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Ultimate Guide to Poker Tells
Devastate Opponents by Reading Body Language, Table Talk, Chip Moves, and Much More
By Randy Burgess, Carl Baldassarre
Triumph BooksCopyright © 2006 Randy Burgess and Carl Baldassarre
All rights reserved.
How Important Are Tells in Poker?
What's a tell? Following are a few short examples.
In his prime, Doyle Brunson was perhaps the most feared no-limit hold'em player alive. But for a brief while he had a habit that would have made him easy prey for a keen-eyed opponent: when he was betting a real hand, he would count his chips before betting them; when he was bluffing, he would push his chips forward without counting them. Brunson's friend and fellow professional Amarillo Slim finally let him in on the secret.
The most famous tell that never happened has to be Teddy KGB's cracking open of an Oreo cookie whenever he has a monster hand. Of course, you already know this — unless you're one of the 14 poker players on the planet who've never seen the movie Rounders, starring Matt Damon as the hero, Mike McDermott, and John Malkovich as the evil Teddy. In their climactic head-up hold'em duel, Mike finally catches on to the cookie tell and uses the knowledge to not only avoid losing his entire stack against Teddy's baby straight, but to put Teddy on tilt and turn the match around.
Here's a tell of the sort I've witnessed time and time again, in one form or another. Again the game is hold'em, but instead of high-stakes drama, it's a $4/$8 limit game at a local club. Three average players are going through the motions: two early limpers versus a raiser on the button. The flop comes A-T-2-; both limpers check, the button bets, and only the first limper calls. The turn brings a second Ten — and now the remaining limper flips up the corners of his hole cards to glance at them before again saying "check" in a voice that ever-so-slightly mixes boredom with disgust. The button bets and lo, the limper check-raises! The button is dismayed, but he shouldn't have been: there was no reason whatsoever for the limper to check his hole cards when the second Ten hit — unless he was doing a very bad acting job. If that weren't enough, the extra-bored voice should have been an additional tip-off.
This last example illustrates just why learning to interpret tells is so important, even if like most of us you're never going to star in a poker movie or play in the World Series of Poker. Becoming sensitive to the mélange of body language, acting, gestures, and facial expressions that make up tells can help any good player make fewer mistakes. You'll pay off less often when you're beat, fold less often when you're ahead, and in general develop a keen eye for opportunities either to make or save extra bets.
But it's not enough to grasp the general notion of tells and wing it from there. Poker is far more than just making or picking off bluffs based on your read of other players. You need to understand where tells fit in relation to other poker concepts: pot odds, implied odds, starting hand standards, game-specific strategy and tactics, and more.
The Truth about Tells
If you talk to professional poker players, many will say that movies like Rounders are bunk, and that tells really aren't that important when compared to other aspects of poker. But then, in discussing one hand or another, these same pros will casually mention that spotting a particular tell against a particular opponent helped them decide what to do — whether to bet, check, raise, or fold. So do we have a contradiction here, or not? The answer is, there's truth on both sides. Or to put it another way, tells are both vastly overrated and vastly underrated.
Tells Are Overrated
There are several reasons that tells aren't all they're cracked up to be in the popular imagination, whether that imagination has been fueled by movies such as Rounders or by televised tournaments such as the World Poker Tour or the World Series of Poker.
To start with, most casino poker is limit rather than no-limit, and tells are worth far less in a limit setting. To see why, imagine Mike McDermott and Teddy KGB playing $30/$60 limit hold'em rather than no-limit: Mike wouldn't have cared nearly as much how many Oreos Teddy fondled because his risk at any given point would be only another $60, not his entire stack. Teddy probably would have visited the dentist many times to have cavities filled before Mike caught on.
Another factor is that many of us play not just limit poker, but small-stakes limit poker to boot — games like $5/$10 hold'em or $10/$20 stud at the local club or casino. Such games tend to be loose and multiway, making the correct calculation of percentages more important than nearly any other factor. The prime requirement here isn't an exquisite ability to detect tells, but rather an aggressive odds-based strategy of the sort expounded upon in such newly minted classics as Small Stakes Hold'em: Winning Big with Expert Play, by Ed Miller (see appendix B, "Further Resources," for more information).
Even when it comes to reading opponents, it's more important to be good at reading betting patterns than it is to be good at reading tells. You can't have a poker hand without betting, whereas it's easy for a good player to suppress many, if not all, tells. As an exaggerated example, if you're playing seven-card stud and you know that Joe will always raise if he's got split Aces, but never raise if he has only an Ace-high three-flush, you've got a huge head start in knowing how to play him. I'd much rather have that information than a tell on him.
An additional caution is that if you spend most of your time watching for tells, you're liable to neglect other crucial aspects of your game. And that can make you play worse, not better.
Such considerations apply with equal force to no-limit and tournament poker. In nearly all cases, betting patterns give you the best handle on your opponents; and in nearly all cases, you've got to have a strong knowledge of the odds. For example, if you're short-stacked in a tournament and a big-stack player puts you all-in, you've got to know what hand values you should call with, based purely on the chips in play and the percentage chances of winning — tells have absolutely nothing to do with it.
As tournament pro Daniel Negreanu wrote in Card Player Magazine: "When you hear people talk about 'reading people,' what it really comes down to is reading into your opponent's mind what he is thinking at the moment, and trying to figure out how he would play various situations. ... For the most part, a great player makes his read based on the actual betting that took place, not on facial tics."
Tells Are Underrated
And yet here's that same Daniel Negreanu, from that same Card Player article: "Having said all this [against tells], I should probably point out that what you say, or what you do with your eyes and hands, can be giveaways to the strength of your holding. Great players watch almost everything, and many do have an innate ability to read body language."
And here's Negreanu posting to his poker journal on his website, describing a tournament hand where his opponent, Kido Pham, might be holding a monster. Faced with a $50,000 river bet from Pham and holding only middle pair on a scary straight board, Negreanu tries to think through the action — in other words, he tries to read Pham's betting patterns. But that's no help, as the holding Pham is representing seems quite in character. Maybe it's time to fold.
But then Negreanu looks at Pham and notices something. "He looked stiff. Very stiff. He looked nervous and it didn't look staged." Negreanu calls the $50,000 — and Pham promptly throws his hand in the muck instead of showing the bluff.
This isn't an aberration. Negreanu has numerous other posts in his journal where he makes one read or another to help him decide what to do. Other top players consistently describe the same scenario in their own accounts of big hands: although betting patterns and knowledge of the odds carry them most of the way, key decisions are often made based solely on the read of an opponent as strong or weak. Usually this read isn't made on the basis of a glaringly obvious tell, like twiddling a pinkie ring or eating a cookie, but as an overall impression of body language or facial expression.
Even in low-limit or small-stakes poker, tells can make a big difference if you weigh them appropriately. Why? Because they happen so often. As an analogy, imagine that you have an odd quirk — you always fold when you make four Aces. A horrible mistake, yet it wouldn't cost much in the long run since making four Aces is a rare event. Now imagine you have a different flaw in your game: you play too many hands. Each weak hand costs you only a fraction of a bet, but because you make this mistake so frequently, you're losing far more than you'll ever lose by folding quad Aces.
Each time you play a low-limit session at a club or a casino, you should be able to pick up reliable tells of one sort or another from as many as one-third of the players at the table within a half hour or so. Once you've acquired this information, it may or may not prove rewarding, depending on the players involved and the situations that arise. For example, if you have a tell on a loose-aggressive player who's in a lot of pots, it can be worth quite a bit if you catch some good hands against him. But if the players you've got tells on don't get into many pots, or if factors such as pot size consistently end up dictating your play, it won't make much difference.
Even so, you'll almost always run into situations during each sit where tells do matter. You'll be about to try a steal in hold'em, open-raising with KT in the cutoff, when a look to your left reveals that the button has a predatory gleam in his eye and a raise-sized stack of chips in his hand. Instead of stealing, you quietly muck. Or you'll be pondering whether to fold to an unexpected turn bet when you notice your opponent is nervously jiggling her leg under the table — a tell you spotted earlier and correlated with a bluff. Instead of folding, you now raise.
If you don't want to take my word for it, how about the word of Roy Cooke? If you don't yet know of Cooke, you should; he's a regular columnist for Card Player, and his descriptions of the thought process of a top pro flowcharting his way through hands should be an essential part of anyone's poker education. According to Cooke, reading Mike Caro's Book of Tells early on sensitized him to the idea of tells. As a result, Cooke often picks up on giveaway mannerisms or behaviors to which other players remain oblivious. "I have made a lot of profit from tells in my years at the table," he concludes.
Context Is Everything
You're in the middle of a hand, when suddenly you notice something different about your opponent's behavior or demeanor — in other words, you pick up a tell. What do you need to be thinking about to make use of this tantalizing yet potentially misleading scrap of information? For a start, I'd suggest the following.
Your opponent's level of poker knowledge. For example, a naïve beginner who can't properly judge the value of her own hand may give you a tell that she's stronger than she really is because she overrates her hand. The same tell coming from a more experienced player would be much more useful.
The relative narrowness or width of your opponent's hand selection — not just his starting hands, but what hands he'll continue with under pressure. Loose opponents play more hands, so they're harder to read than tight opponents. Loose-aggressive opponents are the hardest to read of all from the point of view of hand-reading, but tells pick up value against them since they get involved in so many pots and are more likely than the average player to be bluffing.
Overall betting patterns based on all of the above factors. For example, in stud, how often will he value-bet the river with two small pair or an unimproved big pair when head-up? In hold'em, does he tend to slowplay or fastplay hands like sets and two pair? Which conditions influence his decision?
Whether he's an actor or not. More on this in the next chapter, when we begin to separate tells into categories.
How other aspects of the hand align. For example, if the pot is huge compared to the size of the bet, you have to be super-sure of a tell that says you're beaten before you can justify a fold. You'll hardly ever be that certain, so usually you'll call. Another thing to be wary of is locking in too much on a single player in a multiway pot, to the extent you forget that there are other players in the hand.
Say you take all of this into account, and after some quick thinking you're convinced the tell is valid: your opponent has a hand other than the one he's representing or that hand-reading logic would suggest he holds. Even now, the tell is only useful if it gives you information that changes your decision. If you were going to fold anyway, a tell that your opponent is strong does you little good. But if you were intending to call, then the tell helps you a lot. Or it can be the reverse, as in Negreanu's case — he was intending to fold, but the tell helped him to make a great call.
Tells According to Game Type
Interestingly, the manner and number of tells depend on the type of game involved, not just the players or the betting structure.
For whatever reason, subconscious chip-grabbing with good starting cards is much more common on Third Street in seven-card stud than before the flop in hold'em. Another tell that occurs more often in stud than in hold'em is shuffling down cards when on a draw. Card-shuffling does occur in hold'em, but it's more of an individual tic and thus harder to interpret.
Some games just generate more tells, period. The best example is Mike Caro's favorite game, draw poker. Tells infested draw to a degree never seen before or since. With only two rounds of betting, players developed all sorts of shticks to try to convince other players they were weak before the draw when they were actually strong, so as to lure them in; likewise, when they were weak, they would act strong so as to forestall raises and get better odds for drawing. Mason Malmuth, a well-known poker writer, has written that tells were such a big part of draw that when he switched from that game to hold'em, "it seemed like someone had suddenly 'turned the sound off.'"
Summing up, I think it's obvious that tells do have enormous value in poker — but only when used wisely. In the next chapter, we'll lay another brick in the foundation when we examine the physical stuff tells are made of.CHAPTER 2
2. The Anatomy of Tells
You already know that tells consist of things like body language, facial expressions, gestures, and so on. But as it happens, we can be quite a bit more specific about the nature and origins of these various signals. There are several good reasons to do so.
First, many tells are based on physiological reactions that lie either partly or wholly outside our control. Such involuntary tells apply to all types of poker; an example would be uncontrollably trembling hands when you bet a monster such as a straight flush in a huge pot. We'll discuss this category of tells in detail in this chapter.
Second, for tells that potentially are under our voluntary control, we need to distinguish players who are genuinely displaying these signals from those who are feigning them. Like involuntary tells, acting jobs are common to all poker games; by introducing the concept here, we'll be able to refer back to it later on. An example of an acting tell is when a player slams down his chips to appear strong when betting with a weak hand.
Third, this chapter will introduce an obvious but important concept: the difference between generic tells and individual tells. Generic tells are what we'll discuss in the next few chapters. They're the type of tell that occurs so often you can recognize it in somebody you're playing against for the first time. Once again, an easy example is chip-grabbing with a good starting hand in seven-card stud.
The idea behind an individual tell, on the other hand, is self-explanatory: it's a tell peculiar to an individual player, rather than to many players. We've all got our individual tells. It can be something as commonplace as a quickly concealed smile when you hit a good card, or as strange and unique as a particular way you have of nervously flipping your fingers against your cards when you're holding a monster. The point is, individual tells aren't as instantly recognizable for what they are as generic tells, so they have to be hunted out. In this chapter I'm going to tell you what to focus on to make the hunt easier.
An example of a good place to look for individual tells is chip-handling: many of us subconsciously handle our chips one way when we're betting a strong hand and a completely different way when we're betting or calling with a weak hand. And we're not even vaguely aware of it. I've displayed a chip-handling tell myself on occasion; I never noticed until an attentive buddy pointed it out to me.
Excerpted from Ultimate Guide to Poker Tells by Randy Burgess, Carl Baldassarre. Copyright © 2006 Randy Burgess and Carl Baldassarre. Excerpted by permission of Triumph Books.
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