Poker tells are a tricky topic. Most beginners put way too much credence into tells early in their poker journey. Eating an Oreo cookie could mean someone has a strong hand in the movies, but in real life…not so much.
But many experienced pros focus solely on playing a good strategy, completely ignoring live poker tells in the process.
The correct path is somewhere in the middle–focusing on strategy while also considering tells when they present themselves.
Which common poker tells deserve your attention? We’ve brought in acclaimed poker tells expert Zach Elwood to help answer this question. Zach runs a training site that focuses on poker tells, and his content has been recommended by many very successful pros.
Hey Upswing readers! I’m Zachary Elwood. I’m here to share a new, updated list of the top 4 most useful physical poker tells. (I’ll write about verbal tells later.)
I chose these 4 tells because they are common or reliable, or both.
Let’s start with perhaps the most well understood tell among the poker playing population.
Physical Poker Tell #1: Defensive Movements
Most experienced players know that when you reach for chips to bet and your opponent then also starts to reach for chips, as if ready to immediately call, it’s an sign they probably don’t have a strong hand.
Mike Caro discusses this tell in his 70’s classic Caro’s Book of Poker Tells: The Psychology and Body Language of Poker. The reason why it’s a reliable tell is simple: holding a strong hand, a player is not likely to give a player in front of them a reason not to bet; to the contrary, they’re more likely to sit still, not reach for chips, etc.
But the weaker a player’s hand is, the more likely it is they’ll make some sort of gesture to try to prevent you from betting.
There are more subtle ways this tell can manifest itself. Often, even just a small unusual movement from a waiting-to-act player makes it more likely they’re not at the top of their range.
Most of this behavior originates unconsciously; it’s instinctively defensive, not something planned and acted out. Consequently, defensive movements aren’t likely to be reverse tells, and so they can be quite reliable.
Here are a couple examples of subtle movements:
- Minor chip movements before checking to the aggressor
Suppose that, on the turn, a player checks and calls a bet from a player behind in a timely manner. On the river, the first player then slowly grabs her chips and riffles them for a couple seconds before checking. This behavior is subtle, but it can be a sign that she is unconsciously trying to give the impression that she has interest in the pot, which makes a weak hand more likely. The lesson here is that you should look for defensive behaviors when opponents check, not just when they are facing a potential bet.
- Subtle hand movements toward one’s chips
Suppose that on the river a player checks and, as his opponent thinks, the first player positions his hand on the rail, close to his chips. Even small movements toward one’s chips can be a subtle indicator of discomfort, and thus an unconscious attempt to discourage a bet.
Subtle indicators like these are far from perfectly reliable, of course, so it helps if you can find other signs of defensive behavior, such as:
- Staring intensely after a check
- Sitting awkwardly still after a check
The more signs that indicate defensiveness, the more you might have the opportunity to bluff.
One caveat: Some players move around a good amount in general, and so this pattern will be less reliable for these players. You should always study your opponents over time to get a sense of how they normally behave.
And of course: even if you correctly read an opponent as having a weak hand, there’s no guarantee they’ll actually be folding. Even with a strong read of weakness, how loose your opponent is should always be a consideration.
Physical Poker Tell #2: Hesitations and Pauses when Betting
When a player makes a significant bet, hesitations and pauses will make strong hands more likely. Players betting weak hands and bluffs will usually do so straightforwardly and normally, without pauses.
A couple examples of hesitating-type behaviors:
- A player has a lot of stop-and-start movements when gathering or placing the bet.
- A player announces “bet” or “raise” and then pauses a while before announcing the amount or putting in chips.
What are the reasons for this pattern?
- Players betting weak hands and bluffs don’t want to be studied for any longer than is necessary. The longer the bet takes, the more likely it becomes that an opponent might pick up something on them (even something wrong) that can be interpreted as a sign of a weak hand.
- Players betting weak hands and bluffs want to convey confidence. Betting straightforwardly and normally is one way to convey confidence.
- Players betting strong hands can have incentive to convey uncertainty, so you’re more likely to find hesitating and uncertain behaviors from strong hand bettors.
As with most bet-related tells, it’s much easier to find signs of relaxation and strength in bettors than it is to find indicators of anxiety or a weak hand. Players betting strong hands often give themselves away by doing unusual things that bluffers generally aren’t willing to do or aren’t comfortable doing.
Physical Poker Tell #3: Double-checking Hole Cards
The meaning of double-checking hole cards depends on the situation:
- For players who are waiting-to-act or who end up checking, double-checking hole cards will generally indicate weak hands. (This is the case with other ostentatious behaviors as well.)
For instance: a player calls a pre-flop raise, sees the flop, and then double-checks his cards a couple times before checking.
If this player flopped a very strong hand, like a set, they’d likely be very stoic and wouldn’t draw attention to themselves. Like many ostentatious behaviors from non-aggressors (i.e., checkers, callers), this is an indication that they’re not mentally focused and unlikely to have much of a hand.
- For players who have just made a significant bet, double-checking hole cards will generally indicate relaxation and a strong hand.
For instance: a player makes a big bet on the river and, soon after, double-checks his cards.
If this player were bluffing, he wouldn’t want to do something that could theoretically convey weakness or uncertainty. And double-checking hole cards can, to many people, convey uncertainty, so a bluffer would instinctively just not want to risk that interpretation.
This is a good example of how important it is to interpret poker tells in the context of the surrounding situation. It’s a mistake to take a “this means that” approach to behaviors; there are always multiple factors influencing the meaning of behavior.
Physical Poker Tell #4: Quicker-than-usual Calls
Of all the bet-timing tells, quick calls are probably the most generally useful. Quick calls will generally indicate weak or medium-strength hands.
Why is this? When a player immediately calls a bet, it means that they have immediately ruled out a raise. Because players with strong hands are often focused on maximizing value and playing their hand the best way they can, this makes it unlikely that an immediate call is made by a player with a strong hand. If a player with a strong hand does decide to only call, he will usually take a few seconds to reach that decision.
Immediate calls will be most practically useful pre-flop and on the flop just because this is usually when bets are small enough for players to be capable of calling without much thought. On the turn, bets are bigger and most players will tend to think longer about these bets no matter what they have.
Pre-flop, for many players, an unusually quick call of a 3-bet or a 4-bet will make it likely that the player has QQ or JJ. These are hands that many players consider too strong to fold, but also too weak to reraise with. With all other hands, including AK, most players will at least consider folding or reraising.
Keep in mind that ‘quick’ is of course subjective and dependent on what you think is normal for a player and situation. Depending on circumstances, a quick call could take several seconds.
The overall aggression of a player can be a factor in narrowing their hand range. For example, when an aggressive player quickly calls a bet on a flop of J♥ 7♥ 2♠, it’s become unlikely that that player has a flush draw, because an aggressive player will usually at least consider a raise, even if he ends up only calling.
Another factor in interpreting immediate calls is the time that has passed during that round. The quicker an immediate call occurs after the last card(s) has been dealt will be more likely to indicate a weak hand. If a player has had a long time to think about what his action might be (for example, if his opponent thinks a long time before betting), then his immediate call will be less likely to adhere to the general pattern.
I hope you enjoyed my first article for Upswing Poker. Check out my next piece 3 Verbal Poker Tells You Would Be Smart To Listen For.
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