5 Common Live-Poker Tells to Learn for Better Play

Poker isn’t so complicated to enjoy its play, and to win money. There’s some mathematical calculation you need to learn, but everyone at the table is playing from the same deck, which makes understanding card dealing, and the odds, easier. Yet it’s those people around the table with you – they are also part of the equation through which you must calculate your “chances” of winning or losing each hand. It’s the guy wearing the upside-down glasses. It’s the woman with a face of stone—is she breathing? It’s the guy who never stops talking. It’s the one who smiles before making every bet (win or lose!). It’s the small-headed man sitting at the corner wearing the oversized mirrored sunglasses – BIG mirrored lenses that make him look like an extraterrestrial insect. All are intentional. What’s more, these poker players are watching you, and they know you are watching them. You should be, and closely, from the beginning of play to the end.

You are looking for your opponents’ “poker tell” – that little movement, sound, reflex, or “thing they do” with their hands, face, shoulders, nose, eyes, and voice, that indicates to opponents the one or more clues about the cards they hold. How strong the hand is. How weak it is. The tell can also come after the flop, indicating how the hand has changed: better or worse? Learning the clues that others show you before and during poker play can help you gain an advantage. To understand what certain poker tells mean is less art than acquired knowledge.

5 Common Live-Poker Tells

The distinction here is poker played with real people around a table: live action, as opposed to anonymous on-line poker. With this in mind, here are five common poker tells you should be looking for:

  • Handling chips/cards and playing with jewelry – These overt or subtle gestures indicate a difference in blood pressure and nerves. Get a bad flop? A great flop? Or just nervous about your money? Players who take chips into their hands immediately after a flop tell others they’re ready to bet. Sometimes merely looking at their chips after the flop, or the chips of others, reveal to opponents that players are getting ready to bet (thus, they have a good hand). Players who look at their cards and then hold them in their hands, waiting for the bet to get around to them, will usually fold the hand; good hole cards nearly always stay on the table, the player awaiting on a bet or the flop. If you wear jewelry, and notice you play with it when playing poker, it’s time to leave it at home, because this form of nervous gesture indicates something, and how the hand is played will tell opponents what that gesture means for the rest of the night.
  • The unintended grin – It’s hard not to stop our facial expressions from indicating pleasure, or outright joy. This is a type of twitch, and a major tell. Players who cannot control their facial expressions tell the table what they hold, or have just got on the flop!
  • Making direct and sustained eye contact, or looking off into space – Players who stare at you with a stone-face expression, and hold it, have something to tell about their hand: this is a form of intimidation, indicating (usually) that their hand is stronger than it really is. Meanwhile, the novice player tries to hide changes in his hand (good or bad) by not making any eye contact at all; this is an obvious tell and should be followed to see what the player does on the next flop and betting.
  • Impatience – Too much movement in the body, or the hands, indicates the need to bet on a strong hand, especially during slow play. And in poker, there’s always slow play because people are thinking what to do, and looking around the table to “get a read” on other players. Looking for tells? The guy or girl who’s squirming in the seat doesn’t have to use the toilet, but wants to bet big!
  • Any Change in Mannerisms: nervous laugh, getting angry, trying to be funny – Each of these, when coming out against the normal social interactions of poker play, is an indication that something has changed in that person’s poker hand. What is that change? Watch for the results of the hand, see if there’s a further change in mannerism, or a return to normal – especially if they’ve won. Now you’ve learned something to use as an advantage.

While these common tells can give you valuable information, you need to watch for patterns of such behavior. One nervous poker tell may be nothing but a runny nose or a dry throat or a player’s need to stack his chips in ascending order. But when these physical movements repeat themselves, and you can see the pattern closely associated with how that player bets or passes or folds or recognizes the value of the flop, now you’re on your way to building a catalogue to understand opponents’ moves during future hands, especially when the poker tell is made unconsciously and proves to be reliable. Any change in an opponent’s demeanor can indicate information for you to use to your advantage in calculating betting strategy, hold ‘em or fold ‘em decisions, to avoid mistakes in reading the strength of your hand, or to induce your opponent to make a mistake.

Now that you know what others look like, here’s one last question for you to ask yourself: Do I know what I look like to my competitors? If you can’t answer this with any confidence, try simply looking in a mirror. What do you see? Change your expression, or give none at all. What do you want to project with these? Your answers to these questions must reflect how you can, and will, mask your body language, your emotions, any ticks or nervous facial expressions, behind a face of calm, a face of casual nonchalance, a demeanor of serious (or neutral) thought. Who you are and how you carry yourself at the table must be, somehow, deceptive. Because, you must always remember, poker is all about deception, right up until everyone shows their cards on the table.

Find out more about poker strategy at Beat That Deal.