Note: Not at the old Poker1 site. A version of this entry was originally published (2009) in Bluff magazine.
I’m a poker player who’s obsessed with tells. I can’t help it. My early poker adventures, before I was 23 or thereabout, were exercises in discipline. I played tight, conservative, unimaginative poker. I took pride in playing only hands that were clearly profitable, in never cracking. Every hand I folded made me feel wiser, more sensible, and superior to my opponents. And because those opponents played too many hands and called too often, I was able to win. But not significantly.
You wouldn’t have recognized me back then. Everything you may have heard about me and my “Mad Genius of Poker” persona was yet to evolve. What I’d discovered was that you could beat most loose poker games by being a rock.
Began to observe
Back then, you didn’t have reliable poker literature or research to study. You had to do your own analysis, walk your own path. While doing that, I began to observe tells. And I didn’t do this in the same way that others did at that time. Others focused on individualistic tells, such as Ken always scratching his beard before he bluffed. I found that kind of tell to be unreliable. But there was something much more important that I observed. Universal tells!
All around me, I noticed that the majority of players were exhibiting the same encompassing categories of tells, manifested in individual ways. This revelation would later become the nucleus of Mike Caro’s Book of Tells — The Body Language of Poker. And although I plan to update and expand that book soon, nothing on those pages is any less true today than it was 25 years ago, when first published. That’s because there is a specific, undeniable truth about tells. And I’m going to share the basics with you right now.
Basic tell power
First, we need to know what tells are. They’re simply mannerisms that — among other things — let us conclude when opponents are bluffing and when they’re not. In order to do that, you’ve got to understand that there are two main types of tells: There are tells that are acted and tells that are involuntary.
Whenever opponents are acting, they’re trying to manipulate you by pretending to have either a strong hand or a weak one. They want you to think they have a weak hand when they’re strong; and they want you to think they have a strong hand when they’re weak.
You can argue all you want about how world class players reverse acted tells or how they’re unreadable, but that basic truth remains. If they’re weak they yearn to appear strong, and if they’re strong, they yearn to appear weak. Acted tells are born of this yearning. The degree of tell and the manner of exhibition varies — but truth is truth and tells are tells.
I won’t talk much about specific tells today, but I need you to know this: Players who are acting will tend to appear sad and uncertain when they hold strong hands; they’ll tend to appear happy and confident when they hold weak ones. So, don’t be fooled.
Involuntary tells are different. These mannerisms happen even when your opponent isn’t trying to influence you. Those are tells, too, but they fit into the second category — not acted.
Your job is to decide if an opponent is acting or not. If an opponent seems conscious of you at the moment, then he’s on stage and his actions are often an act. When you decide that an opponent is acting, just determine what he is trying to get you to do and disappoint him. And if he isn’t acting, make your decision directly in keeping with that tell.
Now here’s a big secret. When players think they’re being scrutinized, they’re more likely to act in an attempt to confuse you. So, sometimes when opponents aren’t putting on an act and I have no tells to interpret, I’ll make it obvious that I’m watching them. This gets them nervous and sometimes they’ll begin acting and provide me with tells.
Since we’re dealing with basic truth about poker tells, there’s something we need to discuss right now. Don’t expect to see tells every hand. If you can find just two or three solid tells an hour and make appropriate decisions in response, you’ll more than double the profit you’d make by just playing tight. I promise. The trick is to avoid seeing phantom tells. Don’t invent tells that aren’t there. And, although there are a few tells that are almost 100 percent reliable, you shouldn’t use most tells as definitive indicators of what to do. Instead, you should weigh them along with all other factors and allow them to push your decision one way or the other. Suppose a medium-strength tell pushes you toward folding. But if your first inclination is strongly to call, you should probably call, anyway.
If, however, your first read was nearly borderline, and you were only slightly motivated to call, the additional tell may be enough to warrant a fold. When you use tells that way, you’re on the path to profit. Rely on them too much, and you might make less money than you would if you ignored tells altogether. You have been warned.
Another pitfall is exaggerating the importance of tells suggesting that you should call and ignoring tells suggesting that you should fold. This is a common mistake, because most players like to call more than they like to fold. Don’t be that way. Yet another error is acting on a tell too quickly. That can make it obvious to an opponent that he has provided you with a tell. Instead, hesitate and let your opponent think that you’re making your decision for another reason. That way, you can profit from that same tell again in the future. — MC