Note: Not at the old Poker1 site. A version of this entry was first published (2011) in Poker Player newspaper.
In real-world poker games, tells can account for most of your profit. But in order to take advantage, you need to watch closely. And you need to know what to watch. Today’s self-interview provides some advice and some secrets.
Question 1: How can tells account for most of your profit? Isn’t that an exaggeration?
It would be an exaggeration and a falsehood had I said that tells will account for most of your profit. Instead, I said they can. But it’s sort of a parlor trick using words.
Here’s the deal. Let’s say you’re a fairly sophisticated player who can overcome the rake and break exactly even. You’ve overcome obstacles. And you should be proud.
Fine. But let’s say you did it without knowing anything about tells. Now you study and practice tells and find yourself making $35 an hour. Well, it’s reasonable to assume that your entire profit is being made by tells. If you were previously losing $10 an hour and now make $15 an hour, then your entire profit plus $10 an hour is accounted for by tells. If you had been earning $28 an hour and you now earn $40 an hour, then tells account for $12 an hour – not most of your profit, but still a large chunk of it.
So, how much of your profit from tells depends on how well you play without them and how efficiently you use them. They might only cut your losses. Or they might quadruple your winnings, if you move from $50 an hour to $200 an hour.
Question 2: I’m having trouble spotting tells. Why can’t I see them?
It’s probably because you’re looking at too many things and too many opponents at once. Try focusing on just one player at a time. After you’ve learned to spot some tells, you’ll automatically see more without concentrating on those players.
Question 3: In your book on tells, you say that you should first determine whether an opponent is acting. But, how do I know if an opponent is acting?
Try to determine if every action and every comment is necessary. When opponents are acting, in an effort to deceive you, they’ll do and say things that aren’t required to perform their call, bet, raise, or check.
Whatever those unnecessary actions or words, they usually represent an attempt to deceive you. So, at that point, your job is to determine what these actors are trying to convince you to do and disappoint them.
Another clue as to whether opponents are acting revolves around the likelihood that they think you’re watching. If you seem to be looking at the flop, they’re not likely to act to deceive you at that moment. If they think they’re being scrutinized, any movements are more likely to be an act.
Opponents who convey sadness or uncertainty by shrugging, sighing, or using sad voices are acting weak – on purpose. They usually hold strong hands. Players who bet and stay motionless are often afraid of doing anything to make you suspicious and are likely to be bluffing.
When a player isn’t acting, look for involuntary tells. A trembling hand, for instance, is almost always an involuntary reaction after having made a strong hand. It’s unlikely to be either a bluff or an act. Seldom call.
Question 4: So, what’s your method for watching tells?
I don’t really have a single method. But I have an attitude. You need to understand that there might not be any obvious tells. Accept the fact that you’re not going to spot tells every hand. If you only are confident about a couple tells an hour, on average, you’re still going to make significantly more money than you would by not watching for them. That’s the right attitude.
Something that might be considered a method is to do what we’ve already discussed while you’re learning to spot tells: Focus on just one player at a time. If that opponent doesn’t turn out to be a good tell candidate, move on to someone else.
One “method” I have for finding tells in difficult situations is to observe opponents when they don’t think they’re being watched. Then, suddenly, make it known that you are watching. This often makes the opponents uneasy and you’ll see attempts to manifest tells – which are always an act. When you see the change – if you do – remember that strong acts indicate weakness and weak acts indicate strength.
Question 5: What are some mistakes common to watching tells?
It’s a mistake to act immediately after spotting a tell. Hesitate and then seem unsure. That way the opponent is less likely to associate your action with the tell. If you act immediately, the opponent often will remember the action and might think you’re calling for that reason. If so, he might not repeat that tell reliably and you’ll lose future profit from its use.
It’s also a mistake to give up when you don’t spot a tell in a crucial pot – especially after an opponent has made a big bet. If he’s bluffing, he’s under pressure. So, interact. Talk. Feign the start of a call. Anything. If he remains animated, he’s probably got a big hand. If his actions diminish or he freezes, that’s usually an indication that the opponents are conducting themselves as if to keep a snake from striking. In other words, they don’t want you to call and are hoping that nothing they do will tempt you. So, they do nothing. You won’t often spot tells like that unless you do something to elicit them.
Question 6: Is there any value in tells if you don’t watch for them?
Sure. Some of the most valuable tells are audible. You don’t watch these, you listen. In a way, you can sometimes beat poker with your eyes closed.
Listen for sighs. These are an act that indicate strength. Listen for humming. If an opponent bets and you start to call, the humming will often cease if it’s a bluff, but continue if it isn’t. Also, listen to the breathing. If you hear it, it’s probably not a bluff. If an opponent seems to stop breathing audibly, it often is a bluff.
And sad voices mean strong hands.
Question 7: Will watching for tells help any player win more money?
No. In fact, most players who try to incorporate tells into their poker games fail.
They invent tells that bolster the choice they want to make. They weigh tells too heavily, instead of considering them to be just one of many factors in making a decision. And, mostly, they have a bias toward calling. Therefore, they ignore tells that would prompt them to fold and mentally exaggerate tells that allow them to call.
All these things are dangerous. You might be better off not trying to use tells at all than to use them like that.
In poker, tells surround us. But they don’t have value unless we watch responsibly.— MC