Are Poker Tells Real? Part One

by Henry Jablonski
on June 27, 2017

Hollywood has made this question a fun one that always gets asked of me at least once a month. Anyone who has seen the movie Rounders or read ANY poker book wants to know if tells are real. More importantly, they want to know if they can use them to get reads on their opponents and ultimately win more money.

As with any topic that is widely misunderstood by the public, there are some truths and some incorrect statements that are floating around. What I’d like to do first is break through some of the information floating around out there and let you know what’s real and what is just Hollywood lore. I’d also like to break down exactly how you want to mix tells into your game and ultimately talk about some specific tells that do exist and ones that do not.

This, of course, is going to be quite a bit of information, so I expect this blog to be broken up into a couple different parts. If you’re just interested in learning the tells, I HIGHLY recommend that you still read every part of this blog as there will be pertinent information sprinkled throughout that is important to understanding the individual tells.

Do Tells Exist?

Surprise! They do. It’s been said that only 20-30% of our communication is verbal and the rest is non-verbal. There’s a reason that the FBI and police interrogators study body language intently to understand what people are saying or trying to hide. People give away TONS of information when they talk and carry on through their everyday lives.

This isn’t just the case at the poker table. All day and every day people are giving away information via body language whether they know it or not. You would be beyond amazed at how few people know how much they are giving away with their body language. The funny part is that most people that do think they know what is going on when it comes to tells and non-verbal communication know very little.

Two Types of Tells

I’m going to spare you the full dive into how the brain works and just give you the takeaways that you need to understand the two different types of tells. Different bodily functions and decisions are decided on by different sections of your brain. There are sections that you have decision-making control over, and there are sections that are automatically programmed to function on their own without your input.

Tells come from these two different sections of your brain. Some tells are a reaction based on conscious decisions you make, and some automatically happen without your “consent.” For example, when you get nervous, you might decide to cover your face. While this may be automatic, it is still something that you are able to control. On the other hand, you may get nervous and start sweating. This is something that you cannot control.

While this is an extreme generalization, it is enough information to get us going in the right direction. All of these tells are important, but the ones that happen automatically without your control carry a lot more weight. Why? Because you have no way of faking these. You can choose to scratch your face to pretend to be nervous, but you can’t really force yourself to start sweating.

It’s probably important to point out that a few of these toe the line of “being on both sides” for our intents and purposes only. What I mean is that the scratching of the face is going to be automatic for some players who are unaware of it but can be faked and forced by those attempting to be deceptive. The point here is to be aware of this and to give more weight to the tells that are not able to be faked at all.

The Importance of Baselines

There is one thing that gets more people in trouble with tells than anything. People forget to establish baselines and take them into account when making their reads.  What is a baseline? Let me tell you a story to give you a good idea of what they are and why they are so important.

The story comes from a home game when I first started playing poker. The stakes were low, but the story proves the same point. There was a big hand between two players and one player stood up and moved all in right after the river. The next player snap-called him with fourth pair convinced he was bluffing. Why did he think he was bluffing? He had realized that every time the player bluffed, they stood up first.

Did the player with fourth pair discover an intensely effective tell that would have him laughing all the way to the bank? Nope. The first player turned over the nuts. Where did the player go wrong? Well, he forgot to establish a baseline. He forgot to notice what they “status quo” was for this other player. The player was standing up on EVERY hand, not just the bluffs because they had forgotten their glasses at home and couldn’t see the last card on the other end of the table.

If the player had realized that the other player stood up on every single river (a.k.a their baseline, a.k.a what they normally do), they would never have made this incorrect read.

Here’s another example from a $10k buy-in WPT event I played in Canada. Same situation where there was a big pot on the river and the player on my left shoved all in for a ton of chips. The other player facing the action thought forever and stared his opponent down looking for a read. That’s when he thought he saw one. His opponent was shaking obviously in fear. Being the smart player he was, he knew this was the type of tell that couldn’t be controlled, so he made the big call.

He was wrong. But why? As you probably guessed, he didn’t establish a baseline. If he had paid attention to how the player was normally acting, he would have realized that he was shaking continuously. We were in Canada, and the freezing air from outside was coming in. He had been shivering for about two hours straight. But, because this player didn’t establish a baseline, they had no idea what was a tell and what was normal behavior or behavior as a result of outside circumstances.

If you’ve ever seen a lie detector test administered, you see that they ask a bunch of “silly” questions before hand that they can easily determine to be the truth or a lie. This is to establish a baseline and see how the person normally acts when telling the truth and when telling a lie.

Establishing a Baseline

The obvious next question is how to establish a baseline in a poker tournament (or anywhere in life for that matter). The answer is surprisingly simple. All you have to do is pay attention and remember what you see. You also have to realize that it’s going to take a while to establish a baseline. You can’t really watch someone for 5 or 10 minutes and have a good solid baseline.

Does this mean you should ignore the information you have? No. Sometimes you have to make a decision with limited information and hope for the best. I’m just saying to slowly add more and more weight to your reads the more and more time you have to observe an opponent.

When you’re observing, make sure you pay attention to how they normally are acting. Look for things that they are doing on every hand or things that seem to stick out as out of the ordinary. Pay attention to how they’re breathing, how they’re sitting, and how they’re speaking and carrying themselves. You’re really trying to soak up as much information as you can about the person.

Give more weight to things that happen during hands. Some people have tells and tendencies that only happen when they mentally “check in” to the game. When they’re sitting there playing on their phone, they may be acting totally different, and the information is going to be less helpful.

The tricky part is that you have to be trying to watch all players at the same time. Gather as much information as you can and realize that you’re not going to get everything. Rely on your subconscious and really just look for things that stick out.

For example, in the Canada example, you can bet your bottom dollar that I was well aware that the player had been shaking continuously for several hours. I watched him for a few minutes and “checked back in” every now and then to make sure things were continuing. You don’t have to be Rain Man to be able to baseline players. A lot of times your self-conscious picks up way more than you’re aware of. This is why the next section is conveniently titled as it is.

Relying on Your Self-Conscious

Your body is a lot more amazing of a tool than you might be aware of. We have the ability to recognize and catalog information that we’re not even aware that we are processing. How does this relate to catching tells? Your body is going to be subconsciously baselining people and collecting data as long as you program it to do so. From years of playing poker, my brain and body know to collect this information and pay attention even when I might seem to be mentally checked out.

So how do you go about recalling this information that’s in your brain that you aren’t aware of? First, this only works if you’re paying some sort of attention and your subconscious knows it’s supposed to be looking for information. I could go into the science behind a lot of this but for the sake of brevity, let’s just trust me 🙂 The way this information is recalled is through your “gut-feeling.”

Have you ever been in a situation (at the table or away) where you had a feeling about something and knew you were right but didn’t know why? This is your brain recalling that cataloged information. Our subconscious minds are able to dig through this data and give us their opinion. There’s a reason that a lot of people say to trust your gut instinct.

Should you always just go with your gut? Conveniently, the next and last section of Part One is going to address this.

How Much Weight to Put on Tells

The issue a lot of people have as soon as they learn about tells is that they let them take over their game and wreck their logical thinking processes. I’ll see people with a perfect read on the situation based on bets, history, and actions throw that out the window because they saw a player’s lip quiver. Just to let you know, they were wrong about the situation.

Here’s how I choose to use tells. I am always on the lookout for them, but I only rely on them when I’m faced with tough decisions that I can’t decide on. When I have an on the fence decision, I’ll see if I can get any sort of read on the opponent to push me one way or the other. You want to make sure that you don’t alert your opponent that you’re doing this or they may start giving off some false tells to try and mess you up. I will, of course, give them much more weight if I catch onto something that is blatant and obviously not on purpose.

The bottom line is that I use tells in close spots or when I spot something blatant. For the most part, I rely on reading into the action and bets of my opponents as well as their playing tendencies. Too often, I see people throw everything to the wind for the sake of a tell, and they’re wrong. Please don’t be that guy or girl just because you want to look like a cool hero.

Part One Wrap Up

Hopefully, now you have a general understanding of the reality of tells, what types exist, what you can do with them, and how you have to proceed to make sure you don’t make a huge blunder. In the next part of this blog series, I’m going to start digging into actual tells. I’m also going to look at a few “tells” that are not actual tells, but people like to think that they are. These might be the biggest money savers for you so stay tuned my friends.

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