Tells are one of the most over dramatized elements of winning in poker. The truth is
that it generally takes a relatively inexperienced or weak
player in order to really be able to capitalize on tells.
Luckily, live poker is chock full of weak and inexperienced players.
Tells are just as much about reading your opponents as
they are about not giving away information on your own strength
(or lack thereof). In this article we are going to outline what
you should look for as a player when you are trying to pick up
information on your opponent, how to keep your own hands
disguised, and everything in between.
True Tells and False Tells
Live poker is unique in that you’ll be able to speak to
your opponents first hand. As a result of this, many players
will do their best to try and dissuade you from the truth.
Needless to say, a lot of players do a terrible job of acting
and often times will produce perfect reverse tells. A sound
example of a reverse tell is when a player shakes their head,
bemoans their luck, and then proceeds to either place a bet or
make a raise.
If you think about it, why would a player who just
got unlucky either raise or place a bet? They wouldn’t, but they
are hoping that you are somehow naïve enough to believe that
they both wear their emotions on their sleeves and hand you
Another example of a false tell is when a player makes a call
and acts like they have no chance of winning. They will say
things like “I’ll pay you off,” or “I think you’re on a draw” or
other miscellaneous phrases along these lines. The only thing
that you really have to do in these spots is either assume
extreme strength or total weakness. Players who talk are usually
at either end of the spectrum and seldom have the type of hand
that they want you to believe they are holding.
The one exception to this rule would be on the river. If a
player has a mediocre hand and simply wants to get to showdown,
they may say something like "be careful," or "I got you," or
even "don’t do it," etc. This is all done in a simple attempt to goad you
into checking down instead of betting. This intimidation does
actually work on a lot of people, and especially against newer
or less experienced players. While it doesn’t invite an
opportunity to bluff (since live players tend to hate folding
their hands), it doesn’t mean that you should play into their
Now that we have run through a number of different false or
reverse tells, it’s now time to consider true tells in live
poker. These tells aren’t as easy to pick up on but will be
much more valuable. There’s a common misconception in poker
that every player has some sort of obvious tell that always
means something, but this couldn’t be further from the truth.
Sure, you might run into the occasional player who always rubs
their ear when they have a big hand, but it doesn’t usually work
Live poker tells are much more about betting patterns,
betting motions, tone of voice, and timing tells. Since these
are the four different primary indicators of a tell in live
poker, we will take a look at each one in-depth.
A betting pattern is how someone bets from street to street.
If a player raises pre-flop, then leads the flop for half the
size of the pot, again on the turn, and then bombs the river,
this would be an example of a betting pattern tell. This
specific scenario will almost always mean that the player in
question either has a monster hand or nothing at all. Why would
they bomb the river for any other reason? They either want you
to fold very badly, or they want you to call very badly. The
real obstacle in using these tells is determining which one
makes more sense.
Once you have identified an obvious betting pattern tell, you
need to then figure out what it means. Every single hand,
player, and situation is going to be slightly different from the
next, so it’s impossible to say which scenario is more likely
without looking at a specific hand. It’s your job as a winning
player to be able to put the most likely story together in your
head and to then act on what you have decided is correct. You
won’t always be right in these spots, but you’ll still be
profitable if you are right more often than you are wrong.
Betting motions are perhaps the easiest way to pick up a tell
on an opponent. In fact, betting motions are one of the only
tells that can be used over and over again. Some players will
act in the same way every single time they are on a draw, have a
weak hand, have a strong hand, etc. The best way to spot a
betting motion tell is to pay attention in any sizable pot that
gets to showdown.
Think about the way that a player tossed their
chips into the pot and match that action with their hand. If a
player neatly stacked their chips and forcibly bet in stacks for
three stacks, only to be caught bluffing on the river, you now
have information that can be incredibly valuable down the line.
Likewise, some players will toss their chips into the pot,
even splashing the pot when they are calling down with a big
hand. They do this in an attempt to feign weakness or a lack of
interest in the hand, but it’s usually quite the opposite. Some
players will carefully make their bets in the same manner each
and every time though, so you won’t be able to pick up as
much information against this type of opponent.
Tone of Voice
Tone of voice may be the toughest way to pick up a tell on a
player, but it’s useful nonetheless. If a player is talking
very quietly and with short answers, you’ll likely find that
they have different hand strength than when they are talkative
and talk with emphasis. Some people will try to joke around in a
hand, smiling and laughing with others in the midst of a pot.
This type of information is huge. As was the case with betting
motions and just about any other tell, you’ll need to
correlate how someone talks in one hand with what they ended up
having in that particular pot.
Timing tells are the most universal and set in stone tells in
live poker. Players who act quickly tend to have a certain set
of hands, whereas players who think for a while are likely to
have another. Because poker hands and situations are virtually
infinite, it’s impossible to define exactly what timing tells
are likely to mean, but there are some guidelines that are worth
following and keeping in the back of your mind.
A quick call on a draw heavy board will often mean a draw.
The player isn’t even thinking about raising and they want to
see another card: two obvious signs that a player is looking to
make their hand.
A quick raise is either extreme strength or complete
weakness. A player who does this is either over confident or
very unconfident in their hand. Both of these hands have already
made their mind up about what they are going to do, and since
they lack discipline, they will act quickly and tip their hand.
Plus, acting quick with a weak hand is one way that players try
to act much stronger than they truly are.
Delayed actions are the biggest wildcard, but they are
usually either super strength or a drawing hand, with bluffs
being the least common. The majority of live players who
contemplate for a while and then act will usually be weak.
Players tend to lose their motivation to make a big bluff as
time goes on and they think more and more. This isn’t to say
that bluffs are impossible, but instead that they aren’t very
likely. If there are two plays to be most wary of, they are
quick raises and any delayed action, with delayed raises
typically carrying the most strength.
Your Own Tells
Just as you’ll be working to pick up tells on other players
at your table, so will your opponents also be looking for information
on your hands. When it comes to protecting your hand strength
and making yourself as immune to tells as possible, the advice
is actually quite simple and straightforward.
The best thing that you can do is to act in the same manner in every hand.
While this is easier said than done, concentration will go a
long way to accomplishing this goal. By betting in the same way
with your chips, calling with the same speed, talking in the
same ways, and using betting patterns that make sense, you’ll
effectively throw off most all of your opponents.
The trouble for many players is found in the temptation to
get fancy in order to manipulate other players. Those who talk a
lot will always be either swaying their opponent to either do
what they want or they will be screwing themselves into the
Since you will be walking a thin line by talking and
getting out of line with your actions, your best bet is to
simply stay quiet and act in the same way in each and every
hand. If you have a knack for throwing players off by talking a
lot at the table, go for it, but be prepared to receive some
undesired calls as a result of your speeches.
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