Why poker tells work

Note: Not at the old Poker1 site. A version of this entry was originally published (2006) in Bluff magazine.

“Poker tells are overrated.”

“It’s very difficult to observe tells.”

“You don’t see any tells at the bigger limits.”

All those pieces of commonly uttered, homespun wisdom are wrong. Totally wrong. Horribly wrong. I first discussed tells long before Caro’s Book of Tells – the Body Language of Poker was written in the middle 1980s. In fact, a passage I contributed to Doyle Brunson’s Super/System – A Course in Power Poker in 1978 explains it best.


It’s not enough to know how a person acts when he’s bluffing. When you understand why he acts that way, you’ll be able to read him, even in unfamiliar situations.

Thoreau said, “The mass of men lead lives of quiet desperation.” Most people are prevented from living life as they want. In childhood, they’re required to do chores they hate. They grow up having to conform at school. As adults they must shake hands they don’t want to shake, socialize with people they dislike, pretend they’re feeling “fine” when they’re feeling miserable, and “act” in control of situations where, in truth, they feel frightened and unsure. These people – the majority of folks you meet everyday – are actors. They present themselves to you as people different than they really are.

Deep within themselves they know they are not the same person they pretend to be. On an unconscious level, they think, “Hey, I’m so phony that if I don’t act to disguise my (poker) hand, people will see right through me!”

And that’s why the majority of these pitiful people are going to give you their money by always acting weak when they’re strong and strong when they’re weak.

Can’t afford to tell the truth

When people play poker, they find themselves in an unfamiliar environment. In real life they lie sometimes. They mislead sometimes. In poker they have to mislead or lie all the time. They simply cannot afford to tell the truth in a dependable way. Otherwise, they might as well spread their cards face-up on the table.

Ah, I hear you thinking, “Some players tell the truth about their hands, sometimes.” And you’re right. That’s why I said, “in a dependable way.” When an opponent declares truthfully, “Don’t call me, I have a flush,” he’s hoping you don’t believe him or that you, at least, have doubts. He’s hoping you will call, so he can say, “I told you so.”

In poker, your hand is your secret. Now, you can take this next part as gospel: If an opponent, trying to win your money, voluntarily does anything that he thinks you’re observing, it’s an attempt to confuse you. When poker players put on an act – subtle or obvious – they’re trying to convince you that the nature of their hand is something alien to the truth.

And, so, were born my theories of tells. Central to my teaching is something called 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.”

Easier said than done, you’re thinking. Not really. You can usually determine that an opponent truly is acting if you see any mannerisms that are unnecessary.

Weak when strong

Right now, you need to know something of extra-special importance: Your opponents will strongly tend to act weak when they hold strong hands and act strong when they hold weak ones.

Put those two concepts together and it should be obvious to you that if you see a bettor shrug conspicuously, he holds a strong hand. His shrug is meant to deceive you by making you think he’s in doubt about making the wager or that he is possibly bluffing. Don’t be fooled. A player who was truly weak or bluffing wouldn’t go out of his way to share his doubt. That would invite a call. Any invitation to call should be declined, unless you, too, hold a powerful hand.

This tell isn’t just from novice players, either. Even pros do this, but the important thing is, the more sophisticated the player, the less exaggerated the tell. It’s still there, just reduced in scope. Against experienced players, peer deeper. Listen harder. Their tells come in whispers, not shouts.

Now, we’re going to often talk about tells in this column, and they come in lots of varieties. There are involuntary tells, in addition to the acted ones. For instance, I’ll explain why a suddenly shaking hand is never a bluff, even though many experienced poker players become suspicious and mistakenly call when they see that happen.

Tells are real

For now, I want you to know that tells are real. They can account for a large share of your profit. We’ll discover them in all types of players, from beginners to world-class pros. And all you need to do for now is disappoint any opponent who tries to influence you. You do that by usually folding when he acts weak and usually calling when he acts strong.

I’ll leave you with one more example of a player pretending to be weak. Ever heard a sad sigh at the poker table? What did you say? All the time? Me, too. And when we hear it, we know better that to call, right?

Remember, poker tells surround you and they’re pure profit. They work because opponents aren’t accustomed to lying or misleading all the time, but in poker, they must. And usually they do it quite poorly. — 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.


6 thoughts on “Why poker tells work”

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  1. Hey, Mike. Any suggestions about how to avoid giving away tells yourself? I was playing some low stakes nl hold ’em last night (while attempting mission #1 FYI), and I found myself inadvertently acting in a few hands. And, I also noticed that my opponents saw right through them. So, my first thoughts were to try not to act at all. I’ve been playing low stakes nl for 10 years and recently have been building up nicely. I study your work often, but, I’m only starting to appreciate your work on tells. Any suggestions?

    1. Hi, “Another Mike” —

      The strange thing is most of the acted tells opponents exhibit actually work for them! Other players often are deceived. This is part of the reason why those same tells are repeated again and again. They receive positive reinforcement.

      So, unless you’re against astute opponents, I wouldn’t worry much about providing those same tells. I deliberately give tells myself, hoping to manipulate opponents. Oddly, most opponents are victims of the same tells that they broadcast.

      If you are playing against rare opponents who are tuned into you (as you may have been in the game you mention), they you need to be more aware and, perhaps, make the same motions against them every time. Doing that can defend against detection.

      Otherwise, I would concentrate more on reading tells and less on opponents reading you. Most can’t.

      Straight Flushes,
      Mike Caro

    2. HI, I often play low stakes tournaments and some things work well for me.

      (1) In my games, approximately 1 person out of ten know how to correctly read tells on average. If I can spot them, I use their skills against them. For example, I sometime breathe heavily hoping for a fold. Sometime I stop moving, hoping for a call.

      (2) For the other players (9/10), I try to manipulate them by moving a lot, trying to trigger a call, or stop moving, hoping for a fold.

      I talk a lot when I’m in a hand, because reads from opponents in low stake are usually a coin toss. So my concentration is more on reading tells than manipulating players. If you can’t spot good tell readers, just do (2) time to time.

      Thanks to Mike and his book of tells.
      Vincent Martin

  2. Mike, have you ever thought about making a poker tell DVD of players who are actually in the action? Where you could brake down tells out of real life situations. That way we could just see how settle a persons tells areJust a thought. Thanks for all the great advice.

    1. Hi, Steve —

      Good idea. However, the tells will be the same whether caught in actual live play or reenacted, as in my current video. There might be legal issues with recording live action without permission and the very act of giving permission might alter how players react. Still, I might do this sometime. Thanks for the suggestion.

      Straight Flushes,
      Mike Caro

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