No-Limit Hold’em is all about playing the player instead of just the cards in front of you.
If you can consistently beat your opponents, regardless of your cards, then you’re going to do very well in poker. One way to do that is by picking up a physical tell on your opponent. Something like them blinking twice or swallowing nervously.
Physical tells aren’t nearly as common or obvious as you might think and we’d argue that you should first focus on Hold’em fundamentals before worrying about tells but they are still a fascinating aspect of the game and incredibly valuable in the right situations. A reliable physical tell in a cash game can be worth its weight in gold if it’s against an opponent whom you play frequently.
There has been a great deal of study devoted to physical tells but today we’re going to break down some of the most basic tells that frequently pop up in games of relatively inexperienced poker players.
Why Tells Don’t Work 100% of the Time
Pretty much everyone has tells but the main issue is figuring out what they mean.
For instance, most players will be slightly nervous when they make a big bluff but they will also be nervous when they have a big hand.
The big problem is essentially giving those tells context. You’ll notice that a great deal of poker strategy is prefaced with the frustrating adage: “It depends.” That’s especially true when it comes to tells where it’s up to you to decide what information actually means.
The same exact tell can mean completely different things for two different players. The trick is to carefully observe opponents and attempt to figure out a pattern.
The Core Philosophy of Poker Tells
If you were to distill the logic behind reading physical poker tells at the most basic level, it would probably go something like:
You’ll notice quickly that is definitely not 100 percent accurate but — to a large degree — beginner poker players tend to fall into that thought process.
It still pops up a surprising amount as beginner poker players do things like pretending they are going to fold their pocket aces or acting obviously worried when facing a raise. It doesn’t help that most people aren’t particularly good actors.
Experienced poker players won't really do that but that “weak is strong” logic gives you a good insight into the basic thought process of beginner poker players.
With that in mind, here’s a look at some of the most common poker tells:
Looking at Chips
It’s always a good habit to observe players when they look at their cards for the first time.
Quite often they’ll give away a little something when they see something that surprises them such as pocket kings or aces. Players obviously don’t get excited by 8-2 or 9-5.
So what’s the first thing that people do when they get a strong starting hand like kings or aces? They think about how much they want to bet.
Players will frequently look at their stack to help decide how much they want to bet or even how much they would double up to in the case of an all-in and a call.
Be very wary of players who immediately look at their chips or — in extreme situations — even start counting out a bet.
Excessively Protecting Hole Cards
When players get dealt a premium hand they instinctively want to protect it. It makes sense. Who cares if your 7-2 accidentally gets thrown in the muck. It’s another story with pocket aces.
That’s why players holding good hands tend to become a bit more protective of their hands. It’s common for them to lean closer to the table and place their hands on top of the cards. Even putting a chip on top of the cards to make it extremely obvious the hand is still in play.
You should always be suspicious of anyone who seems extremely protective of their hand. Of course, as the hand progresses, you may see the same behavior from someone who is bluffing and worried about exposing their hand. You’ve got to consider that angle when you get to the turn or river.
Quickly Calling a Bet
When you see a relatively inexperienced poker player quickly call a bet, it generally means they are fairly weak.
This is one of the more transparent plays that new players make. The quick call shows that a player feels uncomfortable with their current situation and wants to get out of it as soon as possible.
The basic idea behind calling quickly is that they’ll be able to immediately improve their hand on the next card dealt and then feel more comfortable. Or they just want the hand to be over quickly so they don’t get embarrassed.
There’s a very good chance you’ll be able to take the pot with a decent bet on the next street.
You've got to be aware, however, that what your opponent thinks is a weak hand might be actually be decent. It doesn’t matter as much if they’re going to fold anyway but if they have “calling station” tendencies, you’ve got to proceed carefully.
Regardless you can probably be certain they don’t have the best possible hand. If they did, they would probably take a little more time, even if they were going to just call as a trap.
Beware Suddenly Talkative Players
People don’t like to look like idiots.
That’s why when people are learning how to play poker, they sometimes get very quiet when they are bluffing. It’s understandable. They are nervous and it’s stressful trying to get a bluff through.
Meanwhile, if a player who is generally fairly quiet begins to loosen up and laugh while in a hand, it’s a sign that they feel comfortable. They don’t have to worry about looking like an idiot, they’ve got the best hand (or at least a very good one).
Inexperienced poker players also have a habit of making disclaimers or weak-hand statements when they are strong.
For instance, they might say, “Oh I’m definitely beat here but I guess I’ll call” or “I’m gonna need a big river.”
Players with Strong Hands Downplay Their Strength
“You’ve got middle pair, right?”
Asking questions of opponents in an attempt to get information is common practice in many poker games.
Most of the time, people don’t answer and will remain stoic but there are a few exceptions. One of the ways that people reveal information without thinking about it is when they are trying to coax their opponent into calling.
For instance, if a player is holding pocket aces on a K-T-4-3-8 board and their opponent asks, “You’ve got a king, right?” the player with aces frequently won’t be able to help themselves and will honestly answer, “No.” They think they are being clever but that’s generally a sign they have something better than kings.
Meanwhile, if someone is bluffing with 7-2, they aren’t going to disagree if someone says they have a pair of kings. They don’t want to give their opponent any more reasons to call.
Inexperienced poker players get themselves in a great deal of trouble by trying to be clever.
Reverse Tells Are Real
Of course, everything we’ve discussed today has to be taken with a grain of salt because there is such a thing as a “reverse tell.”
The idea behind reverse tells is that anyone who knows the aforementioned list of tells or a similar list will intentionally try to do the opposite. For instance, a poker player will act weak if they are weak.
It’s one of the first steps that poker players will take after moving into more of an intermediate space. That said, if you play with a number of new poker players, there are a large number of tells listed here that should work consistently. You’ve just got to make adjustments.
People Are Unpredictable
We’re going to mention one more time that there is no physical tell that works 100 percent of the time.
Think about all the different kinds of players you’ll be up against. There are players who move all the time so you can’t really use any tell involving touching chips or their cards. There are also players who talk all the time so it doesn’t really mean anything when they blab through an entire hand.
Making adjustments is perhaps the most useful skill to learn in poker and the players who are able to succeed at adapting to the game they are in are probably going to be the most successful long term.
If you’re interested in poker tells, there are a number of books on the subject, including the slightly dated but influential Caro’s Book of Poker Tells as well as the more modern Reading Poker Tells and Exploiting Poker Tells by Zachary Elwood.