The following lecture was the very first Tuesday Session, held September 29, 1998, and later appeared in Card Player magazine.
- Tells are simply mannerisms that enable us to determine when opponents are bluffing and when they’re not (plus much more) based upon how they behave.
In general, your job is to figure out whether an opponent is acting or not. Usually, if he is acting, you should determine what he is trying to get you to do and react opposite.
If he is not acting, react directly in accordance with the tell.
In Caro’s Book of Tells – The Body Language of Poker, and subsequently in my video set covering the topic, I examined poker tells that were both voluntary and involuntary. Many of these clues come from players who are not acting. For instance, when you hear and see an opponent breathing fast, loud, or erratically, there’s a great chance that he holds a strong hand. This is involuntary. Conversely, a player who is bluffing is often afraid to breathe. You will encounter very shallow breathing from typical bluffers. Sometimes they don’t breathe at all. Again, this isn’t an act.
When someone who was formerly steady makes a bet and seems suddenly to be trembling in the midst of a hand, this is not likely to be an act. Nor is it a bluff. While many people think a shaking hand is suspicious and indicative of nervousness associated with a bluff, this isn’t the way life works. Players who are bluffing tend to bolster themselves and become rigid – showing few outward signs of nervousness. They are afraid of being “read,” and so they steady themselves and do nothing out of the ordinary. This, too, is not an act. It is instinctive reaction.
Your opponents do act, however, when they decide to convince you of something. Usually, this takes the form of acting opposite of the true strength of their hand – weak when they hold strong hands and strong when they hold weak hands. That’s why you’ll see players with unbeatable hands shrug, sigh, and bet sadly. They are trying to convince you that their hands are not worth getting excited about, but it’s a lie.
In short, your first mission is to decide whether your opponent is acting. If he is, figure out what he’s trying to get you to do and disappoint him.
- Players are more likely to be acting if they think that you are scrutinizing them. Therefore, if a player has a tendency to give away his hand by overacting, you should make it very clear that you’re watching him.
Very many times when I can’t pick up a tell on a player, one will suddenly appear when I make it obvious to that opponent that I’m pondering what to do while I study him. The more I scrutinize the more likely my opponent is to exhibit a tell in a failed effort to hide the truth.
- Try not to appear that you’re reacting to a tell. Once you spot the tell, hesitate, pretend to ponder. Finally, make your move as if still undecided.
The more quickly you react to a tell, the more likely you are to tip off your opponent that you are reading him, and the more likely he is to correct the behavior. Remember to hesitate.
Sometimes pride temps us to react immediately to a tell. I’ve even seen professional players make a quick winning call and then explain to the opponent, “I knew you were bluffing as soon as you blah, blah, blah.” Well, that’s sure to keep the opponent from never blah, blah, blahing again, and it might cost you a ton of money. If you spot a tell, use it to make money. Don’t use it to show off.
- You should not think of most tells as absolute clues to an opponent’s hand. The vast majority of tells are only indications that push a decision in one direction or another.
You can think of most tells the same way you’d think of someone trying to make a heart flush in seven-card stud when you’ve seen six other hearts. It is much less likely now that the player has the flush, but you aren’t certain that he doesn’t. Tells – except for the rarer ones that are almost 100 percent positive indicators – should be used in this same way. They should be weighed along with many other factors in coming to a conclusion.
- Watch for the tail end of a bet. A little extra emphasis usually means a weak or vulnerable hand. This turns out to be one of the most profitable tells in poker, but one of the hardest to spot. You need to really practice observing. The reason it’s hard to see the tail end of the bet is because you’re apt to be overwhelmed by the more obvious motion.
After awhile, you’re get used to watching for a little extra push with the tip of the fingers. It’s very subtle, and when you see it you can safely call with a medium-strong hand. You’re facing either a bluff or a daring bet from a less than stellar hand. Psychologically, the bettor reasoned that he needed that subtle extra emphasis to make his hand seem stronger than it is.
- Watch to see how much general motion an opponent is normally comfortable with. If that opponent is quite jittery, taps his foot, shakes his legs, drums his fingers, shifts around in his chair, or shows other signs of life, you should be concerned if the opponent bets and continues in this mode.
Players who are normally animated and continue to fidget after a bet are generally comfortable with their hands.
Players who suddenly freeze are often bluffing. This holds true for humming, whistling, and talking, too. When it stops, that’s often a bluff or a weak hands. If it doesn’t stop, beware.
- Finally, I’m going to remind you again: Listen to the breathing! This is the main indicator of whether many opponents are bluffing. Watch for heavy breathing. That’s almost always a sign of a strong hand. Breath holding, though, means weakness.
That was the essence of Tuesday classroom session #1. In upcoming columns, I’ll review some of the other lessons. Gotta go now. We’ll talk later. – MC