McHaffie: MCU lesson 036 / Listening for Tells

Note: Not at the old Poker1 site. A version of this entry was first published in Poker Player newspaper in 2004.

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 36: Listening for Tells

According to my mentor, Mike Caro, tells and psychology combine to account for most of your profit at the poker table. It’s necessary to understand poker basics before concentrating on tells. When you first begin, you’re too busy keeping up with the game and understanding everything going on. You may find it difficult at first to carefully scrutinize your opponents for tells. When you’re ready to try, watch only one player at a time.

Mike says you need to fully understand the strategic concepts needed to win at poker. Most of the things that he teaches are more advanced and can produce the major part of your profit. However, if you don’t understand the fundamental concepts of winning poker, it’s going to be difficult to succeed. It is absolutely necessary to understand the basics first.

Be alert

Mike said I should warn you about that, so I did. Now, we’ll talk about tells that can be profitable, but you can’t see. They’re ones that you can hear. Always be alert and listen. Sounds can be just as telling as visible actions. There are sighs, humming, whistling, chattering, clacking, sounding sad or weak, and sounding strong. These are excellent tells that you could win with, even with your eyes closed.

You should also listen for what the player is saying, when the players says it, how the player says it, and what the player isn’t saying. This is very important. If players use an antagonistic tone of voice, their hands are usually strong. They’re seldom bluffing. If they say “I bet” in a sad voice, they most likely have strong hands, so beware.

If a player is chatting in a conversational way about something that isn’t related to poker, he is comfortable with his hand and probably isn’t bluffing. This is another way for the player to appear uninterested in what you are doing when he’s holding a strong hand.

Often, if a player who hasn’t had a lot to say, suddenly starts making conversation as you’re about to bet or call, he’s desperate to have you rethink your move.

Talking strangely

If a player who’s been talking, suddenly stops, or starts talking strangely, then he probably has a weak hand and is worried about what you’re going to do. This is your chance to capitalize from his show of stress.

When your opponent is acting happy and friendly in a natural way, he usually isn’t worried about his hand – either he already knows he isn’t going to call or his hand can be played comfortably. But if that happy and friendly demeanor seems like a forced act, he’s probably vulnerable – and you can bet more hands profitably. If the opponent is avoiding conversation he’s more likely to be bluffing. If an opponent has been whistling or humming and he stops in the face of a bet or after betting, he’s usually bluffing or weak.

On those rare occasions when players actually tell you that they have good hands, they probably do. They are proud that they got lucky and can’t wait to say, “See, I told you so.”

Breathing is another good tell. Often, people who bluff have difficulty breathing naturally and will sometimes hold their breath. If players are holding strong hands, they often breathe louder and more rapidly.

If a player is carrying on a stilted conversation after he has bet, he’s usually bluffing. He’s having difficulties concentrating on the conversation knowing his bet is in danger. Here’s an opportunity for you.

Mike’s important tip

Mike says that one of the most important tips is when you’re considering a chancy bet for value, look away, close your eyes and listen. If an opponent has bluffed, he will usually be quiet. But the one to beware of is the player that hasn’t bet. He’s waiting for you to make a move and he’s unusually quiet so as not to intimidate you. This generally means he’s waiting to make his move, and you won’t like it. So, Mike says, don’t bet! — DM

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