Poker tells – Can I rely on tells?

Poker tells

Poker tells are behavior, exhibited by players, that give away information about their holding. This behavior could be done voluntarily or involuntarily. There are not many tells you can use versus online players, as you cannot see them. In the live arena there are a whole host of potential tells that you might be able to draw upon.

Examples of poker tells

Online & Live:
Timing tells: The amount of time a player takes to make a decision may indicate the type of hand he has. For example, with a strong hand, he may need to think about how to best extract value. However, with a drawing hand he may not put much thought into his decision to just call. Although this is one of the few tells that online players can use too, your online opponent might just be playing a lot of tables (so a long time to think, might be because he has a decision on another table), or he might be distracted by something else.

Live only:
Looking away fast: If a player looks at his hole cards, and immediately looks away (even if they then re-look at their cards), this could be a sign they have a strong hand. You will need to compare this with their usual behavior. The same principle can be applied to when the flop, turn, or river is dealt – do they quickly look away after seeing what has been dealt, when they normally take a longer look? This tell is most useful on the flop, when a player has the most new information to look at.

Interfering your actions: Whilst the action is on you, if a player is attempting to indicate he will call your bet, by holding out chips in his hand, or just saying so, usually they are weak and want to discourage your bet. If they had a strong hand, and you were thinking about betting, they would not want to do something that could potentially get you to not bet.

False tells

Of course it is possible for a player to deliberately falsify a tell, if they think it will cause you to misunderstand the situation, and do what they want. This option is open to you too.

Reliability of poker tells

Some players will hardly ever exhibit any tells. You may also be lucky enough to find a tell box. Other players will exhibit tells sometimes, but not always.

It is important to correlate what you think are tells, with showdowns and other information to ascertain whether you can rely on that tell for that player.

Just because you did not observe something, does not make it a tell by itself. For example, an opponent does not look away fast after seeing his hole cards. This does not mean he does not necessarily have a strong hand. Only, if you have seen him sometimes look away fast too (and those times if it has gone to showdown, he has had a strong hand) can you make this assumption.

Some tells may only be present, for a given player, depending on the importance of the situation to them. There may be no tells in small pots, and lots of tells in a large pot. However, a player could also be less wary of hiding his behavior in small pots, and be fully aware not to exhibit any tells in large pots.

A properly bankrolled player may not care much about the outcome of this hand, compared to a recreational player.

You must take into account the pressure the player is under at the time of the supposed tell. For example, is the player waiting to act, or has he already acted? If he has just placed a major bet, and if he was bluffing he really does not want you to call, then he may be really likely to give off a tell here. Whilst he was waiting to act, he is unlikely to give away as much information (even if he was planning this bluff).

Some cardrooms allow players to allow someone they know to sit behind them whilst they are playing – usually, when this option is taken up it is by recreational players who have allowed their partner to sit behind them. Such a player may feel under pressure, when putting a lot of money at stake in pot, knowing they are being watched so are more likely to exhibit tells in big pots.

How to avoid giving away poker tells

  • If you are an online player, think about how long you took to make your actions – were there any potential tells? You may want to use various free screen recording software to record your screen during a session. Watch it back afterwards, to spot any timing tells.
  • If you are a live player, ideally you would want to watch back a video of your play. Unfortunately, most cardrooms don’t allow filming. However, you could try and get yourself invited on various poker games that are filmed, and watch those. Or, get a trusted poker buddy at the table to make notes on any tells they might observe on you (and you can do the same for them).
  • At UnfairPoker.com we recommend that (1) playing properly bankrolled (so you don’t care about the result of any one particular hand or session), and (2) having a thought process based on GTO principles (which you can deviate from based on the situation) will be the best things you can do in an effort to not exhibit any tells.