How to Protect Yourself from Giving Off Tells
Giving off tells is a very common worry for live poker players, and with good reason. If you are unaware of what signs you are giving off, a lot of your opponents will find it quite easy to make solid reads on you. As legitimate of a concern as this is, there's little reason why you can't be more protective of any tells that you might be giving off. Some players try so hard to be calm and stoic that they end up giving away even more information than they otherwise would have. Keeping your hand a mystery is largely up to whether or not you have absolute focus on the hand in front of you.
There's a big difference between giving off false tells and simply doing your best to give off no tells whatsoever. Creating believable false tells will take a lot of time, practice, and most importantly, experience. Remaining deceptive and free of tells is much easier to do. There's a big, sensationalized deal made out of "poker faces" and other similar terms, but the truth is that it's not really a big deal. Have you ever watched a player like Chris Ferguson or Phil Ivey? They keep their hand strength deceptive because they don't do anything that could be read as meaning one thing or another. As mentioned earlier, the most important element is found in a player's ability to remain focused, and that's what this article aims to teach.
Two Main Approaches
There are two different ways that you can best defend against giving away tells to your opponents. The first thing that you can do is to practice in the same manner each and every time. This could mean waiting five seconds before each action, then placing chips in the same manner, holding your hands/head in the same place, and so on and so forth.
The other option is to (knowingly) mix up your actions so much that it's impossible for someone to associate one action with a specific hand strength. The only flaw to this approach is that you may subconsciously do one thing or another depending upon where you stand without really thinking about it. You might not realize it, but maybe you tend to hold your cards when you are strong, or maybe you shuffle chips when you are weak. There are positives and negatives to each approach, that much is certain.
Consistent actions may very well draw the ire of your opponents, especially if you are taking a long time with each decision that you make. There are also some other problems with this strategy. Let's say that you have stuck to waiting five seconds before you make any pre-flop decision. What if you are in a spot where the player immediately before you has made a three bet and you have a pretty good hand. Acting in five seconds exactly would be detrimental because this isn't an apt amount of time to make a sound decision. Instead you would like to mull over your options in an attempt to make the best play. When you put yourself in a spot like this, you are inadvertently giving away your hand strength.
An alternate way to keep consistent with your play at the table is to use the same mannerisms alone. You don't necessarily have to act in the same time frame in every hand, and in fact, this wouldn't even be advisable. What you can do instead is to make sure you keep your hands in the same place each hand, sit in the same way, think with the same head tilt, etc. These are the types of things that people will be able to pick up on.
Now, if you are going to try and be perfectly steady with how you are behaving, you are going to also need to pay attention to even the smallest of details. Things like how fast you chew gum, whether you take a sip of your drink, smiling at a joke at the table, these are all pieces of information that can be used against you. If you think that staying consistent is your best chance at making yourself as unreadable as possible, you need to be sure that you have every base covered, as one slip up could negate everything else you worked on.
Varied actions are the easiest way to keep your opponents thinking and off guard. For example, when you are dealt your pocket cards pre-flop, you'll check them and then either let them sit, put a card protector on them, or maybe hold or cover them. In many cases, a player who is holding their cards is leaning towards a fold. Likewise, a player who sets his cards down or puts a card protector over them is probably looking to see a flop. If you start to hold your cards as if you were going to fold, but then make some calls or raises, you are going to eliminate the tell that exists within this particular action.
One of my personal favorite ways to confuse players with your tells is through shuffling chips. If you shuffle chips at totally inordinate times, you are going to lose your opponent. They'll be trying to read into what your shuffles mean, but if they contradict themselves, this type of insight will be rendered useless.
Look at it this way: if you can shuffle your chips so randomly that even you don't know what it means, you are probably doing a good job. This is truly the key with preserving all tells at the table. Any experienced player is likely to have noticed that they had some sort of tell, but the key is to correct it. Many players won't even be able to pick up on tells even if they are incredibly obvious, but you don't want to take a chance that someone will. Find what tells you have and then act in a way that this old tell now can mean anything under the sun.
An example of an action at the table that gives away tons of information is the way that chips are bet. A clean stack, a counted out stack, tossed mess of chips, these are all different ways that you can place your chips into the pot. While acting very consistently can be a challenge, you should try and place bets in the same way each and every time. There's always going to be an instinctual, comfortable way in which you go to grab your chips for a bet. If you steer clear of this particular instinct, you are going to be much better off in the long run. When someone is trying to piece together a read, they think about what they would do. Use this strategy to counter your opponents plan.
Author: Jonathan Wanchalk
Updated: March 2015
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