Poker’s most revealing and misinterpreted tell

Note: Not at the old Poker1 site. A version of this entry was originally published (2006) in Casino Player.

There are a lot of things people instinctively get backwards when speculating about winning poker strategy. For instance, non-expert players think the battle is about winning pots, but it isn’t.

In fact, it’s easy to win an impressive number of pots. Just play lots and lots of hands. If you play unprofitable hands, you’ll lose money on them overall, but sometimes you’ll get lucky and win a pot. At least you give yourself a chance to win that pot. But giving yourself a chance to win a pot is a bad thing if the value isn’t there.

Let me tell you a secret: The pursuit of poker profit is mostly about getting value, not about winning pots. Getting value. Winning pots isn’t a goal at all. It’s a side-effect that just happens sometimes when you play profitably.

While we’re talking about poker strategy that many players get wrong, what about the intuitive notion that you need to bluff more often when pots are big. That’s backwards, too. You should call more often when pots are large relative to the bet size, but you should bluff less often. That’s another lesson for another day. The point is that there are lots of things that seem logical in poker, but aren’t.

An important tell

And, today, I want to talk about this bit of backwards poker thinking: A player who is bluffing is nervous and you’ll often see his hand shaking. Ah, the old “shaking hand tell.” And, indeed, it is a tell – an important one. But it almost never means what many players think it does.

You see, when players bluff, they bolster themselves. They’re afraid that they’re being scrutinized and that anything they do out of the ordinary will make their opponents suspicious and result in a dreaded call. What do I mean when I say, “they bolster themselves”? I mean that they crawl inside their quiet shell. They try not to move. In their attempt to resemble statues, their muscles are often frozen. Overall, they are rigid. Like stones.

Frequently, even their breathing is held back. They struggle to breathe softly, silently, unnoticeably. Sometimes they scarcely breathe at all.

Right on the money

Over the years, I’ve had hundreds of enlightening dialogs with my readers. Most of those readers are quite smart, even brilliant.

I know they sometimes carefully examine, even challenge, what I write to make sure it’s logical and reasonable. I’m glad they do that – and, I hope, usually they decide that what they’re reading is right on the money.

But right now, I’m guessing you’re not challenging the way I’ve just described the behavior of bluffers. I’m betting that you’re accepting it readily. Do you want to know why I think so?


The reason I’m pretty sure you’re not challenging my description of bluffers is that you relate to it. You’ve done exactly what I described. We all have. When we bluff, we know we’re targets and that opponents are more likely to shoot at us if we give them reasons. And we don’t want them to shoot; we don’t want them to call our bluffs. We just want them to go away quietly.

And, so, we do almost nothing. We freeze. We scarcely exist in those moments while our fate is decided.

But something else really remarkable happens. Because players become rigid, because they bolster themselves, they do not allow their hands to shake. They apply an artificial pressure to their fingers or lock them together or support them against each other. Bluffers don’t want to be seen shaking.

What it means

So, if you do see a hand trembling, what does it mean? Invariably, it means just one thing. It means the suspense is over and the outcome was very positive for the player who is trembling. What you’re witnessing is a release of tension. You are not – repeat not – confronting fear or nervousness.

That opponent is not worried. That opponent has made an extremely powerful hand.

Of course, this tell doesn’t apply to someone who is always trembling, possibly due to health issues. It only applies to someone who is normally steady, but suddenly begins to shake.


So, add the suddenly shaking hand as something many poker players interpret backwards. I’ll say it again: It’s not nervousness, it’s not fright, it’s not weakness, and it’s not a bluff. It’s almost always a very powerful hand.

Therefore, when you see a player (who was previously steady) suddenly bet with a trembling hand, don’t call unless you have a huge hand also.

If you’re still in doubt, start observing this tell at the tables. You’ll soon discover how accurate the tell is. And you can quickly earn a lot of extra profit by ignoring how you might instinctively interpret it and acting, instead, in accordance with its true meaning. — 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.


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  1. Interesting. I noticed this a few years ago and I decided the player was intentionally shaking to induce a call. I folded and asked him later and he confirmed my suspicion. I have since used this tactic occasionally when I make a large bet with a strong hand and want a call.

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