Note: Not at the old Poker1 site. A version of this entry was first published (2007) in Poker Player newspaper.
I’m not sure what to say, except that it’s difficult to access my reservoir of poker knowledge, research, and statistics without my regular computer at my side. Usually, even when I’m on the road, I can link up to my central computer whenever I need to. But right now I can’t, even though I’m home.
Wanna know what happened? OK, I installed the newest Windows operating system (Vista) on day one of its release. Usually these upgrades go smoothly, but something very weird happened and after 40 hours of installation attempts, I’m left with nothing. I have backups of my data, obviously, but it will take a great deal of time to get a complicated fresh new system up and running.
The meltdown was unexpected and catastrophic. But that’s enough moaning — I’m sure you’ve already extended all the empathy I should expect. You have your own problems to deal with, right? On with the show.
There are probably about 50 facets of poker that I can cover thoroughly without accessing research, and poker tells are my favorite such topic. We haven’t visited the big picture regarding poker tells in ages.
So, consider this a partial refresher course if you’re already familiar with my basic tell teachings. And, if you’re new to this aspect of poker psychology, make sure you think about the following list next time you play poker.
1. Be aware that learning tells can be dangerous for many players. That’s because most people have a natural urge to call bets. They’d rather play hands than fold. Because of this, players who aren’t objective are eager to look for and exaggerate the importance of tells that prompt them to call. They also pretend not to see tells that suggest that they should fold.
If you use tells in that matter, you’re doing yourself a disservice and you might be better off not understanding tells at all.
2. Even if you’re an objective observer, tells won’t allow you to win by themselves. You need a solid understanding of poker strategy and tactics to win. Beyond that, tells can help you fare much better. In fact, for top winning players, tells and related psychology can account for the majority of profit.
3. The main concept governing tells, which I defined in Caro’s Book of Tells – The Body Language of Poker about 25 years ago, is that opponents are either acting or they aren’t. And they’re acting more often than you think.
This is because poker forces them into an situation much different from the real world. Poker mandates that they seldom relate the truth about their hands. When they do provide the truth, it is usually for deceptive reasons, with the hope that opponents will think they’re lying.
When I say “lying,” I’m not necessarily talking about words. More often, poker players lie through their mannerisms and body language. That’s what the science of reading tells is all about.
Sometimes players aren’t aware of the signals they’re conveying. In that case they’re not acting and the tells they exhibit are much different.
The primary point is that your main job in reading tells is to determine whether opponents are acting. If they are, decide what they’re trying to get you to do and disappoint them.
4. When players are acting, they invariably try to seem weak when they hold strong hands and strong when they hold weak hands. Sometimes, especially against skilled players, the resulting tells will be subtle or even deceptive in unexpected ways. But that truth always remains constant — strong means weak, weak means strong.
5. An example of an acted tell is a discouraged shoulder shrug. This is an attempt to show sadness and means the hand is actually strong.
You might think that only weak opponents will resort to that blatant a tell. But that’s wrong. I see shoulder shrugs during televised poker main events, coming from top pros. The shrugs, in those cases, are less exaggerated. They’re more a suggestion of a shrug that wasn’t followed through, one that was aborted early. But the tell remains, nonetheless, and it leads to pure profit.
6. Another example of an acted tell is when an opponent looks away from the approaching action, seeming to be uninterested in the pot. This quite often means that player will raise.
7. An example of an involuntary (non-acted) tell is the shaking hand, which we’ve discussed before. The sudden shaking means a release of tension after the favorable outcome becomes certain. Bluffers bolster themselves, become rigid, and don’t tremble. Contrary to what many intuitively think, sudden shaking when wagering indicates a strong hand — almost never a bluff.
8. Another example of an involuntary tell is shallow breathing – or sometimes no breathing at all. This indicates that the bettor is afraid to do anything to trigger your call. It usually means a weak hand or a bluff.
And that basically should get you started with tells. We’ll explore more profound aspects of tells in the future, along with other poker analysis. But for that we’ll wait until my main computer has been resurrected. In lieu of flowers, please send your donations to the Microsoft Research Labs, Installation Department. — MC