Top Live Poker Tells
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 their money.
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 plan either.
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 this way.
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 ground.
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.
Author: Jonathan Wanchalk
Updated: March 2015
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