Beating your buddies at poker with tells

Note: Not at the old Poker1 site. A highly condensed version of this entry was originally published (2000) in Playboy magazine. This is the full version.

All around me, everywhere I look, are the victims of poker. They are losers who thought they were playing a game of luck. They forgot to take poker seriously.

Look, I haven’t just played poker. I’ve analyzed it, created artificially intelligent players for computers, calculated odds, lectured, written books, given seminars, put poker into videos, and even founded a god damn university of poker. I’m obsessed.

But today I’m going to show you a really weird way to win at poker. I’m not even going to bother to teach you how to analyze the cards in order to know when to call, raise, or throw you hand away. I’m going to teach you about poker tells, the most powerful tool there is to destroy your friends at poker.

You really can win

Wait! Before we talk about poker or anything else, I need you to understand that you can win gambling. Despite what Uncle Edgar said, despite what they taught you in school, despite all that whining and warning, you can win gambling.

At my seminars, I ask a simple question: “If nobody wins gambling, where does the money go?” The money has to go somewhere, right? In actual fact, the money goes from those who lose it to those who win it. Nothing else is possible. Unfortunately, some of those who win it are casinos or bookies. If you choose roulette or craps, there’s nothing you can do to overcome the odds against you. In the long run, you’ll lose. But poker is different. It’s you against the other players. And guess what? In poker, good players eventually beat bad players. Sure, there’s a lot of luck. But over time, your skill triumphs.

How your buddies trick you

Now we’re going to share a secret: Most poker opponents are going to try to deceive you by acting weak when they’re strong and strong when they’re weak. It’s because they really don’t know how to handle themselves in the unfamiliar environment that is poker.

Poker isn’t like everyday life where usually you tell the truth but occasionally you lie. And it’s not like everyday life where you usually let people know a lot about yourself while concealing a little. In poker you cannot tell the truth about the cards you hold or your buddies will giggle and take your money.

Because your buddies are uncomfortable and unsure when they enter the poker arena, they often are excessive in trying to trick you. They’ll act sad when they can’t be beat and will try to appear confident and intimidating when they’re worried.

I’m going to show you how to take advantage of this common mistake. I’m going to teach you the best way to destroy your buddies at poker. We’ll do it by using poker “tells.” Tells are simply mannerisms that provide powerful clues about the true strength of your buddies’ secret poker hands. You can often know almost for certain when they’re bluffing and when they’re not. They might as well turn their cards face up on the table.

Make them miserable

Before you learn about making surprising profits through tells, I need to make something clear. You need to play the other parts of poker about as well as your opponents. This means you’ll need to have some experience. You don’t need to have mastered all the statistics and strategies I teach in other venues. All you need is the ability right now to win some and lose some against your buddies. If that’s where you are, you’re about to make their Thursday nights really miserable in the future.

Now, here are my favorite tips first described in Caro’s Book of Tells — The Body Language of Poker. And it all starts with…

Caro’s Great Law of Tells

Players are either acting or they aren’t. If they are

acting, then decide what they want you to do and

disappoint them.

You see, not every tell comes from acting. There are things your buddies do playing poker that they aren’t even aware of. We’ll talk about a few of those, too. But mostly, we’re going to take their money because they’ll fail to fool us.

Shrugs and sighs

Opponents are almost always aware when they’re shrugging or sighing. That’s sad stuff. Expect your buddies to act sad when they have strong hands. How come? It’s because they don’t know what else to do. They could jump up out of their chair, turn their cards face up prematurely, and shout truthfully, “Oh, my God! I can’t believe I was lucky enough to make this hand!” But then you wouldn’t call their bets. Because of this, when you see a buddy sigh, shrug his shoulders, and sadly say, “I bet” in a voice typically used to pronounce the death of a cocker spaniel, he isn’t bluffing. You need an extremely strong poker hand to call. That tell is nearly 100 percent accurate. And it’s a tell from an actor.

Neat stacks of chips

Now here’s an example of a tell that is not acted. Players often stack chips in a way that depicts how they play — conservative means conservative and sloppy means sloppy. So, when you see lots of neat stacks, don’t expect that buddy to dance around the pot, splashing chips around frivolously.

That buddy has an accountant’s mentality, and he wants to make sure he gets good value for the hands on which he risks his money. He may bluff, but he won’t make daring bets with risky, second-rate hands. So, unless you think he’s bluffing, you shouldn’t call him without a great hand. Additionally, these neat stacks are good targets to bluff.

But buddies who stack their chips haphazardly — with some stacks taller than others and some leaning to one side due to careless alignment — are probably on the warpath. Expect liberal calling and betting from them. You can call with fairly weak hands. And these stacks in disarray are ones you should almost never try to bluff.

Breathing and trembling

Here’s another non-acting tell that can save you thousands of dollars over the years if you play poker regularly. Many players instinctively believe that when a buddy bets with a suddenly trembling hand, he’s nervous about bluffing. This has never been the case in all the years I’ve played poker, from small $5 bets in the early years to some of the biggest games in the world. Players simply don’t suddenly start to tremble when they bluff. It never happens.

Wanna know why? It’s because players know that their opponents have what I’ve termed a “calling reflex.” In order to win at poker, you need to understand that calling reflex. You see, your buddies came to your poker game hoping to call bets and win pots. None of them arrived hoping to throw hands away. This means they have a built-in bias toward playing hands and calling your bets.

But that’s not a closely gaurded secret like some things we’re talking about today. In fact, your opponents know about this “calling reflex,” although they may never have consciously thought about it. They recognize that other players want to call if given any reason whatsoever. So, when they bluff, they do nothing to trigger their opponents’ calling reflex. Bluffers are less animated, more reserved, sometimes scarcely breathing (or even holding their breath). And one thing they are sure to do is become more rigid when they bet. They simply bolster themselves and don’t tremble.

So, what is that sudden trembling? It’s a release of tension. It’s all that extreme suspense, wondering whether that last card will bring a straight flush. And when it does, some players simply tremble. They can’t help it. Whenever you see an opponent who was previously steady look at a card and suddenly start to tremble — beware! You probably aren’t going to win and you should fold anything but a monstrously strong hand.

Secret glance at chips

Why does your buddy secretly glance at his chips? I’ll tell you why. It’s because he’s considering a bet, and that’s almost always because he’s helped his hand. This isn’t an act, because he doesn’t even realize you’re watching him. He thinks you’re looking at the new card you just received.

And that brings up an important point: Don’t be looking at your new cards when they arrive. Look at your buddies as they look at their new cards. That’s where you’ll see some non-acting tells, because they don’t think you’re watching.

And right after their secret, quick glance at their chips, your buddies are apt to do something else that constitutes such a powerful poker tell that I shouldn’t even be telling you about it. But I will.

Looking away

Many players holding strong poker hands look away from you as the action approaches. That’s because they’re acting uninterested or distracted. You can almost always assume that the reason for this common mannerism is that your buddy is trying to make it safe for you to bet. Very likely, if you do bet, you will be raised.

And that ain’t all, folks. Players staring at you, instead of away, are almost always trying to prevent your bet. This is a display of interest, an attempt to trick you into thinking they’re strong. Since they’re hoping you won’t bet, you shouldn’t hesitate to disappoint them by betting medium-strength hands. You’ll likely get called by a weaker hand, and it’s extremely unlikely that you’ll be raised.

And that’s a core concept in tells. A buddy staring at you is always less dangerous than a buddy staring away.

Reaching for chips

An opponent staring at you isn’t the only strong indicator that he’s weak. Suppose it’s your turn to act and you see your opponent subtly — or sometimes not so subtly — reaching for his chips.

This is an implied threat. Your buddy is saying, “I’m going to call your ass.” But why would he give you that information before it’s his turn? Is he kissing up to you? Does he want to marry your sister? If not, you should figure it the way I do. This guy doesn’t want you to bet and is trying to maneuver you out of betting. His hand is weak.

This tell can be especially profitable when you have a medium-strong hand but aren’t quite sure whether it’s too risky to wager. Here’s what to do.

Reach toward your chips while watching your buddy. If his hand conspicuously moves toward his chips in response, that’s an act. He wants to prevent your bet. Don’t let him. Go ahead and wager. Conversely, if your buddy seems uninterested when you reach toward your chips, that’s a bad sign. You might get raised, especially if he’s looking away in an attempt to make your bet seem perfectly safe.

Jittering and other losing habits

One of my favorite tells is what I call jittering. For instance, some players tap their fingers rhythmically on the table. If they do this habitually after they bet, you may not have a clue whether they’re bluffing or not. Here’s how to find out.

Again, simply reach for your chips. If this buddy is bluffing, he’ll probably stop tapping the table. It’s sudden apprehension that makes this happen, coupled with his instinctive realization that his continued tapping may trigger that calling reflex we’ve talked about.

So, if you’re unsure whether you should call, simply let the tapping decide. If you reach toward your chips and the tapping continues, fold. If the tapping stops, call. This single ploy has been worth hundreds of thousands of dollars to me over the years.

And tapping isn’t the only thing. Quiet humming or soft whistling is actually just another manifestation of the same category of tell. So is impatient knee movement under the table, though you need to be seated nearby to spot it. All these things work the same way. You should act as if you might call and gauge the reaction. If the humming, whistling, or knee jittering stops, call. Otherwise fold.

How to win a call

Skillful poker players make much of their profit by being able to lure extra calls when they have the best hand. If you have an image that makes you fun to gamble with and painless to lose to — meaning you don’t belittle your buddies and you probably giggle a lot — then you can earn extra calls that nobody else can.

Fine. But what if your opponent is absolutely, positively going to fold. Don’t give up. You can still win that call. Now this isn’t about an opponent’s tell. This is about you manifesting a tell in order to win a call.

Remember, I told you that your buddies have a calling reflex. This means they’re simply looking for reasons to call. They want to call. It’s a craving. So, before your buddy can throw that hand into the discards, do something. Do anything. Knock your chips over, start humming, shift in your chair, whatever.

I’m not saying you’ll always win this call, but you have a free shot at it. You have the better hand and your buddy is in the process of folding, so anything you can do to make him reevaluate is worth the effort. You might make him start his decision making all over again. Or, more likely, you’ll trigger something primitive deep, deep inside him that says, “Hey, why is Jack squirming in his seat. That’s suspicious. Good thing I noticed it. I think I’ll call.” Or, “Just when I was going to fold, I see Jack twist his head to the side. Hmm. Isn’t that strange? I’d better call.”

So, don’t give up on being called until the cards have actually been folded. Poker wouldn’t be poker if you didn’t go after all the money. And save your sympathy. Poker isn’t a charitable game. After you cash out, that’s the time you can give back some of the money, if you’re still feeling miserable about winning it.

A final poker advisory

Your ego might get in the way of you making a lot of profit from tells. It’s only natural to be proud of being able to read your buddies’ secrets at poker. You might be tempted to say, after making a great call, “I knew you were bluffing.”

But don’t do that. When you have a buddy dead to rights, when you know for sure he’s bluffing, hesitate. Call reluctantly. Pretend to be unsure.

If you let your buddy know about the tell, he’ll probably stop displaying it. But if you seem to have stumbled into the decision uncertainly, he might display the same tell again and again.

What we’ve talked about today is just between you and me, okay? — MC

Published by

Mike Caro

Visit Mike on   → Twitter   ♠ OR ♠    → FaceBook

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.


7 thoughts on “Beating your buddies at poker with tells”

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  1. Hey, I just wanted to say that your book on tells was what made me the poker player i am…. and totally bad ass in summer camp as a kid. very happy i stumbled onto your new site

    1. Hi, Adam —

      Interesting. I never realized summer camp could be a testing ground for tells.

      Thanks for making your first comment and joining our Poker1 family.

      Straight Flushes,
      Mike Caro

  2. Mike,
    Good luck with the new web site, I hope all goes well. Ive been on your mailing list for about 5 years now and would like to volenter for any studies pertaining to poker. I dont play much but I deal in a couple of games in the Washington D.C./Maryland area.

    I sugest adding color to your web site though I visit for the information, the black & white is a bit blan and tends to make the viewing expierence a bit blan.

    I have most of your books and would like to take a few seminars. Price is always an issue as I am taking care of my mother and am going to school. I started a real estate appraisal business 3 years ago, just in time for the fall in the real estate market. Please let me know if I could help in any way. I live Martinsburg W.V. they are opening table games at the race track 7 miles up the road in June!!!

    Anthony Fontaine

    1. Hi, Anthony —

      Thanks for joining our Poker1 family and making your first comment.

      I greatly appreciate your offer to help and I might call on you (and other volunteers) in the future. And I sincerely respect your opinion about the black and white. You’re not alone in that one, although there are at least as many who seem to like the gray-scale graphics. I’d like to hear from more visitors, positively or negatively.

      Straight Flushes,
      Mike Caro

    1. Hi, Anmol —

      Doing that would constitute copyright infringement.

      Although I retained rights to republish the original manuscript, following a specified period of time (I think it was six months), I don’t have rights to publish Playboy’s substantially condensed, rearranged, and sometimes reworded version. There are too many changes that weren’t mine.

      Otherwise, I’d love to post it here for comparison. You’d like my original much better, I’m guessing.

      Straight Flushes,
      Mike Caro

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