Physical Tells

In the wonderful poker movie The Rounders, Teddy-KGB is undone when Matt Damon's character discovers his tell. If Teddy holds an Oreo cookie up to his ear, breaks it, and eats it, he has a monster hand. (He's psychologically devouring his opponent, you see.) If he merely listens to it break and puts it back in the tray, he's bluffing. As a result, the hero is able to break Teddy and survive with his bankroll and neck intact.

If only real life were that easy! Teddy's quirk is an example of a physical tell, a mannerism, expression, emotion or habit that in some way gives real information about your hand. Cataloging tells is a whole book in itself, and fortunately it's already been done. Find a copy of Mike Caro's classic Book of Tells and read it thoroughly. It's a good treatment of a difficult subject.

Rather than try to duplicate the material in Caro's book, I'm instead going to pass on some of my insights into spotting and using tells.

I group physical tells into three categories:

  1. Facial expressions
  2. General body language
  3. Hand motions

Of the three, I've found that hand motions are the most reliable and revealing. Although most players are keenly aware of the need to control their facial expressions, they don't pay as much attention to what they do with their hands, particularly as they move chips into the pot. While other players are looking at faces, I like to watch hands. Basically, I'm looking to see if Players handle their chips and move chips into the pot any differently with strong or weak hands. If I see something, I assign it a high degree of reliability until I get evidence to the contrary.

In my experience, facial expressions and body language are more treacherous. I do watch for them, and you should too, but 1 need a bit more evidence before I'm willing to say I've spotted a true tell than with the hand motions. I do have two useful rules in this area, however. Here they are:

  1. If a player seems weak, I'll give more credence to a suspected tell. This is just common sense. A good player will naturally have spent more time thinking about tells and concealing them than a weak player. So if I pick up what seems to be a tell, but the player is otherwise playing a strong game, I'm suspicious. If I get the same tell from someone who seems to be an obvious fishcake, I'll act on it more quickly.
  2. Weak means strong, and strong means weak. This insight is straight from Caro's book, and it's the single best guide to evaluating the tells of a relatively unknown player. When humans want to conceal their true intentions, they tend to act the opposite of what they really mean. Dissembling is such a powerful innate drive that it can overcome a strong conscious desire to act in some randomly mysterious fashion. Just watch any televised tournament final, and you'll see that in almost every case where the players seem to be acting, they're acting in the opposite fashion from the real strength of their hand.

The skill of spotting physical tells is most important if you're a participant in a money game that meets on a regular schedule with the same players each time, or if you frequent a card club with a clientele that doesn't change much. In that case, you'll meet the same players over and over again, and you'll have plenty of opportunities to create a notebook on each player.

If you mostly play tournament poker the situation is a little different. Now you're going to see individual players much less frequently. With the explosion in the number of players showing up at tournaments, you might easily play in a tournament and not meet a single player that you've seen before. And of course, if you play online there are no physical tells to observe. The best you can do is to try and derive clues by seeing how long a player thinks to make a play, but this is easy to control and might simply represent internet delay times.

All serious poker players try to minimize their tells, obviously. There are a couple of ways to go about this. One is the robotic approach: where your face becomes a mask and your voice a monotone, at least while the hand is being played. With some practice, this approach is accessible to most players. The other is the manic method, where you affect a whole bunch of tics, twitches, and expressions, and mix them up with a river of insane babble. The idea is to overwhelm your opponents with clues, so they can't sort out what's really going on. This approach can be effective, but for normal people it's hard to pull off. (If you've spent part of your life in an institution, this method may come naturally.)

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