Tells are dead, long live tells

This article first appeared in Card Player magazine.


ENTRY A: “Tell for today” and odds gone forever?

For more than a year, this column has been accompanied by two extra features: Tell for Today and America’s Brain Trust Odds. Today, I’m suspending those to concentrate on other projects. What other projects? Good question.

This short intro (“Entry A”) to the tells segment appeared in the original column and remains here purely for historical purposes.  Please skip down to “Entry B,” if it doesn’t interest you.

The main thing I’ll be devoting my time to is completing the final seven issues of my Pro Poker newsletter. When I launched this in 1993, I promised to produce one issue each month. This turned out to be the most ill-considered, un-mad-genius-like undertaking of my life, as I struggled to personally do the research necessary for each issue. Embarrassed by the long extreme delays, I’ve decided to put all other personal projects on hold until I get these issues of Pro Poker out the door. After issue #14, Pro Poker will either die or become a quarterly newsletter, shipped on time, every time.

In cutting back on my workload, I’ve talked with Linda Johnson, Card Player publisher, and decided to stop the tell and odds features, unless there’s significant objection from readers.

One project I’ll still be working on in addition to the newsletter will be the revised version of Doyle Brunson’s Super/System – A Course In Power Poker. Although most players still consider Brunson’s book (now in its seventh printing) the bible of professional poker, he has decided to update and add to it. Look for the new Super/System late in 1997 or early 1998. If you have anything you’d like to see in the new edition, contact me, and I’ll pass your suggestions along to Doyle.

This entry was written circa 1995. The newsletter no longer exists, and Doyle Brunson’s Super/System 2 finally appeared in 2005.

ENTRY B: Some tells we didn’t talk about.
In the Tell for Today feature, we were walking our way though Mike Caro’s Book of Tells page by page. Tells are merely mannerisms, often body language, that, when correctly interpreted, allow you to determine what type of hand your opponent is holding. It’s magic. Sometimes your poor opponent might as well turn his cards face up on the table! Beyond fundamental strategy, tells are the most powerful and profitable weapon available to any poker warrior.

There are two types of tells: tells for those who are unaware, and tells from actors. Tells from those who are unaware are things like neatly stacked chips and slumped posture. Tells from actors are the more profitable category, and they include things like deliberate sighs, misdirected bets, and reaching for chips out of turn.

We’re suspending the series in the section of the book still dealing with involuntary tells from those who are unaware. If I ever revive the series, you’ll see the photos and detailed explanations. But today, I’d like to pick a few of the tells from the rest of the book and present them briefly.

Some favorite other tells.
Lets talk about tells from actors. Remember, opponents will typically act opposite of the true strength of their hands. This means, trying to seem weak with a strong hand and strong with a weak hand.

Here are three favorites:

  • Shrugs. When you see an opponent shrug his shoulders and bet, you need to interpret the shrug. Try to put the gesture into words. It means, “I’m not sure, but I’ll take a chance.” But since shrugging is an act designed to deceive you, always consider that the opponent is trying to convey indecision and weakness and is therefore very strong. Be reluctant to call a shrugged bet. Note that the shrug does not need to be obvious. Especially among experienced players, you’ll seldom see an exaggerated shrug. More often you’ll see a movement so slight that is merely the suggestion of a shrug. Learn to interpret this and seldom call.
  • Inching toward their chips as you bet. Be very aware of your opponent’s fingers as you make your bet. Often you’ll be thinking about making a borderline bet with a marginal hand. Should you or shouldn’t you? Well, players who hold weak hands often act as if they’re eager to call by letting their fingers slide slightly toward their chips as you begin to bet. When you see this, your bet is usually safe. Your opponent is trying to subtly discourage you from betting. If, instead, you see the fingers holding the cards start to inch toward the discards, this is dangerous. Your opponent is trying to encourage your bet. What should you do? Want a quick tip that’s easy to remember? Do this: Complete that marginal bet when your opponent is discouraging it by inching toward his chips. Abandon that marginal bet when your opponent is encouraging it by inching toward the discards.
  • Extra emphasis. This is among the hardest-to-understand tells I teach, and you’ll have to practice observing it at the table. When an opponent bets with slight extra emphasis at the tail-end of a bet, it’s often a bluff. I’m not talking about a whole betting motion with exaggerated emphasis. Those can be designed to lure your call. I’m talking about a routine, almost casual bet that isn’t designed to intimidate or lure you. Suddenly that bet finishes with a subtle flare, a little extra force, often a flick of the fingers. This happens when your opponent is weak or bluffing and feels the need to add something extra on the end. Tend to call these bets.

I hope you’ve found helpful the tells series that accompanied this column for the last year. And to those few experts who have asserted that tells don’t add much value to their game, I agree. Tells don’t add much value to their game. — MC

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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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