Great mistakes in poker tells

Note: Not at the old Poker1 site. A version of this entry was originally published (2009) in Bluff magazine.

Twenty-five years later, the words still echo in my brain. Sammy was one of my earliest students, if you could call him that.

I didn’t really have students back then, just an occasional wannabe professional who shadowed me from table to table and begged for advice. Sammy was about my age, but less mature. When I say less mature, you might wonder how that was possible, since I didn’t act in a particularly mature manner myself, in those days.

Everything was a giggle to me. Life was a big giggle. Money was another giggle. Romance was a constant giggle spiced with heartbreak.


Bankrolls zoomed up and collapsed without any disciplined guidance from me. Girlfriends came by night, pledging lifelong devotion, and left by morning. In my quest for attention, I sometimes said things to people that were inappropriate for the situations.

But I never said anything quite so stupid as the words that blurted from Sammy’s mouth as he sat across the table from me. “I’m going to call you,” he proudly announced to a weak, regular player. “Every time you bluff, you stop humming!” And he called as promised. And he won.

So, since we’re visiting the great mistakes in poker tells today, let’s categorize this type of blunder as pride.

Mistake #1 — Showing pride in tells

Listen. Tells are dangerous things.

And I’m not talking about how your own tells can cost you. Basically, you can forget about that fear, because most weak players aren’t going to zone in correctly on your tells, anyway. In fact, I recommend that you voluntarily risk exhibiting tells by acting in ways designed to manipulate opponents.

But let’s leave that discussion for another day. Tells are dangerous because most players who study them end up losing money through misuse.

One way to misuse tells is to show pride in your mastery. The secret is to act as if you never see anything. Don’t let opponents know you’re scrutinizing them. You might even speak disdainfully of tells. Blurt something like, “Tells are overrated. I just count my chips. That’s the only tell I care about.”

Ego boost

Whatever you do, don’t declare what an opponent did wrong and then act on the tell. That’s what Sammy did. He gained a momentary ego boost by announcing how smart he was. But he paid a large price, because his opponent kept humming the next time he bluffed. And that cost me, too. Scratch Sammy from my list of teacher’s pets.

By the way, the humming tell fits into a group of mannerisms that apply to bluffers. Whether they’re chatting, tapping their fingers, or whistling, the action is apt to disappear as soon as they bluff and are faced with a possible call. It’s a natural self-preservation reaction — trying to become invisible so as not to invite the call. Sammy wasted a great tell on a single shot.

If you have skill at reading opponents, you must disguise it. Never show pride in it; never brag.

Mistake #2 — Finding phantom tells

It’s easy to invent tells that aren’t really there. Novice students of tells tend to convince themselves that opponents’ mannerisms mean something. Often they don’t. You’ve got to approach tells objectively. Solid tells are rare.

You might only see one or two really compelling tells an hour. There will be other tells, sure. But they’ll typically be weaker and more dubious.

During most hands, expect to see no reliable tells. You’ve got to live with that fact. One of the biggest mistakes you can make is to be governed by phantom tells and make decisions in accordance with them. You’d be better off ignoring tells altogether than to imagine ones that validate decisions you’re stubbornly leaning toward making.

Look for real tells — especially ones that are contrary to your preconceptions. And that brings us to…

Mistake #3 — Ignoring the folding tells

Players sit at a poker table hoping to play hands, and they have a bias toward calling. They don’t drive miles to a casino or even log-in online hoping to fold. They want action. It’s only natural. There is profit buried in this obvious truth.

Your opponents’ biggest flaw is that they play too many hands and call too often. They surrender to the urge to see action, rather than make decisions objectively. In fact, most of your profit comes from opponents who play hands they shouldn’t and call weakly. Fine. But, you too are apt to be a victim of this same urge.

When it comes to tells, you’re apt to overestimate the value of ones that invite you to call and ignore ones that suggest you should fold. If you use tells in that manner, you’re making a great mistake. That mistake is so common and so serious that if you can’t shake the habit, you’ll probably make more money by just ignoring tells altogether.

Mistake #4 — Reacting too soon

When you spot a tell, don’t act on it immediately. Pretend to ponder. I’m not asking you to slow down your game by wasting 15 seconds of everyone’s time as a drama queen. Just hesitate for a few seconds and then call or fold reluctantly, in accordance with the tell.

You’ll accomplish a lot by doing this. Your opponent will be less likely to link the mannerism that defines the tell to your decision. That means the opponent won’t be apt to fix the tell, and you can reuse it again and again in the future.

The method you should use is to seem to be oblivious of the tell, hesitate, then act as if uncertain. By the way, this behavior differs from what I recommend otherwise. If you’re uncertain, act confidently — call and fold crisply and decisively. This helps you maintain a commanding image.

But when you spot a dead-certain tell, the value of disguising your accomplishment overwhelms the value of image enhancement. Reacting too soon to a powerful tell is a mistake.

Mistake #5 — Overvaluing tells

The biggest mistake is overvaluing tells when making a decision. Don’t read me wrong. The value of tells is huge. But few tells are 100 percent accurate. They’re key indicators that should add weight to your evaluation.

A tell should be weighed no differently than any other factor leading to your decision. Did the opponent raise before the flop? Is there a possible flush? Does this opponent tend to slow play hands? What is the size of the pot relative to the amount of your call? These are all things to be given either positive or negative value when deciding what to do.

Now you add the tell. The stronger it is, the more weight you give it. But if you’re pretty certain you should fold before factoring in the tell, then a weak indication that an opponent might be bluffing isn’t enough to change your decision. It makes your fold less certain, but not enough to call.

Usually tells only provide clues; they don’t dictate your decision. — MC

Published by

Mike Caro

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Known as the “Mad Genius of Poker,” Mike Caro is generally regarded as today's foremost authority on poker strategy, psychology, and statistics. He is the founder of Mike Caro University of Poker, Gaming, and Life Strategy (MCU). See full bio → HERE.


14 thoughts on “Great mistakes in poker tells”

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  1. I could not agree more. I spent a few years in poker really studying tells very closely, and I greatly improved my ability to read people. What happened is that I occasionally made a really good call or a really good fold, but I think in the long run I lost sight of the mathematics of the game too much. I started trying to guess exactly what people had rather than putting them on ranges of hands based on their behavior.

    When I played more based on hand ranges, and just augmented this with tells rather than being all in on tells, I became a more consistently winning player.

  2. Mike – love the blog. I always learn a great deal
    A question about a recent game I had trouble in.
    I'm a reasonable solid but not superstar player who generally wins when facing tight agressive and weak players.  I have a regular game full of such players along with a few LAGs.  I play the LAGs as you say, checking and calling more often, and usually have success.
    Today I played a 2-5 game where the entire table was very loose and very aggressive, with preflop raises of 15-35 dollars most hands, with multiple callers.  In many cases people were calling raises with medium holdings at best (ie K8).  Furthermore, most players were sitting behind 1000-1500 dollars.
    I tried to just play tight and let people bet into me when I had solid holdings, but in the end I busted out.  I doubled up on a few big hands, but ultimately there were so many callers betting huge amount that I almost always had to fold. Several times when I connected with the flop after being strong pre-flop, one of the many callers beat me with two pair or trips or some such.  Overall it seemed that the table was there to gamble and the person who got the most good cards was going to win the money.
    So how does one play this?  I really want your thoughts, but here were mine.
    A) don't play it at all and play the game I know I can win at, even though the action here could potentially lead to huge wins.
    B) if I were going to play it, buy in for much more so I can play more speculatively with greater implied odds.  if I didn't want to do this, then A.
    C) really screw down super super tight and play only very strong hands in position.
    D) try C, find it too boring, and go to A.
    In reality I tried C, found it too boring, played some not super tight hands, and busted out.
    Most damaging hand of night was  KQc out of position, flop comes three small cards, paired board, two clubs.  I check, he bets, I check-raise more than the size of the pot, he calls with no pair ace high flush draw, wins with only ace high when no flush comes.   Same guy doubled me up when I had pocket aces earlier in the night.

    1. Hi, Nicholas — Thanks for making your first comment and joining our Poker1 family.

      There was a glitch in our comment system that prevented your first-time post from being forwarded to us for review. Since this one has now been made public, all your future comments will appear immediately. We apologize for the four-day delay.

      Now about your comment itself…

      First, please don't fall into the common habit of analyzing a loss to exhaustion. The most likely reason is bad luck. And in a game against loose-aggressive opponents, fluctuations can be large and losses common. But you can still win in the long run.

      Regarding your A-B-C-D possible solutions…

      I like A, assuming you're feeling uncomfortable — especially if there are better games available or on the horizon. Otherwise, stay the course.

      I don't like B as much, unless you feel you have full command of this game. Shorter stacks actually have an advantage sometimes. If you have a huge bankroll and significant advantages when opponents move all in — or you believe you can win many pots by, for instance, pushing back with check raises on the river — then you might try buying many chips. Otherwise, don't.

      You can win by using C, but probably not as much as you would by loosening up a bit.

      And D seems rhetorical (and funny), so I'll leave it be.

      Straight Flushes,

      Mike Caro



  3. I just wanted to add something I have used in the past, meaning that after playing online "poker" I have become less and less of a winning player due to online being more of a game of computer tricks rather than cards, but odds can easier be explained by counting outs and deciding" if I saw 29 (insert appropriate number here) cards face down on the table and I picked up one, what's the chance that the one is the card I need?"

    1. Hi, Mike —

      I agree that online poker is more in harmony with cold tactics and math and, to a small degree, comfort with a computer.

      I'm not sure I understand your odds question. If there are 29 unknown cards and only one would help you, then the odds would be 28-to-1 against helping. But I'm guessing that's not the answer you're seeking.

      Thanks for making your first comment and joining our Poker1 family.

      Straight Flushes,

      Mike Caro


  4. Or you can do what a poker colleague did for me. He did me a favor, or at least I think I paid him for his advice.
    After a long and fairly entertaining session of low-limit hold’em (4/8), he racked up and headed out. Before leaving,he mentioned that I had a major tell — when I get good cards, I cover my mouth with my hand.
    He’d noticed this early in the session, and used it to his advantage(I did notice that he had some kind of a read on me, but hadn’t figured it out).

    Hey, at least he told me. Now I have something else to worry about.

  5. Hi Mike

    I enjoy your writings and thoughts….good to see a mind at work.

    My question has nothing to do with this article…..just seemed the easiest (laziest?!) way to contact you.

    Why do the standard holdem odds charts discount the fact that you most likely have less outs than they state? e.g I have AK of hearts and flop two hearts…..standard charts say there are nine more hearts in the deck (sic) which is totally unrealistic cos someone else will either have a heart(s) or fold a heart(s). Surely the standard odds quoted to make your flush are best case scenario only….and therefore unrealistic in real world?



    1. Strictly speaking, you do not know where the hearts are. Statistically speaking, you can only account for what you know. You KNOW you have 2 hearts and 2 are on the board. You know what 5 of the cards are. You have 9 outs left of the remaining 47 cards. Those cards are either in the deck or in your opponents hand. If you want to assume an average distribution at a 9 person table, between 2 and 3 other hearts will be out among the 16 remaining cards, leaving you 6 – 7 hearts out of the 31 left in the deck (18 cards in people hands plus 3 board = 21 cards. Approximately the same fraction of cards are left that are of the suit you are looking for. The odds don’t change that much in the average case. Certainly not enough to make them totally unrealistic.

      To put it another way, the odds charts say there are 9 more hearts in the 47 cards you don’t know, which is either in the deck or in other people’s hands. What would make it unrealistic is if you were counting 9 outs among the 31 cards left. But the odds calculators don’t do that. I don’t know if this helps or muddies things more.

      1. Hi Mike

        Thanks for your reply. I have done some quick maths and it appears that you are right to state that the odds don’t change that much.

        In my view the realistic way to calculate the odds is as follows:

        Assume that on the flop 7 hearts (assuming an average distribution) are already out i.e my two, plus two on the flop, plus three concealed in the other eight hands dealt. That leaves 6 hearts in the remaining undealt deck of 31 cards.

        Therefore your odds of a flushmaking heart on the turn are 6/31 = 0.193 or 19.3%
        If turn card is not a heart the odds of a heart on the river are 6/30 = 0.20 or 20%

        So overall odds of making your flush on turn OR river are 0.193 + 0.20 = 0.393 or 39.3%

        Using standard odds charts with 47 unseen cards etc the odds on turn OR river are 38.7% so no real difference in the odds!

  6. Thanks for another list Mike. I especially like the write up about not overvaluing tells. I am still developing a mental check list for each hand. Because I look for tells immediately when cards are delt, down or up, I want to make too quick a decision based solely on the tell. I will put the tell, if there is one, after other factors, position, odds and outs, checks and raises, etc.

  7. I would like to discuss the part where we exhibit tells as a form of manipulation, as it’s about 70% of my game right now, and i’m hoping I’m doing it right….

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