Bluffing or not? Poker clues revealed

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

In an earlier entry (Knowing for sure when opponents are bluffing), you discovered one way to be certain whether or not opponents were trying to steal your pot. You needed to watch them breathe. And you needed to listen to them breathe.

Watch and listen. The clue was that players tended to breathe much less noticeably when they were bluffing. Sometimes they stopped breathing completely.

Today, I’ll add some important insight to what you’ve already learned. I’ll tell you exactly why players stop breathing by exploring a powerful poker phenomenon known as the “calling reflex.” And you’ll discover additional, deadly accurate tells based on it.


First, how come bluffers stop breathing? It’s because they’re afraid of doing anything that will reveal the weakness of their hands.

You see, years ago I observed and chronicled some curious and universal poker behavior.  It seemed that players were much more animated when they held strong hands than when they were bluffing. But I needed to know why.

Shouldn’t a bluffer try to do things to keep you from calling? What about talking you out of the call?

At the very core of tells – as defined in Caro’s Book of Poker Tells – is the concept that when opponents become actors, they try to deceive you by seeming weak when they hold strong hands and seeming strong when they hold weak ones. Okay. So, why doesn’t a bluffer jump up and down in his seat, forcing a wide grin and pretending that he just won the lottery?


The reason relates to the other broad concept in that same book: Sometimes opponents are acting and sometimes they aren’t. There are two types of tells – voluntary and involuntary.

Players who are strong will often go out of their way to act weak. They may shrug or sigh or use a sad voice when announcing their bets. They’re trying to trick you by pretending that their hands are so miserable that they shouldn’t have bet. But, ask yourself, if players really held bad hands, why would they go out of their way to convey that to you?

Weak and average players are the main broadcasters of this tell. They often overact in portraying weakness. And it always means strength.


But, 35 years ago, as a young and aspiring poker player, I began to notice an amazing thing. Bluffers avoided the stage. How come? It’s because almost all players have what I termed a “calling reflex.”

And although casual poker opponents haven’t analyzed the concept, they know it intuitively. Bluffers instinctively realize that the calling reflex exists. They sense the danger; they are scared to death!

When players travel to a poker game, they want to be in action. Nobody goes to a casino to play poker, thinking, “Gee, I hope I don’t get to play any hands. Wouldn’t it be fun if I got to fold all night and didn’t have to do anything?”

No! They come hoping to get involved. And because they want to put chips into the pot, most go out of their way seeking reasons to do it. In fact, they have a bias toward playing hands and a bias toward calling bets.

Save money

In the future, I’m going to tell you how to take advantage of the calling reflex of your opponents. But today, I want to tell you how to save money by realizing that your opponents are unconsciously aware of it.

Players know deep inside that other players are looking for reasons to call. Anything they do might make someone suspicious.

So, when they bluff – especially if it’s a big bet into a meaningful pot – fear freezes them. It’s just that simple. They don’t want to do anything to trigger a calling reflex, so they do nothing at all. They don’t breathe, for instance. But there’s much more to it than that.

More than not breathing

They don’t move. Beyond monitoring an opponent’s breathing, you should also monitor movements. For instance, although many bluffers stop moving at the moment their wager is placed, others won’t freeze up until the moment of truth when they’re about to see the outcome – a call, a raise, or a wished-for fold.

If an opponent is tapping the table rhythmically, just reach toward your chips and watch the response. If the player suddenly stops tapping, that’s a sure sign you’re against a weak hand or a bluff. Suddenly the player is faced with the realization that he might get called and doesn’t want to do anything to promote it.

It’s the same if a player bets big on the river and is quietly humming under his breath. That’s not really a tell, because it can mean different things with different players. So, like I said, it’s not a tell – yet.


But it will become a tell as soon as you make your opponent aware that you’re about to consider calling. Leaning forward and moving your hand slightly toward your chips will bring a reaction.

If the humming immediately stops, suspect a bluff. It’s the same as the tapping of fingers. At that fateful moment, everything stops.

The bluffer doesn’t want to do anything to trigger your calling reflex and encourage you to call. So he provides the most obvious clue in poker – he suddenly stops doing everything. Stops breathing. Stops tapping. Stops humming. Whatever.

He stops and you call. Simple. Now take the pot. — MC

Published by

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.


11 thoughts on “Bluffing or not? Poker clues revealed”

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  1. Do you believe that paying attention to your opponent’s calling tendencies are as important as paying attention to their betting patterns?

    Thanks for everything!

    1. Hi, Brian —

      I haven’t weighed the two against each other in terms of importance. You should observe both.

      Sorry I can’t be more useful on this one. Thanks for leaving your first message.

      Straight Flushes,
      Mike Caro

      1. Hey Mike,

        I’ve since found a post where you touch on this, actually. Point 1 in this link:

        I’m thinking that it may only be necessary to pay attention to their calling habits if you intend to bluff. I.e. a tight game. But those aren’t the most profitable games and that’s not the most profitable tactic. I’d appreciate further insight if you think of anything.

        Thanks for everything!

  2. Thanks MIKE! I definitely concur with your analysis. This made me realize that about a year ago I portrayed this tell. I was all in NLH heads up and this guy takes forever to decide what to do. I was bluffing with nothing but jack high and I was shuffling cards with one hand on the felt. After some time I thought he was going to make the call so I stopped shuffling and stood extremely still. Luckily the guy didnt know this tell and ended up folding. Ill keep an eye out for this profitable tell.

  3. I’d like to present some thoughts on fear reflexes when applied to encounters with the police. First and foremost I’d like to acknowledge the hard work and diligence that our nations police forces display on a daily basis. Secondly I’d like to thank “Lieutenant Info” for the following advice for encounters with the police:

    1) So you’re doing 60 in a 45 and you blow past a police cruiser eyeballing your reckless abandon. SHAME ON YOU! You shouldn’t be driving so fast. It’s dangerous and bad for your gas mileage, and dangerous. However you should NOT slam your brakes in an attempt to get your vehicle down to 44 in 0.325 seconds. Lt. Info says that the speeding may catch his eye, but the “less than fluid braking” is most likely going to attract his attention because you have just executed two dangerous things. “You should probably just take the reminder of the police cruiser’s presence to let off the gas and slow down safely.” It’s the fear reflex that makes one stomp the brakes in this case.

    2) So you blew past the police cruiser while mashing your brakes, almost causing an accident, all while staring at the police cruiser and mouthing “Oh Sh*t…” (and definitely NOT watching the road and traffic). Lt. Info pulled you over and now Lucy has some ‘splainin to do. Assuming that you pulled over in a safe and timely manner you should make the right decision now. “License, registration, and proof of insurance please? Do you know why I’ve pulled you over?” Right then your engine and radio should be off, your windows down, and BOTH hands on the wheel or in plain sight before being asked to retrieve your documents. Lt. Info suggests that you fess up to the reason you are being pulled over. If you follow your fear reflex and answer “Why no officer, I’ve haven’t the slightest idea!” You will get a ticket/citation. “If you come clean and acknowledge your offense, then no promises, but, your probability of receiving a ticket has dropped from 100%.”

    3. Lt. Info asks that “Pretty please with a cherry on top-just be respectful, polite, and cooperative when dealing with any situation involving the police.” Give them as many good reasons as possible to let you off with a warning and not a paper lashing. Remember that most high speed pursuits are nothing but a fear reflex reaction…and we all know how those end don’t we.

  4. I’m not at all questioning your advice (I think it’s spot on), but I think logic behind your reasoning is a little flawed. I think it’s just a basic fear reflex. If you’re strolling around your lake in the Ozarks and you suddenly notice a grizzly bear 30 yards away how are you going to react? By not moving or breathing. Since any other reaction would potentially receive unwanted attention by deadly predators I’m sure evolution has weeded out those that didn’t have this fear-freeze response.

    Essentially the bluffers are afraid of a call. The bigger the bluff the bigger the freeze. At the $1-2 NLE games I play I find it very hard to pick up on this particular tell, and I suspect it’s because most people at those stakes don’t care too much about losing. Aggressive “power” stare downs however are usually a sign of weakness, and “happy feet” are almost always a sign of the nuts or close to it.

    1. Hi, JD —

      Thanks for sharing your opinion.

      My only quibble is that I DO define a “fear reflex” in regard to bluffing tells — and almost exactly the way you describe. It’s standard advice at my seminars, has appeared in many of my books and columns, and can be found in many places here at Poker1.

      Here’s just one example: Scroll down to question 127.

      See, we think alike.

      Straight Flushes,
      Mike Caro

  5. Awesome tips. Will use this information this weekend at the Foxwoods Mega-Stack!

    1. Thanks, Brian, for making your first comment at the new Poker1.

      Mega-stacks to you on your future poker adventures.

      Straight Flushes,
      Mike Caro

  6. Very good advice, I will definateley look for in my next tournament. Thanks

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