A Texas holdem poker tell is any action that gives away
information about the strength of a player’s hand.
Here’s an example:
If one of your opponents touches her nose every time she’s
bluffing she’s giving a tell.
Or if another opponent runs his left hand through his hair
every time he has the nuts he’s giving a tell.
Tells can be profitable in the right situations, but they can
be as harmful as helpful in others. In the sections below you’ll
find good and bad things about tells, how to decide if you
should use them or not, how to keep from giving them in your own
play, and how to give false ones when the time is right.
You’ll also learn more about playing tendencies and how
they’re similar to tells and how to use them in your play.
The best thing about tells is they can change the
profitability of entire session.
Here’s an example.
You’ve played against an opponent so many times that you know
his right hand shakes when he has a big hand. You just hit your
flush on the river, making your pocket ace queen of hearts the
best possible flush, but the board paired so a full house is
possible. You make a bet and your opponent makes a re-raise
that’s so big your first thought is that it’s a bluff.
Many players over bet when they’re bluffing, but you notice
his right hand trembling when you’re deciding what to do.
Instead of calling the $1,000 bet you fold.
At the end of the session you find you’re up $500. If you’d
called the $1,000 bet you’d have lost $500.
If you can use a tell ten times a year in this situation
you’ve made an extra $10,000 for the year. A simple tell used
less than once a month can be worth a great deal over time.
Here’s another example.
A semiprofessional female player you often play against has a
bad habit of clenching her teeth when she’s bluffing in big
pots. It seems like smaller pots don’t always cause the same
reaction, but in ones over $500 or so she seems to always clench
up when she’s bluffing.
At the end of a big hand she makes a $100 bet into a $1,500
pot. On the surface this seems like such a small bet that it’s
begging for a call. At lower levels you have to call a small bet
like this unless you have no chance of winning, but at the
higher levels a small bet can signal a strong hand, depending on
You know your opponent is good enough to make a small bet
with a big hand or on a bluff, but in this case you see her
clenching her teeth.
You fire a raise into the pot and she folds. You win a big
pot turning your losing session into a winning one.
If you can pick up a few tells while playing poker it can
directly lead to a much higher yearly profit on a year in and
year out basis.
Of course it depends on the financial level where you play,
but if the average tell is worth $500 and you pick up one a week
it’s worth over $25,000 a year. This is a huge amount of money
and the exact reason tells can be an important addition to your
What could possibly be bad about tells?
The biggest problem with tells is they’re rarely correct 100%
of the time.
If you’re relying on a tell to make a decision in a big
holdem pot it can cost a great deal of money if you get a false
tell or miss something because you’re focused on a possible
You’ll also find that as you move up to higher levels of
competition a few of your opponents may be capable of giving
Many times you’re better off ignoring any possible tells if
you aren’t quite sure the information is accurate. Here’s an
example situation of when you might need to consider tells that
aren’t always right.
Your opponent just made an all in bet on the river and you
need to decide if she’s bluffing or not. You have a decent hand
that can beat a bluff, but if she hit her hand on the river
you’re going to lose. The pot has $1,000 in it including her
$300 bet, so you have to call $300 to win $1,000.
You think you know a tell. It seems like most of the time
when she’s bluffing she stares directly into her opponent’s eyes
and most of the time she’s not bluffing she mostly avoids eye
Other than the possible tell you don’t have any other
information about her possible hand.
In this situation you only have two options. You have to
either call the all in bet and place $300 in the pot or you have
to fold. Obviously if you fold you lose the hand and can’t win
If you call you either lose the $300 or you win $1,000 plus
get your $300 back.
You can figure out how many times you have to win the hand to
make a call correct without using the possible tell using this
If you’re in the same situation 100 times it costs $30,000 to
call every time. To break even you have to win 30 times, because
you win $1,000 each time you win and 30 times $1,000 is $30,000.
This is important to know because it looks like you should
usually call the bet unless you know from past experience that
your opponent almost never bluffs.
You also are probably asking about the money you put in the
pot earlier in the hand. You don’t consider it yours when you
determine the best play at the end. It’s simply part of the pot.
Every decision has to be made with the current information
and future considerations if they may come into play. In this
case there are no future considerations.
Let’s get back to the possible tell.
In this case the possible tell doesn’t have to be accurate a
great deal of the time. You can probably ignore the tell and
make the correct long term decision, but if the tell is correct
over 50% of the time it makes your decision easier. But this can
be said about almost any tell situation.
Less than 50% accuracy can hurt you and greater than 50%
accuracy is almost always helpful and / or profitable in the
The bottom line is if you aren’t sure using a tell
will be profitable your best bet is to ignore it and play based
on all of the other information you have.
Should You Use Them?
The use of tells, even fairly accurate ones, is directly
related to the level of poker you’re playing.
At the lower Texas holdem levels tells are not as valuable as
they are at the higher levels, but they’re often more reliable.
As you move to higher and higher levels of competition you
run the risk of picking up false tells, falling into traps, and
making mistakes. Mistakes tend to be more costly at the higher
I’ve already covered the real answer to whether or not you
should use tells.
If it’s more profitable to use them than not, you should use
But you shouldn’t focus on tells at all until you’ve mastered
the other parts of your poker game. Almost every other aspect of
your play is more important than tells.
I know holdem poker players who ignore tells and are able to
play profitably on a consistent basis, so it’s not one of the
skill sets where you have to master it in order to win.
Online Texas Holdem Tells
Tells are generally believed to only be useful in brick and
mortar or live poker games.
How are you supposed to read a tell when you’re playing
opponents online where you can’t see them?
While physical tells are impossible to read while playing
online, a different type of tell is possible. Most players call
them playing tendencies, but the way certain players play
certain hands can be tracked and used against them just like
Just like regular tells, playing tendencies are more or less
effective depending on your level of competition. At the lower
levels players tend to play the same hands the same way most of
the time. When you play at the higher levels most players are
good enough to change up the way they play hands from time to
At the lower holdem levels a player in first position to the
left of the big blind could have a wide range of hands. You’d
like to believe their hand is strong, but the truth is they
could have almost anything.
When a player enters the pot from the first position at the
higher levels the odds are they have a strong hand.
Some players will make a continuation bet after the flop if
they raised pre-flop no matter what hits on the flop, while
others only make a continuation bet when they feel they still
have the best hand.
Other players will check and call until they have a hand and
then instantly start playing aggressively.
I realize that this may seem simple, but these types of
players can easily be found at low levels. They’re easy to read
and they’re quite profitable.
Even some of the players at the medium and upper levels have
distinct playing tendencies if you pay attention. These can be
tracked in live play or online and can be profitable over time.
Avoid Giving Tells
One area that’s important is the ability to avoid giving
tells, so you should always pay attention to what you’re doing
while playing a hand.
Are you holding your breath or clenching you teeth?
Are you staring down your opponent or avoiding eye
What types of hands are you playing when you do each of
What do you do with your hands during a big bluff or
when you have a monster hand?
How quickly are you acting on good hands and bad hands?
If you’ve ever watched Chris Ferguson play Texas holdem, he
does an excellent job of taking the same amount of time when he
bets, raises, or folds.
You need to focus on acting the same way no matter how strong
or weak your hand is.
Most players are able to correct tells by being aware and
constantly keeping it in mind. But one of the things that can
help you know if you’re failing is if certain players seem to
always be able to call your bluffs and fold to your best hands.
If this starts happening, double your efforts to avoid giving
I mentioned playing tendencies in the last section and just
like tells, you need to avoid being too predictable. The problem
is when you start making plays that aren’t the most profitable
in the long term to vary your play it starts costing profit.
But you can’t be too predictable.
The way to start varying your play is with your best hands.
Though there’s a correct way to play pocket aces or kings in
every situation, at the higher levels you can limp with them
instead of entering with a raise every once in a while. You
can’t do this at the lower levels.
High level play is usually played with two or three players
in the pot. At the lower levels if you limp with aces you may
have five or six other players in the pot.
With that many extra players in the pot you aren’t a favorite
with aces. You’re a favorite over any other single hand, but not
over all of them.
Start paying attention to your playing tendencies and look
for places to alter them. This isn’t important at the lower
levels. At low levels you’re better off playing straightforward
poker to maximize your profits because most players aren’t
paying attention to what you’re doing.
Learn to Give False Tells
Once you learn how to avoid giving real tells you can
consider giving false tells.
If you’re able to develop a few false tells you can set up an
opponent for a big pot. The secret is to develop the tells in
small pots and then pull the rug out from under them in a huge
One thing you’ll find that will probably surprise you is how
poorly most players are at picking up tells. Only the best
players usually pay enough attention to see tells.
At the lower and medium limits no one is paying enough
attention to make using false tells profitable. Most of them
can’t figure out when you have a dominant hand so they won’t
fold on the river even though they’re clearly beaten.
You can also use your playing tendencies against players who
pay attention. If you’ve raised the last six times you had a
made hand after the flop against a certain opponent, check the
next time. You may find that your opponent fires a bet because
of your supposed weakness even if they don’t have anything.
The bottom line in any Texas holdem poker discussion is if
it’s more or less profitable in the long run.
Tells fall squarely in this bottom line. If you see a
possible tell is it more or less profitable in the long run to
act on it?
Is it more or less profitable to develop a series of false
tells to use against your opponents?
Another real consideration is something called opportunity
cost. It may be profitable in the long run to develop and use a
series of false tells, but could the time you use to master the
false tells be used to learn something else that’s more
profitable in the long run?
Here’s an example:
If you don’t have all of the common outs and odds plays for
holdem memorized and can’t determine pot odds quickly, you’ll do
more for your long term profitability learning about them than
developing false tells.
As I mentioned above, one of the big problems with false
tells is your opponents have to be good enough to look for and
see tells but not quite good enough to see the false ones. This
makes a narrow window of use for false tells. It can be a
profitable window, but you need to concentrate on mastering the
basics before investing too much time on tells.
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