McHaffie: MCU lesson 006 / Involuntary Tells


Note: Not at the old Poker1 site. A version of this entry was first published in Poker Player newspaper in 2003.

This is part of a series by Diane McHaffie. She wasn’t a poker player when she began writing this series. These entries chronicle the lessons given to her personally by Mike Caro. Included in her remarkable  poker-learning odyssey are additional comments, tips, and observations from Mike Caro.

Diane McHaffie index.

Diane McHaffie is Director of Operations at Mike Caro University of Poker, Gaming, and Life Strategy. She has traveled the world coordinating events and seminars in the interest of honest poker. You can write her online at diane@caro.com.


Diane McHaffie

Lessons from MCU

— With bonus content by Mike Caro (pending) —

Lesson 6: Involuntary Tells

During our last lesson we began to explore the fascinating and profitable world of poker tells. We started with the basic concept that many players try to disguise their hands by acting in ways intended to deceive you. Tells aren’t just cold, mathematical calculations and strategies; they also involve powerful psychology. And when you understand that psychology and your opponents don’t, their money becomes yours.

Mike teaches that some tells can be easier to read than others. Most players will act opposite from the strength of the hand they are holding. For instance, if they are holding a strong hand, such as a big flush or a full house, they might shrug their shoulders or sigh in sadness – false indications intended to make you think they’re weak. Conversely, players holding weak hands will try to convince you that they are holding strong ones.

Acting controlled

Last week, I shared a valuable lesson with you that I had just learned at MCU. It was about the importance of realizing that not all players are acting. That’s right, some tells aren’t due to players acting, but are involuntary. Players who are bluffing often become so rigid in an effort not to seem nervous that they display a strong, steady hand, not a shaky hand. They make this extra effort because they instinctively realize that if they allowed themselves to shake, you’d become suspicious and then call their bluff. That is acting. They’re acting controlled, although they’re really apprehensive.

But, some tells happen when your opponents’ own bodies betray them. That’s what I meant by involuntary tells. Among the involuntary tells Mike just taught me, the one that interested me the most was the shaking hand.

Before I began my studies at MCU and started learning how to play poker seriously, I naturally assumed that a player who starts to tremble is actually nervous about bluffing.

Now I learn from Mike that this is rarely the case. As I stated previously, players who bluff have a tendency to become quiet and display rigidity in their attempt to convince you that they aren’t really nervous. He also says another sure sign of nervousness is that they’ll barely breathe.

When you see a bettor suddenly start to tremble, that means a release of tension due to the shock of making a big hand. Amazing, isn’t it? The bettor’s own body unintentionally causes movements that could actually betray the hand he is holding. Fascinating! Once you realize this, then you can safely fold.

Hesitating for future profit

However, don’t act too quickly after spotting the tell. That might alert your opponent that you read him. Hesitate a moment before you make your move. This makes it difficult for your opponent to realize that a movement or tell actually gave him away. By hesitating, you’ll possibly be able to profit again by keeping your opponent in the dark as to your observations.

A lot of money is lost during games by calling players who suddenly begin to tremble. Why not save money by avoiding that mistake?

There are many other tells, both acted and involuntary. I’ll be sharing these with you in the future, as I learn them at MCU.

In the meantime, watch the people you are talking to, observing their hand and body movements, and focusing on their facial expressions. What are these observations actually telling you? Are they deceptive or are they involuntary and truthful? Acquiring skills at reading tells isn’t easy, in real life or in poker, but it’s worth the effort. Try it and you’ll see.

— DM

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