Manufacturing tells

Note: Not at the old Poker1 site. A version of this entry was originally published (2011) in Bluff magazine under the same title.

So I get this mysterious phone call.

“This is Mike,” I tell the handset.

“I can’t stand it!” some guy rants.

“Who are you?” I want to know.

“Nobody you’d know, but I read all your stuff. I got your number from a friend. It takes three minutes to play a hand. I timed it. Live poker is so boring! I hate it. I mean, really, I can’t stand it!” he repeats.

“I understand what you’re saying,” I soothe. “But who are you?”

“Just another online player… well, formerly an online player. Now that the government has ruined that for us, I’m trying to play poker in casinos. But it’s so slow. How do you do it? How can you sit there without squirming?”

“I think you’ll find there are some positive things about playing poker face-to-face, like –”

“Oh, bullshit! That’s total bullshit! I can’t stand it! Goodbye.” And he hangs up.

I guess I’ll never know who that was. A prankster paid by Doyle Brunson? Some stranger who needed to vent? Who knows?


Clearly, online poker specialists returning to real-world cardrooms need our patience and reassurance. It’s an alien world they face. New deals previously happened every few seconds, depending on the number of tables they challenged at once.

Not now. Not anymore. If you’re playing no-limit, some hands can take more than five minutes to complete. Average hands take over two minutes. Even in limit games, you’re only likely to beat that two-minute average by a whisker.

What does this mean? It means that online play has distorted the nature of poker. Online competition made poker different than anything it had ever been before, killing its spirit and shattering its very soul. Too dramatic? Fine. In some ways, online poker isn’t like real-world poker. How’s that?

Look, I like online poker. I was the first well-known poker player to endorse a real-money Internet site (Planet Poker) in 1998. I’m proud that I saw that future coming. And I’ve been involved in that industry ever since. However, saying that online poker is just regular poker played with a computer is misguided. In fact, it’s a lie.

A big difference is that online poker took away one of the key causes of bad play. In the real-world, as my unidentified phone caller pointed out, hands come slowly. You need patience. Online poker negated the requirement that poker players be patient. If you’re a serious, skillful, and patient player, then a great portion of your real-world profit comes from opponents who can’t stand to wait. Like the guy on the phone.

Online, you can play many tables at the same time, and there’s almost always a hand coming your way before you can grow restless and play something inferior. Sure, players still enter pots with substandard hands, but not so much because of the agony of waiting. It’s more of a showing-off thing, or just getting caught up in the thrill of the action. In real-world poker, some players hate to fold, because that means they’ll be sitting out for minutes at a time with nothing to do.

Slow speed means profit

That single factor makes the slower speed of casino poker more profitable. If hands came instantly, players wouldn’t be impatient and they would be more likely to fold weak ones. So, be glad that real-world poker has a leisurely pace. If you’re patient, that will work in your favor.

Here’s the other big difference: Online poker drastically reduces the importance of psychology. Traditional poker is a war among people. It’s about getting inside the minds of opponents. Poker was once the perfect blend of strategy and psychology. It balanced pre-planned tactics with adjustments made to leverage opposing emotions. That balance vanished online. Poker is still a great game on the Internet, but the limited social interaction reduces skill.

In particular, tells are absent. You can talk about online tells that deal with button pushes and timing. And that’s okay. But those tells represent a weak force when compared to the science of real-world tells.


And that brings us to today’s advice for those willing to invest the patience necessary for making the online to real-world transition. Tells mean a lot of profit. But don’t give up if you don’t spot one.

You can actually manufacture tells, when none are present. How? Lots of ways, but let’s talk about these two.

First, when you can’t read opponents, try engaging them in conversation. Why? Because you’re listening for babble. Babble means opponents are weak and worried. This is especially true of players who have just bet. Then, if they don’t want you to call, they may try to seem unconcerned by keeping up a friendly banter with you. But guess what? Their words won’t ring true. Their conversation will seem stilted or even incoherent. That’s because they’re under poker pressure. They’re bluffing.

However, opponents who have strong hands are able to engage in casual conversation, and the talk will seem natural. So, if you can’t spot a tell, try to force conversation. Babble means weakness. Normal talk means strength.

Another way to manufacture a tell after an opponent bets is to reach toward your chips. If you can make an opponent stiffen or stop doing almost anything, you’re probably against a bluff and should complete the call. That’s because bluffers are afraid to do things that make you suspicious. When faced with the danger of being called, they freeze.

It’s a natural reaction, and one you won’t see unless you provoke it.

So, if you’re moving to real-world poker from online, these are my two tips for today. One, there’s profit in patience, so instead of being irritated by the slow pace and phoning me to complain, just calm down and take the money. Two, if you don’t spot a tell, try to manufacture one. — 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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