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Reading Poker Tells

Reading Poker Tells

Wouldn’t it be easier to win at poker if your opponents had their cards showing face-up? Learning to read their tells is as close as you will get. Read on, and watch Paul Phua’s video, to find out how.

One of the hardest things to work out in live poker are the signals that other people are unconsciously sending you when they play poker. These signals are called tells (because they “tell” you about what’s going on inside the player’s head). In casinos or poker nights, some players’ tells come through when they get excited and can’t help showing they have a good hand. Other tells express the opposite – that cards are more disappointing than they had hoped.

Reading poker tells can make the difference between a good poker player, and a poker star. It can make the difference between knowing when to quit a hand you have no business being in, or when to stay in a hand you have a good chance of winning. In short, learning how to read tells can make the difference between walking away with the pot of chips in poker, or losing your shirt.

Polarised ranges in tells

Common tells can come in many forms, and it takes some practice and experience in poker to read them. In his video, Paul Phua says to watch out for facial movements: twitches around the mouth, cheeks, or eyes. Sometimes it’s the hand movements that give people away. If they are more confident or deliberate than usual, that can be the sign of a good hand. Shaky hands can indicate a bluff, but in novice players they are actually more likely to be caused by the adrenaline surge from having a huge hand such as pocket Aces. Not sure which? At least you know they don’t have an ordinary hand, which can be helpful in itself.

This last point is an important one. If you are observing all the players carefully, you may notice they suddenly act out of character. It can often be hard to know whether that is because they are bluffing, or because they have a huge hand! Poker strategy writers call this a “polarised range”.

Let’s say you have top pair with a weak kicker. At least in such a situation you know they don’t have an ordinary good hand, such as top pair with a stronger kicker. If you are 50-50 as to whether it’s a bluff with nothing, or a huge hand such as a straight, it can make sense to make “a hero call” with just top pair, or sometimes even A-high.

Time tells in online poker

You may think there are no tells in online poker, where you can’t see your opponent’s face. In online poker (and even in the casino), the speed of play can be a tell. Is your opponent calling or raising more quickly than normal? This usually indicates they have a strong but not spectacular hand, such as top pair. If they had a flush draw, they might have to think about how to play it, and so take longer to bet; or with a made hand such as a set, they might take a while to decide whether to bet out or trap their opponents.

Even professional players who like to sit still as a rock during poker games have tells, especially when they get tired. Paul Phua says you have to look harder for them, but they are there. One word of caution, however: a professional player who gives out a very obvious tell may be doing it on purpose to mislead you!

Keep watching the other poker players

Paul Phua thinks that too many beginners just play the cards they have, and don’t look enough at the context of the other players. How many players are playing, and what are their positions around the poker table? This is a key question we always need to ask when playing Texas Hold ’Em. But also, what do those players do when they get good hands and bad hands? If you can read a player’s tells, that gives you good information on how to play your Texas Hold ’Em hand.

So it’s worth studying other players to work them out, and studying Paul Phua’s video on how to get better at reading poker tells!

Please read our video script here on Reading Poker Tells.

10 common live poker tells

  • Looking away. People who are bluffing are less likely to make eye contact with you. That said, a particularly hard and defiant glare may be a deliberate attempt to intimidate you, signalling a bluff.
  • Talkativeness. Experienced players will often ask the raiser a question, or otherwise try to engage them in conversation. Most players cannot reply in a relaxed way if they are bluffing.
  • Picking up chips. A player who glances at their chips or picks up some chips before it’s their turn to act is usually getting ready to bet. If you see a very experienced player do this, however, he is often just trying to trick you into checking.
  • Impatience. A player who tries to hurry up another player pre-flop is usually impatient to bet, and has a strong starting hand.
  • Shaky hands. Visibly shaky hands in a novice player usually indicates a huge hand.
  • Sighing. Some novice players will audibly sigh when a key card comes, for instance one that completes a flush. If they subsequently bet, it’s a strong sign that they have the nuts.
  • Speed. Players who bet out quickly usually have a good, but not great, hand such as top pair. The exception is on later streets, when the board gets more dangerous: if they are still betting or calling quickly, they may have a draw to an unbeatable hand such as a flush.
  • Stopping what they are doing. If a player is eating dinner, deep in discussion with their neighbour or scrolling through Facebook, and stops what he is doing to bet, he is more likely to have a strong hand.
  • Twitching. A twitchy face or a tightening around the mouth is usually a sign of nervousness, and may indicate that a raiser does not really wish to be called.
  • Betting patterns. When all’s said and done, betting patterns are possibly the most reliable tells of all. For instance, is a player suddenly raising bigger pre-flop than he usually does? That could be a big pocket pair. Does a player 3-bet every time he’s on the button? Then he’s unlikely to have a strong hand.
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