Dara O’Kearney: Telling the story

Dara O’Kearney explains how live tells – despite being overstated in the past – can still help your poker game in 2014

The question of live tells is one which tends to divide poker generations. Old school live pros swear by them, and entire books were written on the subject, whereas the newer breed of online pros often tend to discount or disregard them entirely. I have a certain sympathy for this viewpoint. I would certainly agree that as general awareness of the existence of tells has grown, even amateur or inexperienced players go to great lengths to avoid giving off the most obvious ones. There has been so much talk about tells that even non-players are aware of them.

A few years ago, the main concern of inexperienced live players (even if they were online beasts) was not wanting to give them off. Cue the hoodies, sunglasses and impassive robotic behaviour. These have largely disappeared in recent times, presumably as the realisation spread that the claims of the old school pros to be able to put you on a specific hand were at least wild exaggerations, if not full-on bluffs. Nowadays the tendency of most young players is to regard the whole area of live tells as the poker equivalent of alchemy: an entertaining fiction ultimately disproven. Because of this, a lot of young players make little or no effort to look for live tells, confining themselves to betting lines, patterns and sizing.

Strong clues

My view is that while the importance of live tells was undoubtedly overstated in the past, disregarding them entirely is giving up an additional edge. Experienced live players tend to give little or nothing away, but inexperienced players are often complete tell boxes.

Even inexperienced players are aware of the need to control their verbal and facial reactions, so when it comes to picking up live tells, the most important things to watch are the eyes and hands of opponents. In terms of eyes, the classic tell (and still the most common in my experience) is that opponents tend to stare at flops they missed (as if hoping to see the card they want if they stare long enough) and to look away quickly from flops they hit (if they look to their chip stack it’s pretty much guaranteed strength). Some inexperienced players will dwell briefly on the card that improves them before looking away. On connected boards, when the eyes scan left to right more than once, it’s usually an indicator that the villain has some sort of straight draw or occasionally even a made straight.

Shake it out

The main hand tell is the shaky hands one. In unsophisticated opponents this is always monstrous strength. Unable to contain their excitement at being dealt Aces or flopping the nuts, the hands start to shake uncontrollably as a release of tension. Most other common hand tells relate to how players move chips in to the pot. For your own part you should always try to use the same hand motion with your strong hands and your bluffs, but many players have two different motions depending on whether they are bluffing or not. The four most common betting motions are:

  1. The classic move forward and place/drop
  2. The aggressive throw/spray (generally weakness if the player doesn’t always use it)
  3. The slide
  4. The stalled release, where the chips are moved forward but there’s a distinct hesitation before release (generally a sign of weakness)

When a player uses two (or more) of these, look carefully to see if there’s a pattern. The most common combination are the slide or stall for weak hands and bluffs, and the throw or spray for strong hands, but if you look long enough you’ll see almost every possible combination, with a few additional eccentric idiosyncrasies. One lady I regularly play with literally waves at her chips after releasing them whenever she is bluffing (which she does a lot!). It took me a while to work this one out as it looks like a spray (nearly always strength).

One cautionary note in all of this is that if you make it obvious you are scrutinising opponents for tells, they may elect to give you false information. With the classic tells so widely known now, it’s pretty easy to, say, look at your chips quickly when you want to bluff, or to keep staring at the board when you hit top set but want your opponent to think you missed.

A few years ago at the Irish Open, I found myself at the table of well-known maniac Michael Tureniec. He was opening every pot, betting every flop and generally bullying the table. So it was no surprise to see him reach for chips and raise into my big blind. After I looked down at Aces, I thought for a little while before three-betting. As he tanked what to do next, I tried to help him out with every reverse tell in the book designed to project weakness. After at least five minutes in the tank, he did eventually shove on me and my chips almost beat his into the pot. He cursed under his breath when he saw my hand as he presumably realised he was the victim of some reverse tells. Then again, he did have the monster that is J-7 off so maybe the chips were always going in irrespective of what I did…

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