Tells: Part 2

When your readng skills are honed you won't just see the tells at the table, you'll be able to 'feel' them

If you whistle the Terry and June theme tune every time you have a hand you’re not going to make any money

Welcome to part two of our guide to tells. Pull up a chair, open something cold and fizzy, and try to control your blink rate. In part one we told you what ‘tells’ are and the vital part they play in the game of poker, as well as some of the main tells to look for that will make you money in your poker career. In this part we’ll look at tells in more depth – some of the advanced theory behind them and how to maximise your effective use of them.

Mastering concepts like pot and implied odds, expectation and the other fundamentals of the game, are vital to making you a winning player. However, live poker will always have an element that defies rational analysis – this is the dissecting and reading of an opponent. The ability to look into another player’s eyes, find his weakness then move in for the kill. Of course, we all enjoy a game of cards and a beer with our mates – we might even enjoy a bit of banter in a casino; but beneath this friendly exterior lurks a vicious, ruthless game like no other. Because when we play poker we’re not just trying to take other people’s money, we’re trying to find a player’s weakness – not just as a card player, but as a person – and exploit it.

Sound unpleasant? Want no part of it? No problem – my sister’s Wendy house is still up, so perhaps you can join her for a tea party while the big boys play cards.

Okay, let’s lower the testosterone a bit and look at why a mastery of tells is so important. Poker’s a game of probabilities. We know there are 52 cards in a deck, so the chances of every eventuality can be expressed as a mathematical certainty. However, it’s also a game full of uncertainty, and one reason for that is every decision is made by a different person – and people are gloriously unpredictable. For example, a player may get dealt J-10 in medium position. In one scenario they may have won the last three pots, be dominating the table and decide to raise. In another that same person may be contemplating what to do when the sandwich they ordered arrives, and decide to pass. Same hand, same player, different outcomes.

Human behaviour

Mike Caro – author of Caro’s Book of Poker Tells and one of the greatest thinkers on this aspect of poker – labelled this as the ‘law of loose wiring’. The key point is that it’s impossible to predict how a player will play any cards they receive. This is where tells come into play – if it’s impossible to predict how someone will play the cards they receive, any information you can glean on the strength of their hand is like gold dust.

Using tells is much more than looking for a specific twitch or move. It’s about knowing your opponent and seeing their weakness. This process should start even before you sit down and the cards are dealt.

There’s a huge amount of information available to you about the way people will play from their personalities and how they act. Are they a regular in the casino? Does everyone know their name? This could mean they are a serious player (or perhaps a degenerate gambler). Are they chatty and friendly to everyone on the table – desperate to be liked? This kind of player often has a weak style and calls too much.

As soon as the play starts you can get information about their playing styles. Do they enter a lot of pots? Do they call pre-flop raises a lot? Often these are signs of a weaker player. Are they into the game and concentrating hard or is it just a bit of fun for them?

Your observation skills are vital to picking up information and tells – playing poker should be an active exercise. If you’re playing to win you should be tired after a long tournament or cash game session.

Something I’ve been doing for many years is to do a 15-minute report on the players I’m sitting with. After I’ve been sitting in a game – cash or tournament – I go round the table and summarise what I know about them, their playing styles and tells. This restates and makes clear what I know and identifies players I don’t know enough about and need to watch more closely. Oh, I should mention this summary should be done in your head – players tend not to appreciate it out loud.

Use the force

As your observation skills become honed and watching players becomes second nature, you’ll begin to get strong impulses when you have decisions to make. You will ‘feel’ that the player is strong or weak without having a specific ‘tell’ to give as evidence for this.

Doyle Brunson writes about this in Super System 2 and discusses the notion of ESP in poker – that inescapable feeling that your opponent either has a certain hand or their holding is a certain strength. Doyle’s conclusion is that there’s nothing spooky about this. In fact it is your hours of observation at the table – all of which is stored in your subconscious – feeding back to you and telling you what your opponent has.

It’s important to understand how we as humans take in information. We’re generally capable of taking in 10-15 inputs consciously each second – that is, things we are actively aware of. Subconsciously, however, we can take in literally millions of inputs each second. You’re taking in huge amounts of information without being aware of it and it’s all being stored for later use. We’ve all experienced it; for example, have you ever been at a party and heard your name in a conversation behind you but not heard the rest of the conversation? The reality is you have heard the rest of the conversation but haven’t processed it consciously because it isn’t relevant to you. And besides, your conscious mind is focused on the stunning girl/chap/bowl of potato salad you’re trying to convince yourself you have a chance with.

So, back to the poker table – even though you may not have spotted a specific tell, your subconscious is picking up all kinds of micro- gestures and mini-tells from your opponent. Like a Jedi, you must become open to receiving this information and allowing your subconscious to feed this to you at the table. The problem is we’re not used to doing this in day-to-day life. Our modern lives are dominated by conscious inputs – TVs, mobiles and so on and we’ve lost this ability. A shocking example was provided by the Asian tsunami disaster – tragically thousands of people died, but did you know that hardly any animal lives were lost? All of them fled the danger areas long before the wave hit. It’s because they’re much more in tune with all of the inputs from the world around them than we are. (But then again they don’t have PlayStation Portables, so who’s smart now, huh?)

The way to give yourself the best chance of accessing all the information you’re getting is to be as calm as possible at the poker table. Try to be almost Zen-like and tune out the clatter around you. Try to feel what your opponent is feeling. It may sound a bit kooky now, but with practice your reading ability will shoot up.

However, all of this and all of your active observation at the table will be pointless if you don’t act on your instincts. You must listen to that little voice in your head that tells you you’re beaten and need to fold, or tells you your foe is weak and you need to raise. (Though I should point out that if your little voice is telling you anything other than ‘fold’ or ‘raise’ – especially if it involves heinous acts of violence – it should be ignored.)

Beyond this, I can’t do anything more than hand you over to the greatest reader of players who’s ever lived – Stu ‘the Kid’ Ungar – for the final word on this subject: ‘You have to know your reads are correct. If you can’t trust your instincts you have no chance at a table. No chance whatsoever.’

Stopping leaks

Of course you can be the best reader of tells in poker, but if you’re whistling the Terry and June theme tune every time you have a good hand you’re not going to make any money.

Stopping giving off tells yourself can be hard because you’re not consciously aware of what you do at the table. Given this, the first piece of advice is to become conscious of what you do and try to diagnose any patterns in the way you hold cards, stack chips and so on.

It’s a good idea to try and adopt a standard routine. Always look at your cards the same way, hold them in the same hand, move chips and bet in the same way and so on. Your ability not to give off tells comes under most examination when you’ve made a big bet or raise and are being stared down by another player. The best tip is to shut down in some way and give up as little information as possible – don’t be tempted to engage in banter or rise to any kind of bait, as a good player will pick up on information from you.

Shut-down routine

Phil Hellmuth is legendary at making a bet then effectively shutting off everything, showing no emotion and responding to nothing. In later years Phil ‘the Unabomber’ Laak has taken this to extremes by covering himself in a hooded top and putting his head on the table. Pretty effective, but how does everyone resist the temptation to nick his chips? Personally, I try to look bored and disinterested after I bet – usually staring at the chips. Of course you should find your own routine, just try to make it consistent whether you have the goods or are bluffing outrageously.

Another useful technique is to actively visualise a good hand when you have a bad one. Let’s say you move all-in before the flop with 10-6 in the late stages of a tournament and (understandably) don’t want a call. Simply visualise K-K in your mind’s eye. Convince yourself you have a great hand and your body language will reflect this, throwing your opponents off the scent.

Once you’ve established control of your own body language and are reading people well you can’t start to give out false information. This is something that happens a lot at the top level of the game. Once everyone knows that an aggressive chip placement means a bluff, an advanced player up against another good player might use this when they have a strong hand to throw their opponent off the scent. Obviously this idea won’t work against anyone other than a player good enough to be picking up on tells, but against such a player it’s worth trying and, if for instance you get someone to call a bet they’d otherwise fold, can be very valuable.

I hope these articles have given you an insight into the world of reading other players – it’s one of the most fascinating and exciting parts of the game. Remember, once you’ve stared a professional player in the eye, seen his lip thin slightly and his breathing slow down – called and picked off his bluff… well then you’ll be a very dangerous opponent indeed. And no longer welcome in my game.

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