Analyse this

Trembling hands, staring at the flop, slouching back in the seat – all classic physical tells at the table, but what exactly do they mean?

When we start to analyse physical tells we have to be aware that as a rule any information you get from a pro is more than likely to be false. Bearing that in mind we will try to tread through the minefield of information that, when playing poker, you need to assimilate when arriving at a decision.

Being good at getting a read on an opponent is massive. But in truth I find it very rare that just by observing players’ physical actions alone, you can arrive at a calculated tell. In no particular order, let’s look at ten of the most famous tells at the table and try to ascertain whether they are true signs or just red herrings.


I have encountered this several times throughout my playing career and as a general rule for me it means my backside has gone numb! As for what it means in other players, it’s impossible to be 100% certain. If a player pushes all-in and makes out he is very weak by getting up from the table as if to leave, you can often assume the opposite. You should then verbal him for being such an idiot.

In the Dublin EPT, Roland de Wolfe raised and I tried to set a trap for him by flat-calling on the button with pocket tens. The German guy on the small blind promptly moved all-in. Roland passed (as once again he was at it) and I began to decide on whether to call or pass. He got up from his seat, put on his coat and wrapped his girly Biggles scarf around his neck whilst smugly smiling.

I knew he had some sort of hand but I could not understand the massive overbet. My call was 18,000 and he went all-in for 148k, which if called would leave me with 70k. I called and he showed A-J. He hit a Jack on the turn and beat me. He then sat down and whilst collecting his chips said: ‘I made you call by putting on my coat, didn’t I?’ Well I can’t repeat my answer, but when he said it again a few moments later I suggested he keep his coat on and we go outside for a friendly chat.

You can see it all on TV as they were filming it at that exact moment so you may be able to lip-read my reply. But that goes to show that he thought he made me call by getting up from the table – although he didn’t say it until he had hit the winning hand.


Any player who uses this approach but then plays the hand is often in a strong position so be very wary. They are trying in a very amateur way to put you off. Again with many seasoned pros in the early stages of a tournament it usually means just that they are uninterested.


This can often be a tell that a player is drawing to a flush. For example, they raise with A-Q and the flop comes three suited cards and they re-check the hand before betting to make sure they have the correct suit. I often flat call this bet and then raise on the turn if a blank comes. Another tell from this is when a hand is very strong and they are trying to give you false information.


Now this one really is a big tell. Players sitting relaxed in their seat will often sit upright in order to get a full view of all players and communal cards when they intend to play in a particular pot. Many top players are guilty of this, also. Whilst you cannot say what they have, you do know in advance that they intend to play. This should be enough info to pass if you were about to steal or slow- play if you have a hand hoping they raise for you.

If a player is slouched back in their seat it often means what you would expect – they are not interested in this particular hand or they are bored. In Ram Vaswani’s case it could mean anything, as he is so relaxed he is frequently horizontal.


With me this often means I am asleep. With others it often means they are dead. One person I always call when he stays still and never looks up is Hold’em on the Come author Rolf Slotboom (now I have said that I will have to revise my thoughts).

I caught him when he made two massive bluffs in the pot-limit Omaha at the WSOP 2007. He was finally eliminated when doing the same thing to another player. As a rough guide, it still means ‘scared to look at you’ in case you pick up a tell from them.


This usually means a visit to Specsavers is imminent. But if they are not visually impaired, then it can also mean they ha


Some say that it’s a sign of adrenaline coursing through the veins and therefore means that the player has a big hand. I’m not so sure. If Kevin O’Connell’s hands are shaking, it means he hasn’t had enough Black Label that day. If a beginner’s hands are trembling, it can mean anything as they are often scared to breathe let alone play in a pot. I have felt my hands shake as I have won a big pot and start to collect the chips (although, sadly, it’s not happened for a long time this year). Lots of players are the same, when the stakes are high.


I often talk during hands in order to get info and put players off their stride. Mike ‘the Mouth’ and Phil Hellmuth are the masters and Marcel Luske never shuts up either. Devilfish will just verbal you because he is good at it and he likes to intimidate an opponent who is quiet. When asked for a deal by his two remaining opponents in the pot-limit Omaha event at this year’s WSOP 2007 when he was low on chips, Devilfish was overheard saying, ‘Yes I will do a deal. You two give me all the cash and the bracelet or you can both f*** off!’

Joe Hachem is always trying to guess your hand out loud and looking for a sign that he is correct. Watch him in last year’s main event when he turns quad twos against an unfortunate with a full-house on the final hand of day one. ‘If you bet, I might call a raise; if you check, I might bet and you have to call. If you call, you still might make day two; if you raise, you might be in trouble.’ Hachem’s banter actually goads the other guy into telling him he has a full house and induces him to call.

Another former World Champion whose gift of the gab also helped was of course Jamie Gold. Although in hindsight you can see a pattern of when he has it, he verbals, and when he doesn’t, he is quiet. It was a point picked up by Allen Cunningham, but at the time flummoxed everyone else.


I don’t think this means anything but it’s certainly hard to stop doing as Phil Ivey and Erick Lindgren will attest. They had a bet for 10k on who would riffle the chips first. Phil lost, lasting only ten minutes.


This is often a sign of a big drawing hand, rather than a made one. If they have you beat it often takes longer to call as they wish to give the impression they are thinking whether to call with a draw so as to suck you in.


I do not know of any set rule regarding tells but it would be negligent of you not to keep an eye on your opponents. I do this by watching one particular player for each round of the button and focusing on his actions either folding or betting so as to get some sort of indication of his mannerisms.

To help you understand body language, there are some excellent reads, including the Body Language series of books and Tricks of the Mind by Derren Brown. He lets you in on some useful stuff regarding visual tells. For example, when people are lying apparently there will be a quick movement of the eyes up and to the right, which draws upon visually constructed images. In other words, bluffs. Brown is so clever at tells it’s spooky – in fact I have written to him asking for help. I will keep you informed if I get a response.

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