Poker tells are a tricky topic.
Most beginners put way too much credence into tells early in their poker journey. Eating an Oreo may mean someone has a strong hand in a movie, but in real life, not so much.
Meanwhile, many experienced pros focus solely on playing a good strategy, completely ignoring live poker tells in the process.
The correct path is somewhere in the middle– focusing on strategy and considering tells when they present themselves.
So, which common poker tells actually deserve your attention? We’ve brought on acclaimed poker tells expert Zach Elwood to help you find the answer to that question.
(Zach runs a training site focused on poker tells and his content has been recommended by many successful pros.)
Hey Upswing readers, I’m Zachary Elwood. I’m here to share a new, updated list of the top 4 most practically useful physical poker tells. (I’ll write about verbal tells later.)
I chose these 4 tells because all of them are either quite common or unusually reliable.
Let’s start with perhaps the most well understood tell amongst the general poker playing population.
Physical Poker Tell #1. Defensive movements
Most somewhat experienced players know that when you’re reaching for a bet and your opponent starts to reach for chips, as if ready to call you, it’s an indicator that your opponent doesn’t have a strong hand.
Mike Caro talked about this in his classic 1970s Caro’s Book of Tells. It’s a pretty simple and common-sense one. A player with a strong hand is usually not going to put up an obstacle to a bet; they’ll let you follow through with your bet.
The weaker a player’s hand gets, the more of an impulse they’ll have to put up some sort of obstacle.
Still, many players aren’t aware of how the more subtle versions of this tell can play out. Often, even just a tiny amount of unusual movement from a waiting-to-act player makes it more likely they’re not at the top of their range.
Most of these behaviors are unconscious; they’re just instinctively defensive behaviors, not something consciously planned. Because they’re more unconscious, they’re not likely to be reverse tells and can be quite reliable.
A couple examples of subtle situations that can still have a good amount of meaning:
- Minor chip movements before checking to the aggressor
On the turn, the first player checks and calls a bet from the second player. On the river, the first player slowly grabs his chips and riffles them for a couple seconds before finally checking. This might seem very subtle or minor, but it can be a sign that a player is unconsciously trying to express some interest in the pot, which will make a weak hand more likely. You should look for defensive behaviors when opponents check, not just when they are facing a potential bet.
- Subtle hand movements towards one’s chips
On the river, a player checks and, as his opponent thinks, the first player positions his hand on the rail, close to his chips. Even small movements towards chips can be a subtle indicator of discomfort and an unconscious attempt to subtly discourage a bet.
Subtle indicators like these are far from 100% reliable, so it helps if you can find other signs of defensiveness, such as:
- An opponent who stares at you intensely after they check
- An opponent who sits super-still and awkwardly when they check
The more signs that point to defensiveness, the more you might be encouraged to bluff.
One caveat: Some players move around a good amount in general, and this pattern will mean less for these players. You should always study a player a bit to get a sense of their usual during-hand behavior.
And of course: even if you correctly read an opponent as having a weak hand, there’s no guarantee they’ll actually be folding. Even with a strong read of weakness, how loose your opponent is should always be a consideration.
Physical Poker Tell #2. Hesitations and pauses when betting
When a player makes a significant bet, hesitations and pauses will make strong hands more likely. Players betting weak hands and bluffs will usually do so straightforwardly and normally, without pauses.
A couple examples of hesitating-type behaviors:
- A player has a lot of stop-and-start movements when gathering or placing the bet.
- A player announces “bet” or “raise” and then pauses a while before announcing the amount or putting in chips.
What are the reasons for this pattern?
- Players betting weak hands and bluffs don’t want to be studied for any longer than is necessary. The longer the bet takes, the more likely it becomes that an opponent might pick up something on them (even something wrong) that can be interpreted as a sign of a weak hand.
- Players betting weak hands and bluffs want to convey confidence. Betting straightforwardly and normally is one way to convey confidence.
- Players betting strong hands can have incentive to convey uncertainty, so you’re more likely to find hesitating and uncertain behaviors from strong hand bettors.
As with most bet-related tells, it’s much easier to find signs of relaxation and strength in bettors than it is to find indicators of anxiety or a weak hand. Players betting strong hands often give themselves away by doing unusual things that bluffers generally aren’t willing to do or aren’t comfortable doing.
Physical Poker Tell #3. Double-checking hole cards
The meaning of double-checking hole cards depends on the situation:
- For players who are waiting-to-act or who end up checking, double-checking hole cards will generally indicate weak hands. (This is the case with other ostentatious behaviors as well.)
For instance: a player calls a pre-flop raise, sees the flop, and then double-checks his cards a couple times before checking.
If this player flopped a very strong hand, like a set, they’d likely be very stoic and wouldn’t draw attention to themselves. Like many ostentatious behaviors from non-aggressors (i.e., checkers, callers), this is an indication that they’re not mentally focused and unlikely to have much of a hand.
- For players who have just made a significant bet, double-checking hole cards will generally indicate relaxation and a strong hand.
For instance: a player makes a big bet on the river and, soon after, double-checks his cards.
If this player were bluffing, he wouldn’t want to do something that could theoretically convey weakness or uncertainty. And double-checking hole cards can, to many people, convey uncertainty, so a bluffer would instinctively just not want to risk that interpretation.
This is a good example of how important it is to interpret poker tells in the context of the surrounding situation. It’s a mistake to take a “this means that” approach to behaviors; there are always multiple factors influencing the meaning of behavior.
Physical Poker Tell #4. Immediate and quicker-than-usual calls
Of all the bet-timing tells, quick calls are probably the most generally useful. Quick calls will generally indicate weak or medium-strength hands.
Why is this? When a player immediately calls a bet, it means that they have immediately ruled out a raise. Because players with strong hands are often focused on maximizing value and playing their hand the best way they can, this makes it unlikely that an immediate call is made by a player with a strong hand. If a player with a strong hand does decide to only call, he will usually take a few seconds to reach that decision.
Immediate calls will be most practically useful pre-flop and on the flop just because this is usually when bets are small enough for players to be capable of calling without much thought. On the turn, bets are bigger and most players will tend to think longer about these bets no matter what they have.
Pre-flop, for many players, an unusually quick call of a 3-bet or a 4-bet will make it likely that the player has QQ or JJ. These are hands that many players consider too strong to fold, but also too weak to reraise with. With all other hands, including AK, most players will at least consider folding or reraising.
Keep in mind that ‘quick’ is of course subjective and dependent on what you think is normal for a player and situation. Depending on circumstances, a quick call could take several seconds.
The overall aggression of a player can be a factor in narrowing their hand range. For example, when an aggressive player quickly calls a bet on a flop of J♥ 7♥ 2♠, it’s become unlikely that that player has a flush draw, because an aggressive player will usually at least consider a raise, even if he ends up only calling.
Another factor in interpreting immediate calls is the time that has passed during that round. The quicker an immediate call occurs after the last card(s) has been dealt will be more likely to indicate a weak hand. If a player has had a long time to think about what his action might be (for example, if his opponent thinks a long time before betting), then his immediate call will be less likely to adhere to the general pattern.
I hope you enjoyed my first article for Upswing Poker. Keep an eye out for the next installment covering verbal poker tells!