The Dangers of Trusting Physical Tells

In poker, you have to make decisions based on incomplete information. You can never be 100-percent certain what your opponent has. That’s exactly what makes poker such a difficult game to master.

Can you spot the tell? Didn’t think so. (Image:

All you can do is make the best decision based on the sometimes limited information you have. One way to make an informed decision, in live poker, is to search for physical tells. Pay attention to how your opponent acts in certain situations.

To pick up on physical tells, you have to pay close attention and lock your eyes in on your opponent. Watch how he/she reacts when seeing the hole cards, flop, turn, and river. Compare that to the way your opponent acts when your opponent’s hand isn’t as strong or is weaker.

For example, a few months back in a cash game at Bellagio in Las Vegas, I caught a player to my right quickly subconsciously glancing at his chip stack after seeing the flop. He then checked and went for a big check-raise. He flopped the nuts.

A few hands later, I was in a pot with him and noticed he didn’t do the chip glance on the flop. I had a weak hand but I wanted to test and see if I had a read on him. So I fired a bet and, sure enough, he folded. I locked in on him for a while to see if his tell would become a consistent pattern and it was.

Later on, I caught him glancing at his chips again. When he bet, I folded and another player called. I assumed he had a big hand but, as it turned out, all he had was bottom pair, which I could beat. This is one of the many examples of why I only use physical tells as a small part of getting a read on my opponent. Let’s take a look at some of the reasons physical tells can’t always be trusted.

Hand Strength is Relative

If you flop middle-pair, you’d probably think your hand isn’t very strong. But to someone who is completely clueless about poker, or just really bad at the game, middle-pair might be a monster.

So let’s go back to my above physical tell example. The guy mentioned glanced at his chips when he hit a hand. Maybe he felt a small pair is a big hand. Or maybe he just has a penchant for subconsciously glancing at his chips whenever he hits any pair, or possibly even a draw.

This is one reason physical cannot always be trusted. If you’re solely relying on physical tells, you’re going to make bad laydowns and calls frequently. When I assumed he had a monster because of that physical tell I thought I had picked up on, I cost myself the pot.

Some Know How to Fake It

When I first started playing poker, everyone wanted to learn how to spot physical tells. There were numerous books and training videos teaching the basics such as when a player acts strong, he’s usually weak, and when he acts weak, he’s probably strong.

Most of the tells were pretty obvious years ago because everyone knew what to look for. To counter that, many players (myself included) would give off fake tells. For example, if I knew a player was solid and was studying my behavior, I would cover my mouth after betting if I had a strong hand. This worked like a charm 5-10 years ago, but not so much anymore.

The point I’m trying to make is that some people give off false tells. So even if you spot one of the “most obvious physical tells,” there’s a possibility your opponent is faking it worse than your girl does in bed. Just kidding.

If You Blink, You’ll Miss It

Another problem with trusting physical tells is you have to pay close attention and catch the tell right away. It’s not like your opponent is going to hold up a sign saying “I’m weak” or “I have the nuts.”

Most tells will only be visible for a brief second or less. If you don’t pick up on it right away, you’ll be out of luck. That’s another reason it’s harmful to rely solely on physical tells. There are other ways to read your opponent such as spotting consistent betting patterns.

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