Hold'em Tells: Tics of the Trade

When you’re playing Texas Hold’em, the rule of thumb is you should always play your opponent, not your hand. And the best way to start doing this is to learn some of the more common poker tells. Essentially, a “tell” is no more than a nervous tic a player exhibits when her emotions are getting the best of her. Understanding tells and tell strategy, then, can not only help you go on the offensive against an obvious bluffer, but can also help you tone down your own unconscious signals.

But before we get into it, let’s get one thing straight: A poker tell is any physical reaction, behavior or habit that gives you information about your opponent’s hand—and vice verse. Even if he’s bundled head-to-toe like Nanook of the North, a player’s still liable to tap his foot, clear his throat or let loose any number of other signals without even thinking about it. So don’t automatically assume you’re safe behind those trendy shades of yours.

Poker Tells

With a few exceptions of course, most human beings on the planet have similar tells. Obviously, we can’t speak for Bob, the one-legged, schizophrenic pirate, but assuming you’re playing against the aver-age bear, the following list of tells should apply:

Scooting, Coughing, Scratching, Finger Strumming, Excessive-Knuckle-Cracking, etc., etc., etc.: Most people don’t make noticeably bizarre motions in day-to-day life. But deal them into a hand of Hold’em and they suddenly become Tourette’s patients. This is because most people don’t, deep down, see themselves as winners, so even if their consciousness is straining to keep their bodies in check, their subconscious is screaming to tell you what’s in their hands. No doubt, you don’t speak very good butt- scootese, but it doesn’t take an astrophysicist to realize when a person’s nervous. Study your opponents the next time you play Hold’em and look for these kinds of off-the-wall movements. Then ask yourself: “If I were that guy, what would make me nervous?” Normally the answer is the exact thing he doesn’t want you to know (i.e., If he’s playing like he’s got a crap hand, he’s probably got a great one).

Staring: Like they say: “The eyes are the window to the soul,” and in Hold’em there’s normally a lot going on in players’ twisted, little hearts. In the most common eye tells, the player will stare at the flop, stare at another player or stare at his chips. If he’s staring at the flop, that means he’s got a crap hand and is trying to figure out if he can still pull a win out of his rear-end; if he’s staring at another player, he’s more than likely bluffing and is worried the other player will call his bet. Finally, if a player stares at his chips, he’s probably figuring out the pot odds versus his outs to see if it’s worth trying to complete his hand.

Glancing: Glancing differs from staring in that when people glance at things they probably aren’t thinking very hard about their decisions. In the case of Hold’em, if a player glances at another player, the flop or their chips, then looks away, he’s probably got a pretty good hand (and he doesn’t have to consider his play very much). The less experienced a player is, the more likely it is that his “good hand” is something simple, say three- or four-of-a-kind aces or kings. The reasoning? He wouldn’t have enough experience to pick out a royal flush right out of the gate.

Card Checking: This one’s most common after the Flop, right before a player bets. If the player calls, it means that he has a combination hand (a full house, straight or flush) and is double-checking to make sure he’s got it.

Immediately Calling or Betting: There are really two ways of taking this: If the player’s a novice, it means he’s über confident and has a damn good hand because he doesn’t have to think it through. If, on the other hand, the player’s experienced, it can be a bluffing move to make other players think his hand is better than it really is. Always assume the latter with expert players because, unlike eye motions, arm motions are a little bit easier to control, making this one of the easiest false tells to master.

The Holding of the Breath: Yes, yes, the infamous holding of the breath. It’s usually the fatal error of newbs who have bad hands—So if you’re a newb, B-R-E-A-T-H!

The Jitters: Shaking hands can mean a couple things depending on when a player’s tremors first appear. If the player’s down a ton of dough and his hands start shaking after the Flop, you can bet he’s got a great hand—and is thanking God he can win a little bit back. If he’s just bet half his stack and his hands start shaking after the Turn, however, money says he was hoping for a straight, flush or full house and just realized he had more balls than cock.

Online Poker Tells

Online Hold’em tells are a little bit harder to spot because, obviously, you can’t see the other players. This isn’t to say that they don’t exist though. Some of the most common are:

Immediately Betting: This is pretty much the same as in face-to-face play. With novices, it means a good hand; with experts, it means a bad hand.

Also: If you’ve played in an online casino before, you may have noticed how the programs make it easy to act when it’s your turn through the use of check boxes. In a room that has check boxes, you can tell when a player has a good hand because she’ll normally raise the moment the previous player’s turn is over, having checked the boxes long before her turn came up.

If, on the other hand, a player uses the check box to “check,” you can probably conclude that her hand is weak; if she uses the check box to “call,” it’s safe to assume she has a drawing hand.

Delayed Action: A delayed action online can mean tons of things. At a beginners’ table, it means the player is considering a bluff or is going to try to lure other players into betting against a strong hand and calculating how high he can bet without scraing his opponents off. In an expert room, though, it normally means the player is simply trying to shake your confidence—a good sign that his hand’s shot and he doesn’t want to go up against you.

False Tells

The following tics aren’t actually tics at all. They’re, in fact, no more than lousy acting more advanced players will try and use to throw you off their trails. Once play begins, you may notice these as frequently as the sincere tells listed above.

Boredom: If a player acts disinterested he’s more than likely trying to trick you into thinking that he’s not happy with his cards.

Miss Lonely Hearts and the “Alas!” Thing: Sighing and shrugging are typically signs that your opponent is putting on an act of weakness when he has a strong hand.

Macho Man: Similar to normal staring, but a little more intense—like, think of Hulk Hogan glaring at your. If an opponent tries one of these looks, he’s trying to make you think he’s got a strong hand (when he doesn’t).

Finally, there’s a lot to be learned even without watching a player’s body language. When you first sit down at a table simply study the way the players stack their chips. Although it’s a generalization, loose, aggressive players typically maintain sloppy stacks, while tight, conservative players keep neat stacks. This should clue you in on how they’ll play in the coming hands, and help you determine what their particular tells are likely to mean. An aggressive player, for instance, will pull a “Macho Man” as a matter of course, so when he’s not, he’s more than likely up the proverbial creek.

-Jim Abrahamsson