Poker Tells - Online & Live

Poker would be an easy game if we always knew what cards our opponents held! While this is rarely possible, observant players with good intuition are able to use their knowledge of poker tells to filter their opponents’ ranges. In extreme cases it can even be possible to predict exactly which cards they hold.

Of course this is the far end of the spectrum, though most players are able to improve their hand-reading abilities through studying poker tells. It may not always be necessary to determine a player’s exact hand, but it’s always useful to be able to gauge their relative strength.

Zachary Elwood is the author of Reading Poker Tells and Verbal Poker Tells, two popular and well-reviewed books on poker tells and player behavior. Below he reveals the top 10 most important and money-making poker tells for live players, after which we share some great additional tells to focus on when playing online.


The Top 10 Live Poker Tells

The usefulness of live poker tells can vary a lot and it is important to understand that different players have different patterns. Professional poker players can have patterns that vary greatly when compared to beginner-level players. Other tells are common but unreliable, while others 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 10 of the most useful poker tells to watch out for.

Before we continue, however, 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.

1. Defensive Chip Handling

This is when a waiting-to-act player handles their chips in such a way as to imply that they 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 their 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 their hand on, or near, their 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 games, 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 unlikely. Ruling out an opponent raising can enable you to value-bet some borderline hands that you might have otherwise checked.

2. Stillness Versus Loose Movement

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 they had a lot of small, relaxed movements; they played with their chips, flexed their neck a bit, their arms moved around on the rail, their gaze moved to and from their opponent to the cards and back again several times, etc.

Later, you study this player when they’re making a big bluff and, this time, they stared stoically at the board cards and their body was very still. It's likely this player has this tendency, and you should make a mental note to keep studying them in these post-bet situations.

3. Immediate Calls

Of all the bet-timing tells, immediate calls are probably the most useful, both for online poker and live games. When a player instantly 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, they 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 preflop 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 poker tells, 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 they 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.

4. Immediate Bets

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:

  • An immediate decent-sized bet will usually indicate a polarized range (either strong or weak). With medium-strength hands, players are motivated to think about the best possible strategy (whether to bet or not, how much to bet, etc.). So immediate large bets will typically be bluffs, or strong hands. In most cases, it's harder to have a strong hand than it is to have a weak hand, so there's a natural bias towards weaker hands.
  • With strong hands, players are more likely to be focused on maximizing value and playing the hand in the best way possible. This means that there is a natural tendency for players with strong hands to take some time to think about bet-sizing and other strategic considerations.
  • Bluffers don't have as much to think about as players with strong hands. A bluffer usually just knows they have to make a decent-sized bet. Often a bluffer has already decided on the previous round that they’re going to bluff if they don't improve; they have a plan in place, which makes an immediate bet on the next round more likely. This is especially true for the player who's been the aggressor in the hand.
  • Bluffers have a motivation to seem confident, and one way to appear confident is to bet without too much of a pause. Conversely, players with strong hands can have the opposite motivation: to seem uncertain and contemplative. This is also a factor in making immediate bets more likely to be weak hands.

Even with all these factors, you should remember that this is just a general tendency. 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 you’re 50/50 on whether to call or fold, you might decide to use the immediacy of their bet as a tie-breaker.

Phil Ivey stares down a rival player in a casino game of poker.

Poker legend Phil Ivey is known for his intimidating stare. (Image: Chris Wallace)

5. Eye Contact After Betting

A lot of past poker tells wisdom dictates 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 actually two major eye-contact behavioral patterns to watch out for:

  • Pattern #1: Making more eye contact after betting a strong hand (due to being relaxed and not being afraid to interact). Making less eye contact after bluffing (due to being anxious and wanting to avoid scrutiny).
  • Pattern #2: Making less eye contact after betting a strong hand (due to wanting to appear "weak"). Making more eye contact after bluffing (in order to appear "strong").

Notice that these are exactly opposite patterns.

This demonstrates the complexity possible in this type of behavior and poker tells 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 their opponents after betting strong hands, especially after action-ending bets (e.g. 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, which 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.

6. Staring Defensively

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, in a similar fashion to defensive chip handling.

Players with strong hands, who don't mind an opponent betting, or may even want them to, will tend to avoid behaviors like staring that might discourage action.

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. That same player's eyes might, when they hold 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.

A poker player at the table wears a COVID mask bearing a clown's smile.

Some fake smiles are easier to spot than others. (Image: Chris Wallace)

7. Genuine Smiles

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 may 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 gauge their relaxation and probable strength. On the other hand, noticing 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?

  • Real smiles are deeper than fake smiles, involving more of the mouth.
  • Real smiles involve the muscles of the eyes. They will often crinkle the outer edges of the eyes, making the well-known "crow's feet" pattern.
  • Real smiles are more dynamic and more likely to have many small facial movements associated with them, whereas fake smiles will often appear “pasted on” and static.
  • Real smiles are more likely to be symmetrical, usually involving both sides of the mouth. Fake smiles are often asymmetrical and involve only one side of the mouth.

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 they’re bluffing. This could perhaps be an unconscious attempt on their part to communicate confidence. But without prior player history, a fake smile won't tell you much.

8. Long Looks at Hole Cards

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 preflop, by ruling out action behind you. For example, you notice two players behind you staring at their hole cards, and 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 from those players behind you have become unlikely.

Another example. You notice a player in late position staring at their cards for a few seconds. Then, when the action comes to them, they raise. If you've already noticed this is a generally valuable tell for this particular player, you can adjust your strategy accordingly, either re-raising them light or opting to only call with your very strong hands.

This poker tell pattern is most useful preflop but sometimes will come in handy post-flop. For example, if a player studies the flop and then holds their 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.

9. Staring at Board Cards

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 competitors’ 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.

10. Verbal Defensiveness

Most talking from waiting-to-act players will be defensive in nature. The two main reasons for this pattern are:

  • Waiting-to-act players with strong hands don't like to draw attention to themselves. People who set traps don't usually draw attention to the trap, so players with strong hands yet to act will tend to be silent.
  • Waiting-to-act players with weak hands often know they're folding to another bet. They have a motivation to say something, no matter what it is, to discourage a bet. This helps explain the rather desperate nature of some defensive statements.

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 they have 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.


The CardsChat Guide to Online Poker Tells

Tells are one of the most romanticized 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 poker’s winners from its losers.

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 are three of the more common ones to watch out for.

Bet Sizing Tells

A bet sizing tell is one that can be found in both online 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 being that "if I am called at least I will still have $30 remaining."

Timing Tells

Here's another tell 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 very strong hand would consider raising while a weak one would consider bluffing.

Chat Tells

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 to literally tell 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.

A Final Note

All poker tells are player-dependent. You can't 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.