Poker is not simply a card game. It is also a psychological game. Players who are keen observers quickly learn to understand their opponents’ mannerisms and identify when they are holding strong, moderate or weak hands. One of the best ways to accomplish this is to be aware of “poker tells,” any change in a player’s behavior or demeanor that provides insight into her/his assessment of the hand.
Of course, every opponent is different. A nervous twitch that signals one player is bluffing might mean a very strong hand for another. The first step in mastering the skill of understanding the “body language” of poker is to become aware of what behaviors may constitute useful information.
Two Types of Tells
In his 2003 reference work, “The Book of Tells,” poker professional Mike Caro divided all tells into two broad categories: acting tells and non-acting tells. The acting ones are deliberate, such as when a player pretends to hold a weak hand when it is strong or a strong hand when it is really weak. They are trying to convince others to act the way they want them to, and new players often fall victim to such performances.
The non-acting tells are unconscious behaviors. Because the player is unaware of them, they are the more accurate indicators of what’s going on in a player’s mind. Some players simply cannot help sighing or relaxing their shoulders when they have a bad hand. Others may inadvertently glance at their chips whenever they feel strong.
In either case, the tells are meaningless unless they are observed and noted. It thus becomes the player’s job to be watchful, scrutinizing every action the opponents make. Only then does it becomes possible to blend observation with deductive reasoning, make an educated guess as to the meaning of a potential tell and put the theory to the test.
Some Typical Tells
Even though no two opponents are exactly alike, some tells are much more common than others. Shaky hands and perspiration when betting often betray a monster hand. Looking at one’s chips immediately after the flop typically signals a connection has been made, whereas continually staring at the flop cards usually means a miss.
Checking hole cards after the flop is common among players holding unsuited cards and looking for a possible flush draw. Asking the dealer for any type of clarification—from “Is it my bet?” to “How much to me?—frequently indicates a big hand. Rudeness is used by some players to provoke others into challenging a big hand, while politeness may be a ploy to cover up a bluff.
Timing is everything, it’s said, and in poker that could not be more true. When a player who takes her time suddenly rushes to bet, it’s a tell—there is something going on. Rapid breathing, jerky motions, choppy speech—any change of pace is an offer of information. The trick is to decipher the meaning and then put it to use.
Mask, Don’t Tell
Fortunately, there is lots of time to practice discovering and interpreting tells. Only about one in seven hands is worth taking into the flop, so after folding it is possible to observe closely everything the others at the table do and to try predicting their hands based upon their behaviors. Who’s holding the true big hand? Who’s bluffing? Who’s gambling and who’s playing the odds?
One other aspect of tells to consider is being aware of one’s own tells. Putting on a poker face is about maintaining the same composure in all situations so that it becomes impossible for others to detect one’s true thoughts about any hand. This needs to be practiced, too.
It starts with becoming highly aware of one’s own actions, from the clenching of teeth to the way chips are held, leaning forward or back, and other body language that can give away important information to those who know what to look for. Becoming conscious of one’s unconscious mannerisms is no easy task, but it can be mastered and then used to great advantage.