Zachary Elwood is the author of Reading Poker Tells and Verbal Poker Tells, two popular and well-reviewed books on poker behavior.
Here he attempts to pick the top ten most important and money-making poker tells.
The usefulness of poker tells can vary a lot and it is important to understand that different players have different patterns. Experienced players can have patterns that vary greatly when compared to beginner-level players. Other tells are common but unreliable, whereas some can be are infrequent but very reliable. These are all reasons why it's hard to say something like: "Such-and-such is the most useful poker tell."
Having said that, recreational poker players often display the same live poker tells over and over again. Here we will show you ten of the most useful poker tells to keep your eyes open for.
Always remember that these are not magic bullets and there can be a lot of variety, especially amongst more experienced players. Ideally, you should have studied a player beforehand and gained some indication that the particular tell holds consistent for them. Avoid making "cold reads" because it's hard to know, without prior observation, if general behavioral patterns will apply to a specific player.
It is important to note that many of these tells apply to face-to-face poker games, rather than online poker. However, there are elements, such as bet timing, that can be seen as both online poker tells and live poker tells.
This is when a waiting-to-act player handles his chips in such a way as to imply that he may be interested in calling or betting. This will almost always be done defensively, with a weak or medium-strength hand, in an effort to discourage an opponent from betting.
An obvious example of this is when a waiting-to-act player on the river grabs his chips and pushes them slightly forward, as if ready to call a bet. However, defensive chip handling can be much more subtle. A player might place his hand on, or near, his chips to subtly imply some interest in betting or calling.
Players who perform defensive chip handling (and other defensive behaviors) are certainly capable of calling or folding. But the bigger the bet, the more likely the player will fold. In fixed limit games, you'll see a lot of defensive chip handling behavior followed by a call, because the bets are less consequential. In no-limit, however, defensive chip handling will more often be followed by a fold.
While an opponent may call or fold to a bet, the most important point about this behavior is if you're fairly sure an opponent is acting defensively, a raise is super unlikely. Ruling out an opponent raising can enable you to value-bet some borderline hands that you might have otherwise checked.
Some players will have tendencies related to how loose or restrained their bodies are after making significant bets. As a general rule, bluffing players will tend to be more still than players betting strong hands. This is related to the primitive physical instinct to "freeze up" and avoid being noticed when under threat.
But remember that this is a general tendency for tells in poker and should only be acted upon if you have a good sense that it's correct for a specific player.
Often, the most valuable way this pattern shows up is in small, fairly subtle body movements. For example, let's say you've seen a player making two big river bets with strong hands. Each time, you noticed that he had a lot of small, relaxed movements; he played with his chips, he flexed his neck a bit, his arms moved around on the rail, his gaze moved to and from his opponent to the cards and back again several times, etc. Later, you study this player when he's making a big bluff and, this time, he stared stoically at the board cards and his body was very still. It's likely this player has this tendency. And you should make a mental note to keep studying him in these post-bet situations.
Of all the bet-timing tells, immediate calls are probably the most useful, both for online poker and regular games. When a player immediately calls a bet, it means that they have immediately ruled out a raise. Because players with strong hands are often focused on maximizing value, this makes it unlikely that the immediate call is made with a strong hand. If a player with a strong hand does decide to just call, he will usually take a few seconds to reach that decision. For these reasons, immediate calls will usually indicate weak or medium-strength hands.
Immediate calls will be most useful pre-flop and on the flop because this is usually when bets are small enough for players to be capable of calling quickly. For bigger bets, such as those on the turn, players will tend to think longer about these bets no matter what they have.
When it comes to tells in poker, immediate calls can also often rule out strong draws. For example, in no-limit, a player who calls a bet immediately on a flop of Jc Ts 5c is unlikely to have an ace-high flush draw or even K-Q. Most players with strong draws will at least consider raising here, even if they do end up deciding to just call.
If you are bluffing and an opponent immediately calls you, this may encourage you to follow up with a bluff on the next street. If you are betting a strong hand, an opponent's immediate call will often mean that a player will be folding to another normal-sized bet. In this case, you may be influenced to make your next bet smaller, or maybe even to check.
Immediate bets are the second most useful bet-timing behavior when it comes to poker tells, behind immediate calls. Why? Because most players tend to bet faster with bluffs than with strong hands
This tends to happen for several reasons:
Even with all these factors, you should remember that this is just a general tendency and not a super strong one. We've all seen players make immediate bets with strong hands, and we've all made immediate bets with strong hands. But recognizing that this is a general pattern can help you spot players who may have very reliable forms of this pattern.
Also, being aware of this general pattern can help you make up your mind in borderline situations. For example, if your opponent bets on the river, and a call or a fold seems break-even from a strategic standpoint, you might decide to use the immediacy of the bet as a tie-breaker.
A lot of past poker tells wisdom has said that players who stare at you after betting are more likely to be bluffing. The idea is that these players are trying to intimidate you not to call. The truth, however, is more complicated. There are two major eye-contact behavioral patterns to watch out for:
Notice that these are exactly opposite patterns.
This demonstrates the complexity possible in this type of behavior and behavior in general. Some players won't have any noticeable eye contact patterns. The point is that some players will have one of these major patterns so it can be useful to look for them.
The first pattern is more common amongst recreational players. This is because these players will tend to "interact" more with opponents after betting strong hands, especially after action-ending bets (all-in bets or bets on the river). This interaction can take the form of increased eye contact. Most recreational players, when bluffing, will tend to avoid scrutiny and interaction and this will lead to less eye contact.
It is worth noting that it is easier to notice eye contact patterns when you are seated directly across from an opponent, because this seat placement leads naturally to players looking at each other more often. If players are sitting beside each other, these kinds of behaviors don't come up as often.
Some players, when holding a vulnerable hand and, waiting for an opponent to act, will make more eye contact. This is often done in a defensive way to discourage a bet. This is kind of similar to defensive chip handling.
Players with strong hands, who don't mind an opponent betting, or may even want that, will tend to avoid behaviors that might discourage action, like staring.
As with post-bet eye contact, this behavior will be more probable when players are sitting directly across from each other.
The quality of eye contact can also be a clue. For example, some waiting-to-act players will stare at you in a very intense manner. The quality of their eye contact makes it even more likely that they're in defensive mode. Whereas that same player's eyes might, when he holds a strong hand, have a softer, less confrontational quality. In general, the more alert and confrontational the eyes of waiting-to-act players appear, the weaker their hands will be.
Real smiles are much more meaningful and useful than fake smiles when it comes to tells in poker. A person betting a strong hand is capable of a wide range of behavior, which can include: smiling deeply and sincerely, smiling insincerely, or not smiling at all. On the other hand, a bluffer will usually find it difficult to exhibit a sincere, genuine smile.
Recognizing genuine smiles (and laughter) from players who've made significant bets will help you recognize their relaxation and probable strength. Whereas categorizing a bettor's smile as "fake" will not usually be as useful, because players with strong hands are capable of having fake smiles.
What are the characteristics of real smiles?
Fake smiles will typically only be useful if you have some player-specific information to base your decision on. For example, you might know that a player often wears a small fake smile when he's bluffing. This could perhaps be an unconscious attempt on his part to communicate confidence. But in a vacuum, without prior player history, a fake smile won't tell you too much.
Players who stare at their hole cards for a while when initially looking at them are unlikely to have strong hands. The main reason for this is that players who look at strong cards will often have an instinct to look away and to not attract attention to their "treasure." Players looking at weak cards don't have this instinct.
This will mostly come in handy pre-flop, by ruling out action behind you. For example, you noticed two players behind you staring at their hole cards. An early-position player raises. You can now feel more comfortable either 3-betting or calling with a wider range of hands, knowing that calls or raises behind you have become unlikely.
Another example. You notice a player in late position staring at his cards for a few seconds. Then, when the action comes to him, he raises. If you've already noticed this is a generally valuable tell for him, you can adjust your strategy accordingly, either re-raising him light or opting to only call with your very strong hands.
This poker tell pattern is most useful pre-flop but sometimes will come in handy post-flop. For example, a player studies the flop and then holds his hole cards up to study them for a few seconds; it's unlikely this player has connected strongly with the flop or has much of a hand at all.
Many players who connect well with board cards will have a tendency to look away, at least for a moment. As we've said, people have an instinct to avoid attracting their competitor's attention to their "treasure." So, for many players, when they continue staring steadily at the board cards, it will mean they probably haven't connected in a meaningful way.
The more "interested" or "quizzical" a player seems to be in the board, the more likely it is that the player hasn't connected. A player who connects in a strong way, even if they continue looking at the flop, is unlikely to draw attention to themselves by putting on an interested facial expression.
This behavior can be useful for deciding when to continuation-bet with a weak hand on multi-way flops, or deciding when to follow up a continuation-bet with a turn bluff.
Remember that this is just a general tendency that should be correlated first. Many players will consistently stare at the board cards, no matter what their hand is. This is especially true for more experienced players.
Most talking from waiting-to-act players will be defensive in nature. The two main reasons for this pattern are:
The more a verbal statement can be seen as an obstacle to an opponent's action, the more likely it becomes that the statement is said defensively.
An example of this: the river board is Ac Kh Qh 7s Jc. The waiting-to-act player, who called a turn bet, now checks while saying to the aggressor, "You can beat ace-queen, huh?" The speaker may or may not have AQ, but it's become very unlikely he has the ten, for the straight. This type of verbal behavior should usually make us feel confident eliminating the strongest part of a player's range. Eliminating strong hands can help us decide when to bluff or when to make a thin value bet.
Zachary Elwood is the author of Reading Poker Tells and Verbal Poker Tells. His website is at www.readingpokertells.com.
Tells are one of the most romanticised aspects of poker. A twitch or a tic that telegraphs the strength of your hand is such a prevalent image associated with poker that the phrase "poker face" has entered common parlance. Many people believe that the ability to read your opponents' gestures and mannerisms is the main thing separating a pro from a fish.
These same people also look at online poker as being a less pure side of the game because there are no tells and you cannot ascertain what hand someone holds because you cannot see them. Of course, online poker players know that betting patterns and ranges are a far more reliable method of reading hands – but that's not to say that there are no tells to be spotted at the online poker tables. Here's some of the more common ones:
A bet sizing tell is one of the tells that can be found in both online poker and live poker. Some players will bet larger amounts relative to the size of the pot with their bluffs to avoid a call, whereas some will bet larger amounts with their value hands to get a bigger payoff or to make it look like a bluff.
Novice players will sometimes bet a peculiar amount with a bluff that leaves them with an even number in their stack – for example, a new player with $43.59 might bet $13.59 on the river; the logic is that "if I am called at least I will still have $30 remaining."
These poker tells are not subtle. We recommend you never use the chatbox unless you are making a final table deal in a tournament, but if you have the option of hiding player chat do not take it. It's rare, but sometimes players will make the mistake of using the chat and telling you their hand.
The old tenet of "weak means strong and strong means weak" applies here, and a player who is chatting in a way that encourages you to call probably isn't holding the nuts.
Here's another tell that you can use at the live tables as well as online. If a player takes an inordinate amount of time to act before the flop prior to raising or calling, you can assume they have a speculative hand. If the action folds to a player who then ponders a while before raising, you can assume they don't have a big pair or total trash and weight their range towards suited connectors and other speculative hands.
The same logic applies after the flop but in reverse – a quick call often indicates a draw or a medium-strength hand as a monster hand would have to consider raising and a weak hand would have to consider bluffing.
All poker tells are player-dependent. You can't sit at your regular online poker games, see someone make a certain bet or take a certain length of time with a hand and then establish that as a definitive and reliable read. Like all opponent tendencies, it has to be observed regularly before you can rely on it for making decisions.
Whether you play live poker or online poker, a read on an opponent based on a tell should not be the focus of your decision-making, but rather a factor in it alongside opponent history, table dynamics and metagame.