Body talk – How to read tells in live poker

Live tells can give you a massive edge over your opponents – we show you what to look out for at the poker table

With the rise of the online poker player, live tells started to be questioned and eventually dubbed ‘overrated’. The new poker generation argued – and to some extent proved – that betting patterns, hand values and ranges are what really matter in poker. While that is true to an extent, the pendulum has now swung too far the other way, with the result that live tells are now very much underrated.

However, it should only take a quick visit to your local cardroom or casino for you to see that there is so much extra information available playing live compared to what you can get online. And the fact is, if you’re not using it, you’re leaving chips – and money – on the table. Here, then, are some of the biggest tells you’ll see at the poker table with ways you can profit from them…

1. Looks Can Kill

People look a certain way through choice. It’s a generalisation of course, but you can start to form opinions about how people play from how they look. If there’s a forty-something guy wearing a nice jacket and sporting a conventional haircut he’s probably not going to be throwing in a bunch of huge check-raise bluffs. By contrast, a young guy wearing a hoodie, shades and a baseball cap,
will often be loose, possibly dangerous and very aggressive.

2. Mouthing Off

Players often wear sunglasses, but that misses the point – the mouth is where the action is. Look for a tightening of the lips and corners of the mouth. This is a sign of tension that often means a player is bluffing. Also look for submissive gestures when tanking or betting. Any biting or licking of lips is a surefire sign of weakness

3. Comfort Level

Noticing how comfortable an opponent looks is a fundamental aspect of making live reads. There are very few players who are able to be as comfortable when making a big bluff as they are when making a big bet with the nuts. Sometimes they’ll give this information up voluntarily in their body language or changes in how they are. However, you can also elicit it – try staring them down or, even better, asking them questions to judge how comfortable they are if they reply. You can ask them how they feel about their hand or, if that’s not allowed where you’re playing, just ask what they do for a living. Remember, it’s how comfortable they are, not what they say.

4. Chip-handling

Sometimes how players break chips or put them into a pot defines their hand. They may be shaky or nervous if they have a big hand, but often the best tell of strength is if an opponent is aggressive with their chips. Banging chips down, splashing the pot, and especially betting chips towards you or into ‘your space’, all constitute aggressive chip actions and are great signs that an opponent is weak.

5. Age-old question

This is another generalisation, but it’s still fairly effective when you have to make fast reads at a new table. There is a strong correlation between age and how people play in a live game. Younger players tend to be more aggressive and more aware of concepts like three-betting preflop. Older players tend to play more conservatively and predictably. 

6. Stack ’em up

A player’s chipstack can often give clues as to their experience and style of play. The old rule of ‘players with tidy chipstacks often play conservatively and players with chips all over the place like to bluff’ can sometimes be true. However, of far more value in a tourney is spotting the players with many small denomination chips in their stacks. The small chips are used for the ante, so anyone who has a lot is usually playing more hands and stealing more pots preflop than those with just big chips in their stack. Finally, Mike Caro’s classic tip still holds true: if someone is stacking their chips from a hand they just won, they only enter the next pot with good hands.

7. National Identity

The last thing we want is for this article to descend into cheap national stereotyping, but it is kind of fun. this another ‘tell’ that involves some big generalisations but it’s important you build profiles of players quickly, and finding out where someone is from is one of the ways to do it. this all started with scandinavians who came into poker years ago playing far more aggressive and loose than most other players. there are other things that hold true – young Americans are aggressive preflop, the english seem tight but love a bluff, and Italians are horrible at poker. Also, if someone has specifically travelled a decent distance for the tournament, it’s a good bet they know what they’re doing (this does not apply to italians).

8. Shaky HandS

When somebody puts out chips and their hand is shaking, especially in a big pot, it can look like nervousness and be mistaken for weakness. But it isn’t – it’s usually strength. the adrenaline from the monster hand they’re concealing is giving them that shakiness. Be wary, though, as someone who hasn’t played live much could be shaking all the time! Also, if you’re in vegas and it’s before 3pm, it could just be alcohol leaving the system from the previous night.

9. Caught in the act

It’s vital you watch players as they think about and make their bets. Many players will shut down and stare at the felt after they’ve bet, but in the moments leading up to it they may make an involuntary gesture you can pick up on. Here’s a cool example (click to watch): Watch Moneymaker’s mouth at 1m 35s as he makes his bluff. He makes a submissive gesture for a brief moment, then it’s gone, and there’s no more info until the hand is over.

10. Body Language

Joe Navarro, a former FBI guy who wrote a book on poker tells, has made the observation that the lower down the body you look the more accurate the information. this is because we know we should control our face but forget about other parts of our body. Obviously, some of this information is hidden when sitting at a poker table but some of it isn’t. it’s important you focus on a player’s overall posture – are they upright and alert or slumped and defeated? Do they jiggle their feet? An amazing number of players involuntarily jiggle their feet or legs most times but then stop when they’re in a big pot. this will often mean they’re weak and/or worried. Finally, many players often make involuntary arm gestures, such as throwing one up slightly in frustration, or touching the back of their head or hair, which is a classic comfort gesture.

11. Interested Parties

Stealing the blinds is a huge part of tournament poker. When you open a pot the blinds are the most likely players to contest it with you. Often, players will make the mistake of looking at their cards in the blinds then giving off information as to whether or not they are likely to play them. Some do this by protecting their cards (maybe putting a chip on them) if they like their hand. Also, they may well follow the action very closely if they have a hand but not be interested at all if they are planning on mucking. this tell is often reversed if someone has already put chips in the pot. if a player has a big hand he’ll frequently look away (as if he isn’t interested in the pot) to encourage action. the opposite – for example, staring at you while you decide what to do – often means weakness.

12. Exceptions To The Rule

Finally, it’s worth remembering that tells are individual to each player. the ones presented here are general tendencies of people at the poker table, but won’t apply to everyone. there are, of course, some nits from sweden, some old guys who bluff like crazy, and people sometimes lick their lips because the air conditioning has dried them out! the key to spotting most tells is to always be observant and think and use the information that’s right in front of you.

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