This article first appeared in Card Player magazine.
We haven’t talked about poker tells for a long time. Recently I revised Caro’s Book of Tells — The Body Language of Poker, and put it back into print. While I was working on that revision, I thought, reasoned, pondered, and concentrated. Sometimes I did all four at once. Pretty soon it became clear to me that there were three central reasons why most serious players never master poker tells.
Before we survey that subject and discover those three central secrets for tell failure, let’s talk a little about the theory of tells. Poker tells are all around you, but you must learn to see them. If you don’t, you’ll consider them to be like the fairies of lore, magical manifestations of minds that meander — not real, not serious, not valuable, and not verifiable by photograph. But tells are real, serious, and valuable. And you can photograph them. In fact, I did exactly that for my Book of Tells.
Poker Tells Described Simply
Let’s make a bet. I’ll bet you that the majority of typical poker players haven’t discovered one measly tell in their lifetimes that they can reliably use over and over against more than one opponent. Sure, many have spotted tells now and then. When Jack is bluffing, he often reaches for his coffee cup, grabs the handle, and stops. Stops dead. Doesn’t bring the cup to his lips. Doesn’t even lift the cup. Fine. That’s a tell.
But it’s a tell in isolation. In order to use it, you have to be playing poker against Jack. He has to have coffee nearby. He has to make this one move. And this habit must remain from session to session. That’s a problem, because most peculiar tells are just short-term habits and will soon fade as repeated mannerisms, to be replaced by others.
So, wouldn’t it be better if you knew some reliable tells that apply to Jack all the time? And why stop there? Wouldn’t it be better still if you knew some reliable tells that apply to Jack and other opponents? Is that asking for too much? Nope.
Universal tells that are shared by many, many opponents are real. They are the basis of my 25-year investigation into the science of reading body language in poker. Is it really a "science"? Maybe not, but it feels like a science and I like to say it. It sells more books, too. Where was I? OK, I remember: A lot of your opponents share tells in common.
All of these common tells arise from a single fact. That fact is: Most of your weak and average opponents are forced into an arena where they feel uncomfortable. They feel uncomfortable because they are — in effect — forced to lie about their hands. They can’t just tell you the truth or you’d always know what they hold and be able to beat them for all of their money. (Because these tells are so powerful, their lies will speak the truth about their poker hands and you might beat them out of all of their money anyway. Oh, well.)
The "lies" are not usually stated. Instead, they typically are comprised of what your opponents try to imply through body language and tone of voice. We can’t get into the hundreds of tells today, but it comes down to this …
Your opponents usually will try to act as if they have weak hands when they have strong hands, and strong hands when they have weak hands. So, when an opponent sighs, shrugs as if bewildered, and says "I bet" in a sad tone of voice, you can be pretty sure that he holds a very strong hand. If you don’t hold one also, you usually should fold. Conversely, if an opponent makes a subtle extra movement to bolster his bet and make it seem a little stronger, there’s a good chance he’s weak.
More Tells That Most Players Don’t See
Beyond these tells from actors, there are involuntary tells of which your opponents are unaware. There are nonacted tells, like trembling hands, that are almost never a sign of true nervousness. Bluffers do not shake. They bolster themselves so as not to give you clues that they’re bluffing. They’re afraid to move for fear you will "read" them. Bluffers often are rigid, and sometimes they don’t breathe.
Players with real hands are more relaxed and animated. These are powerful clues. Also, players who have strong hands often pretend not to be interested. They’ll look away while the action approaches. They don’t want you to have any clues that they’re going to bet or raise, so they pretend to be focusing on something else. Sometimes they look as if they’re watching imaginary butterflies dance to their left as the players to their right decide what to do. Conversely, when their hands are weak, they’ll scrutinize the action as if interested. These are easy tells. They’re all around you.
But why doesn’t everyone see them? Good question. It’s not just that everyone doesn’t see them. It’s that most opponents don’t see them. And that’s even stranger. Worse yet, some players deny that tells exist or profess that they have little value. This is like the blind preaching to the sighted about what isn’t there.
I believe there are three major reasons why serious poker players fail to win significant extra profit through mastering tells.
Tell Failure No. 1: Looking All Around You
You’re never going to master tells if you look all around you to spot them. Yes, I’ve said that they are all around you, but if that’s where you look, you probably won’t see any. There are so many things happening at the poker table that interpretation becomes monumentally difficult. You’ve got to focus on just one player while you’re learning to spot tells. As you get more proficient, you will automatically spot other tells while still focusing mainly on just a single player. It’s magic. You’ll see.
But you’ll never see by trying to grasp every tell at once. I can’t do it, and neither can you. And don’t expect to see what you’re looking for immediately. Observe and be patient. Find an opponent who is likely to exhibit tells. Some aren’t. Eventually, you’ll pick up the opponent’s mannerisms. And what’s really exciting is that most of them will conform to my broad theory of tells — actors pretending to be weak when strong and vice versa.
Don’t expect to see a lot of tells, either. If I can pick up three powerful tells in an hour, I’m very happy. Some of them save me a whole pot. There may be many lesser tells, but these minor ones should be weighted and factored into your fold-call-raise and betting decisions, just like other things — such as the opponent’s wagering habits and deductions you make from betting sequences and faceup cards.
Tell Failure No. 2:
Looking For Tells That Make You Call
If you’re like most players, you have a bias toward calling. You didn’t drive to the casino hoping to throw hands away. This is when a rudimentary knowledge of tells can be dangerous. You need to fight the urge to only look for tells that indicate that you should call, and ignore those that indicate that you should throw your hand away.
The truth is, there are more tells that indicate that you should fold than there are those that indicate that you should call. And those should-fold tells are usually more blatant. They are the ones where opponents act weak — sigh, shrug, use sad voices, look away — and they’re often the most profitable. The problem is that profit is hard to measure directly. After all, each time you act in accordance with these tells, you’ve folded and won nothing stackable. However, you won something theoretically — the money you didn’t lose. And that adds up in a hurry.
Of course, if you only looked for tells that caused you to call, you’d still be ahead of where you’d be if you didn’t use any tells at all, right? Probably not. That’s because players tend to manufacture let-me-call tells in their minds and put too much emphasis on weak indications. I believe the result of this is that many players end up using tells as a justification for playing bad hands and making weak calls. Please don’t do that.
Tell Failure No. 3:
Showing Pride in Your Success With Tells
One of the worst things you can do is convey to your opponents how proud you are about having spotted a tell. This makes your foes aware that you’re scrutinizing them. It also makes the player you just profited from aware of the specific tell you spotted. This means that he’s probably going to correct the mannerism and not provide the same tell in the future.
I’ve actually seen supposedly smart professionals say something like, "I knew you were bluffing when …," and then go on to describe a very profitable tell that could have been used again and again if the pro had let his ego float to the shallow side of the pool and kept his mouth shut.
I even go to the trouble of hesitating when I’m 100 percent certain that I’ve spotted a tell. I then pretend to act indecisively. That way, my opponent is much less likely to realize that he’s broadcast a tell, and I’m much more likely to profit from it many more times.
So, yes, tells are all around you. They’re worth mastering, because they — along with related psychology — can account for most of the additional profit you make in poker once you’ve mastered the fundamentals. But remember the three "tell failures" we’ve discussed today. Otherwise, you might be better off believing that tells, like fairies, really don’t exist.