Note: Not at the old Poker1 site. A version of this entry was first published in Card Player. This entry in the "Aunt Sophie" series covers poker.
Aunt Sophie learns about tells
“Nu, tsatskeleh,” Aunt Sophie wondered, “can you tell me any useful tells?”
Down the street the dogs are barking, and the day is getting dark.
“Well,” I considered, “first you need to know that tells basically fall into two categories: universal tells and personal tells. It’s not clear which are more useful.”
“What’s the difference?” she queried. When the night-time comes a-rolling, all the dogs will lose their bark.
“Universal tells,” I responded, “are those exhibited by many players in many situations. They are the rules, if you will. Personal tells are the exceptions to the rules. Universal tells are described in great detail in Caro’s Book of Tells, aptly subtitled The Body Language of Poker. A tell, according to The Official Dictionary of Poker, is ‘a mannerism that gives away your holdings. Smiling when you have a very good hand is an obvious tell. More subtle tells include iris dilation, a throbbing pulse, or acting in a certain manner in a given situation.’ The Book of Tells details many of these situational tells.”
She’s got everything she needs; she’s an artist; she don’t look back. “And how about,” Aunt Sophie inquired, “personal tells?”
The post office has been stolen, and the mailbox is lost, I noticed, and said, “Those are unique to a particular player. That is, a particular player may do something in a particular situation that no one else does, and you can use your knowledge of that tell to figure out what the player has, and act on that information. Universal tells are easier to learn and apply, just because they are universal.”
Ain’t it just like the night to play tricks when you’re trying to be so quiet? “Can you give me,” she pressed on, “a useful example.”
Glancing at chips
“I can,” I returned, as the all-night girls whispered of escapades out on the D-train. “One of the most useful is glancing at chips. This comes straight out of The Book of Tells, the new edition of which I believe will soon be available. This comes up in all games, at the point that crucial cards arrive. This is on any round, such as the flop, in hold’em, whenever a card arrives in stud, or on the draw in lowball. If you’re watching a player at this very crucial moment instead of the flop, your arriving upcard, or your draw, you might see the player glance quickly at his chips, and then just as quickly away. Here’s the applicable tell law: A player glances secretly at his chips only when he’s considering a bet — and almost always because he helped his hand.”
They’re selling postcards of the hanging; they’re painting the passports brown. “Yah,” she opined, “I’ve seen that. Sometimes a powerhouse it means they got.”
Acting or not
“Mm hm,” I assented, as all along the watchtower princes kept the view. “But you must determine, first, that the glance is not an act. Perhaps the most important thing to learn from the Book of Tells is that players are either acting or they’re not. They either want to convey misinformation, in which case your response should often be opposite to what they seem to be projecting. So if a player stares for a long time at his chips while he thinks you’re watching, that’s probably an act — but you won’t see that happen often. Usually, though, in the situation that’s of interest to us, the player looks at his hand (or the flop or the stud card he just caught), then immediately glances at his chips for a brief moment, then away. That’s practically never an act, because he doesn’t figure you’re watching him right then. In such a case, the player has a good hand and will bet.”
Their foot servants came and went, and all the women, too. “So how,” she demanded, “do I use that?”
“Well,” I returned, “it’s pretty easy. If you’re in a situation in which you have a strong hand and want to check-raise, you can be pretty sure that player will bet, so you can check. But be careful, the player has a good hand. If your hand is good enough, you can bet, and be reasonably sure the player will raise, and then you can reraise. On the other hand, if your hand is marginal, you should consider checking and folding.”
Mama’s in the kitchen, she ain’t got no shoes. “Is that,” she questioned, “the only chip-glance tell?”
The guilty undertaker sighs, the lonesome organ grinder cries. “No,” I offered, “A related tell appears in the Book of Tells. Players may glance at your chips when they intend to bet. This is much less common than glancing at their own chips. But often it means the same thing (that the player likes his hand and is preparing to wager), especially if the glance is immediate and fleeting. However, be advised that, if your opponent looks at your chips long after he realizes what his cards are, he might be measuring whether he can get away with a bluff. He needs to know how large your stack is before assessing his bluffing possibilities. For that reason, it’s more difficult to interpret the tell when your opponent looks at your chips instead of his own. Also, keep in mind that in no-limit games, players may ostentatiously stare at your chips before bluffing. In order for the glance at your chips to reliably mean that the player has a good hand and intends to bet, that glance must be brief and the player must be unaware that you’re watching.”
That long black cloud is coming down.
“And,” she put in, “personal tells?”
“Those,” I concluded, silhouetted by a tree, “I will address another time.”
The wind howls like a hammer; the night blows cold and rainy.