McHaffie: MCU lesson 005 / Basic 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 McHaffie

Lessons from MCU

— With bonus content by Mike Caro (pending) —

Lesson 5: Basic Tells

Sometimes, I “people watch”at the mall, instead of shopping. There’s a wide variety of people, and they all have different ways of dressing, walking, and little traits that set them apart from others. In my latest lesson at MCU, Mike informed me that studying people would also be an important factor in playing poker successfully.

In a long line leading to the cash register, a lady stands impatiently with her arms crossed, tapping her foot. In poker, as in the mall, people have subtle (sometimes not-so-subtle) mannerisms that give away their secrets. These are what we call tells, and that is what I’m witnessing from this woman. She is impatient and frustrated at the wasted time.

Everyday tells

Then, I notice a teenager standing near a CD rack. He is glancing about him with shifty eyes, his hands in the huge pockets of his baggy jeans. His eyes are telling a story of their own. At any moment, I expect him to slide a CD from the rack neatly into his pocket, thinking no one is going to see. Only when he notices my presence does he walk away.

These are tells that you can witness every day outside of poker. However, tells are even more important and more pronounced in a poker game. In poker, opponents will often act opposite of the truth, so as to deceive you. Once you realize this, it makes it easier to read them.

Poker players are always making movements or behaving in certain ways, whether they are betting, checking, calling, or bluffing.  You should always watch an opponent’s movements and behavior. It’s an important part of being a successful, winning poker player.

How tells work

What is an opponent’s behavior during a game? What tells are you going to notice? Only the newest players tend to react excitedly and with eagerness if they have a good hand and will slouch, flick their cards or mumble sadly to themselves when they have a bad hand.

Experienced players (even after a few hours of playing) usually will try to be deceptive in their movements. Mike says, they tend to act consistent with what they want you to think, which is always inconsistent with the cards they actually hold.

Watch your opponents carefully, even if you have folded and are not participating in the current hand. This allows you time to observe them without being under pressure and spot telltale mannerisms that they use.

  • Crossed arms are a defensive gesture, not usually indicating a strong hand.
  • A heavy, sad sigh is an indication that the hand your opponent is holding is not nearly as bad as he would have you think it is.
  • If the opponent is looking studious, he probably doesn’t have a very good hand.
  • If you see a player acting like he isn’t interested in the pot, he usually has a strong hand.
  • If your opponent is looking away from you as if about to pass when it isn’t his turn yet, he probably is trying to encourage you to bet. He often holds a strong hand and wants you to bet your hand so that he can raise.

Don’t fall for these acts.

You see, you can witness tells in everyday life or in poker. From the mall to the poker table, tells are a part of everyone’s mannerisms. Try people watching for a while and see how many tells you can read?  — DM

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