Are Poker Tells Real? Part Two

by Henry Jablonski
on June 29, 2017

For those of you following along here from Part One, you’ve made it to the meat and potatoes of the blog series. For those of you that stumbled here first, I HIGHLY recommend you read the first part of the series. Actually, I IMPLORE that you do because there is so much important information in there that is key to making sure you get the most out of this. I don’t pull out my big kid vocabulary very often, so you have to know that I am serious.

Here’s the link if you missed it.

Are Poker Tells Real? Part One

Seriously, if you got here and haven’t read the entire Part One, please do it.

Now that we’re all on the same page, I want to start digging into a few of the meat and potatoes of poker tells. The best way to do this is probably to start by talking about a few of my favorite tells organized by the area of the body. As I mentioned in Part One, I’m also going to mention some “tells” that people seem to think exist but in reality are just rubbish (a fun word for our UK readers and friends).

Something that I think goes without saying, but I’m going to say it just in case –  These are nowhere near all of the tells that exist. These aren’t even a small fraction of the ones that exist. What you’re getting here are just a few of my favorites and ones that I think need to be discussed. Most likely, there will be a third part to this series because there are so many great tells that need to be discussed.

The Hands

There are a handful of tells concerning the hands. Yes, that was on purpose. Hands fall into the category of tells that can usually be faked outside of shaking (which sometimes can still be faked or can mean two different things.

Crossing of the Hands

A general rule of thumb (also on purpose) is that any crossing of the body is a sign of weakness and fear. This is typically thought to be because people will cross their arms and such to coddle themselves like a hug from their mother or as a defensive type stance to protect their vital organs. I find this one to be fairly true, though, a lot of people are opting for not moving at all when they are involved in a hand. This is one that you’re most likely only going to be able to pick up from an amateur who is clueless to what they are doing.

Scratching of the Face/Head

A lot of people when they’re nervous (a.k.a bluffing) will move their hands towards their face in what is thought to be a comfort move like when we were babies, and we sucked our thumbs. Since it is not cool to suck your thumb as an adult, most people will subconsciously catch this in mid-flight and turn it into a face scratch or an ear scratch. While I don’t see this one that often, I see it a lot more than you might expect.

Remember, this one can easily be faked, and you should be on the lookout for this. Catching someone doing a fake tell is just as valuable if not more than catching a real tell (as long as you can tell the difference). If I know that someone is trying to make me think they are weak, I know for a fact they are strong. I have never seen it, but I guess someone could technically give off a fake tell that’s supposed to get spotted on purpose when they’re actually weak? That hurts my brain to think about.

Petting Yourself

This one is definitely one of my favorites and the one I probably see the most out of the ones on this list. What do you do to your dog when they are nervous? You pet them to calm them down. What do you do to yourself when you are nervous? Surprise. You have the tendency to pet yourself or lightly rub yourself to ease the tension. If you don’t believe me, pay attention next time you are really nervous. You probably are doing this one.

This one is not as easy to spot as someone petting a dog as it’s not a full-on arm motion, but it usually is a small petting with a few fingers. This can be on the arm, on the neck, or sometimes on the face very slowly and sneakily. Most people that do this one won’t even realize they are doing it unless they are doing it as a false tell.

Shaking Hands

No, I am not talking about a greeting here. I’m talking about trembling in fear. Surprisingly, this one happens to people a lot, and it’s on our coveted uncontrollable list. When people are nervous or scared, they are likely to shake. Do all people shake when they’re nervous? No. But a surprising amount of people do.

There are a few things you have to pay attention to with this one. Notice I said that people shake when they’re really nervous and not necessarily when they are bluffing. Some people are nervous as crap the entire time they are playing poker. This means they are going to shake all of the time. Remember when we talked about gaining a baseline? This is where that is going to come into play.

Also, for some strange reason, on rare occasions, players will shake with excitement when they have a huge hand instead of when they are bluffing. This I have found to be rare but definitely happens. Again, look for a baseline and look at what hands people have when you see them shaking.

Yes, you could argue that this one is fakeable, but I have yet to see anyone that can pull off a good fake shake. If you can, you’re going to get me as long as you can keep it going the entire time and then flip it in a hand with me. Basically, once I establish causation with this one, I tend to put a lot more weight into it than the other tells.

The Eyes

Pupil Dilation

This one is pretty tough to see especially if someone is wearing sunglasses, but this one is gold if you happen to catch it. Most people say this isn’t catchable, but I’ll tell you a quick true story of mine after I explain the premise of this tell that will show you that it actually is catchable.

When people see something that they like, their pupils are going to dilate. This means they’re going to get bigger. This happens when you see someone you love and also happens when your flush hits on the river.  For this exact reason, romantic restaurants have dim lighting because dim lighting will also cause your eyes to dilate. This will trick the self-conscious part of the brain into thinking it’s enjoying itself even if you’re on a horrendous first date.

Here’s my quick story that I promise you is 100% true. I was playing in a hand against two other players in an event in Spain. I did horrendously in the event, but at least I got this great story out of it. I was in a hand where I had flopped a set and ended up going to the river versus two players. As the last card hit, I was looking at one of the players who was staring at the board.

The player looked eager to see the last card which initially led me to believe they were on the flush draw. (This is the next tell we’re going to talk about with the eyes). As the card hit, her pupils grew insanely big. I literally flew out of my chair because I couldn’t believe the tell was real. It’s the most excited I’ve ever been to find out that I was losing a big pot.

She bet big, and I snap-folded. The other player made a crying call, and she turned over the nut flush. I wish I could tell you how excited I was to be losing that big pot. This is a tell that I would put extremely high on the reliability scale, but extremely low on the ability to see scale. A lot of people wear sunglasses which makes this hard to see. It’s also nearly impossible to see unless you are looking at an opponent on your end of the table. You also have to be looking at the exact time that they see the card and get the feeling of excitement.

It basically has to be a bit of a perfect storm to see this tell but if you catch it, you can trust it. I’ve only caught it a handful of times in my poker career, but it’s saved me a ton of money. It’s also made me a ton of money once because I had the nuts but could tell my opponent hit the river hard as well, and they thought they had the best hand.

The Chip Gaze

I was hesitant to list this one because this one gets faked quite a bit by circuit grinders and such. However, it is still done so much by amateurs that it has to be talked about. When the flop or a card hits that they like, amateurs will immediately look to their stacks to “figure out how much they’re going to bet.” This is a lot like if you were sitting in a room with a weapon and someone sketchy walks in, you’re likely to glance at your weapon to make sure it’s still there. Sorry for the dark example.

The reason I was hesitant on listing this one is that it gets faked so often. Here’s the bottom line with this one. If the player has any clue what they are doing at the game, you want to shy away from using this one. If they’re totally clueless, I would give this one a lot more weight. The easiest way to decide how much weight to give it is to baseline your opponent. If they do this every time they have a good hand, surprise, you’ve found an insanely valuable tell.

Some Additional Thoughts

It looks like I’m definitely going to be doing a third part to this blog series where I discuss a few more regions of the body. I still want to talk about the face and general body tells that don’t really fall into a main body category. Expect to see that soon with some real goodies in there.

Remember, none of these tells really work without establishing a baseline for how someone behaves. There really aren’t any golden rules that are true for everyone outside of maybe the pupil dilation from this article and a few other select ones. Without a baseline, you’re basically guessing and hoping that you’re right. If you are new to a table and have no baseline, you can attempt to gauge what something means for most people in a situation, but be aware that you’re playing with fire.

Also, I wanted to mention this earlier but didn’t so I’m going to add it in here. A ton of tells tell you when someone is nervous and when they’re uncomfortable. The problem with this is that sometimes people are always nervous and not just when they’re bluffing. While most of the times this sort of behavior will match with bluffs, it can also happen in bigger tournaments when someone has a huge hand. I can definitely recall being nervous in a big tournament when I had the nuts because it was such a big moment. Keep this in your mind and adjust your baseline as the tournament goes on and situations change.

Stay tuned for the next installment of this blog where I’ll get into some more tells of different body regions.

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