when strong.”
What Caro means by this is that players try to deceive their opponents by pretending to have a weak hand when they have a strong one and vice versa. This is practically another way to say that a player is bluffing, but that is not always the case.
Another famous poker player that has written about this topic is Zachary Elwood in his book “Reading Poker Tells,” and he runs a poker tells training site as well. Zachary also wrote a book “Verbal Poker Tells” as he thought they merited a book of their own.
You could also look at “Ultimate Guide to Poker Tells” by Randy Burgess or Joe Navaro’s Read'em and Reap for more expert opinions on the topic.
Can the Same Tell Mean Different Things?
It is sometimes difficult to assess if a tell means a player has a weak or a strong hand. Some verbal or gesture tells could have a different meaning depending on the person and the game circumstances. Unless you’ve already played against a person and know their usual table behaviour, it might be hard to judge if they are bluffing or you actually caught their tell.
For example, players could be arrogant because they have a strong hand, because that is their default behaviour, or maybe because they are bluffing. So a tell could be a tell, a bluff, or someone’s actual behaviour.
What Is a Reverse Tell in Poker?
A reverse tell in poker happens when a player wants to mislead opponents and intentionally does something that is actually a fake tell. If you are an inexperienced poker player, you should be careful when picking up tells from other players. They might be legitimate, but they also might be deliberate actions to deceive you and other players.
Are There Tells in Online Poker?
Most poker tells we discussed are related to table poker games, but online poker is no exception. Tells in online games are probably not so significant as in traditional poker games, but you could pay attention to the bet size, the time a player takes to make a move, or what they write in the chat.
How to Mask Your Poker Tells?
Suppose you noticed you have poker tells that you would like to mask and hide from your opponents. Depending on your tell, here are a couple of things you can try to do:
- Do not create betting patterns: Betting patterns are considered easier to spot than behavioural ones, so that’s the first thing you should pay attention to - try not to create betting patterns other players can spot. If you deviate from that pattern, other players could notice and read into your actions, which could help them learn if you have a stronger or weaker hand.
- Do not look at your cards instantly. Use that time to look at other players’ reactions. Being impatient and looking at your cards immediately after they are dealt is considered a rookie mistake. Instead, you should use that time after placing the blinds to look at other players’ reactions when they first glance at their cards.
Does Being Able to Read Poker Tells Make You a Better Poker Player?
The short answer to this question is yes - it is a skill that makes you a better poker player. However, reading poker tells is not an exact science, and it is more likely than not that you could get some tells wrong. It is a great thing to read poker tells, but experts recommend that you consider building your tactic around your own game and use this skill as a bonus feature.
Zachary Elwood, a former professional poker player that we already mentioned, has said in his podcast that many professional players believe the value of poker tells is greatly exaggerated by people and that reading poker tells is more of an icing on the cake rather than a core ingredient.
Whatever is your preferred poker game plan, now you know some of the top poker tells, and you can practice recognising them when playing with your friends or in your next game. Make sure to also try to spot your tells so you can try to mask them and ensure your opponents don’t read them too easily.