Body Language in Live Poker
Body language is one of the two ways that you are going to pick up on the majority of tells in live poker. You can learn a lot from hearing someone talk, but many players won't talk much if at all when they are in a hand. Because of this you need to learn how to gain information from other, more subtle clues that are available.
Unlike talking, body language is much more difficult to provoke. You'll undoubtedly get someone to shift around when speaking to them, but you can't read directly into these actions in the same way that you would with something spoken. Body language is the type of thing that you'll get infinitely better at reading as time goes on. This could be said about most any skill in poker, but picking up on tells is truly something that requires actual game play experience to learn and improve upon.
Body language comes, to me, in two different varieties. First there are the standard actions that occur well before a hand gets overly involved. This would include pre-flop play and the first street or post-flop action. The next type of body language is demonstrated when someone is involved in a more significant pot. A player might place a river all in bet or be facing a decision when they start to really squirm around. Of course, if they are acting last, their body language is irrelevant to the outcome of a hand. If, however, you are deciding whether to call a player's bet, you can make an educated guess based largely on how they are acting. Using these two defined types of body language, we are going to take a closer look at what you should be keeping an eye out for.
Pre-Flop, Basic Body Language
Pre-flop body language is generally going to be tame and even mundane, but it can come into play later on in a hand. If you think that a player is acting particularly strong pre-flop, you could factor this into your decision making if there's a bet on the flop, turn or river. Your goal as a player is to always be piecing together the most believable story. If a player seemed passive or weak pre-flop but is now trying to pretend like they have a big pocket pair, you should be able to pick up on this sort of irregularity.
Players who tense up and start looking onto the action with a very intent demeanor should worry you the most. This is often times a tell that a player is strong and is ready to get down to business. When this same player has a smaller hand, they are more inclined to play passively and/or without as much intensity. If you think about it, there's a good chance that you are doing the same exact thing.
An example of a player who is very interested in their hand will be someone who has their eyes darting from player to player while they remain quiet. This same player will also make sure their cards are in a safe place and may even place a card protector on them. Another way to spot weakness is when a player looks nervous but is actually trying to act as if they are very calm. A reverse tell is huge in poker. Players will only be able to hide their actual feelings to a certain extent. If someone seems like they are ready to explode with pent up anxiety and are trying to shuffle their chips anyway, be careful when you get involved with them.
The obvious body language moves are also the most common. For example, players with small hands will usually toss their chips into the pot playfully. They won't take the time to count out chips neatly and precisely because deep down they aren't overly concerned with the pot at hand. A player who seems generally disinterested will usually be just as disinterested as they seem. For the most part, body language in pre-flop play will coordinate with the types of hand strengths that you would expect. It isn't until post-flop play that most players start to really hide their true emotions.
Post-Flop, Intense Body Language
Post-flop is when the bigger amounts of money tend to get involved. Players don't want to give away any valuable information and will be making every effort possible to ensure that their hand strength is kept as secretive as possible. Though some players have come close to mastering the art of deception through body language, the majority of your opponents will end up giving away a few tells that can be used to your advantage.
The player who sits back in their chair after making a big bet isn't someone you should take lightly. While sometimes this player is in fact weak, they are usually making a big bet and trying to act as nonchalant as possible. They will often times cross their arms and make it seem like they are just waiting for you to call so that they can muck. If a player is putting this much effort into trying to appear as if he is relaxed, you can make a safe guess that he is really on pins and needles hoping you call. This is one way that players try to keep their emotions at bay whilst giving off vibes of weakness despite actually being strong.
As a rule of thumb, a player who is putting forth an obvious effort to appear strong isn't necessarily strong. Think about it, what kind of player would want everyone else at the table to have an idea of just how valuable their hand is? Players who act like they have a big hand do so because they need to convince their opponents that they are beat. They figure, and sometimes rightfully so, that an aggressive and intimidating image will be enough to force a fold. You need to be able to see past this façade and determine whether it is at all honest.
In the end, poker is a game of deception and trickery. If you assume that someone's outward emotions are true indicators of how they are feeling, you are likely to get burned time and time again. Instead, look at what makes sense, see if you can really get a feeling for where they stand, and put together a believable story. If everything adds up, chances are that you are on the right path.
Author: Jonathan Wanchalk
Updated: March 2015
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