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.
Now, let’s kick it over to Zach.
Hey Upswing readers! I’m Zachary Elwood. I’m here to share a new, updated list of the top 7 most useful poker tells.
I chose these tells because they are common or reliable, or both.
First, a little about my expertise on the subject.
After my first book Reading Poker Tells was well-received in 2012, I knew I would only be writing more books if I had something new and interesting to say. In 2013 I spent 8 months straight, full-time (50+ hours a week, no joke), researching and writing the book Verbal Poker Tells.
I didn’t plan on spending that long, but as I watched a lot of televised poker and took notes as I played, I found there was a lot more to say about verbal patterns than what I’d initially imagined.
Some of the tells below may seem common-sense when reading them, but I’ve found when you really start keying into the major patterns and looking for some of these elements, you’ll start to understand a lot of during-hand much better than you thought possible.
7 Poker Tells That Deserve Your Attention
Click any of these tells for a detailed explanation that will help your game:
- Defensive Movements
- Hesitations and Pauses When Betting
- Double-checking Hole Cards
- Quicker-than-usual Calls
- Weak-hand Statements
The first four poker tells focus on physical tells while the last three will focus on verbal patterns. Behavior associated with large bets is the most reliable type of behavior, so these patterns all apply best to players making significant bets.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Tell #5: Weak-hand statements
What’s a weak-hand statement? It’s a statement that seems on the surface to weaken the hand range of a speaker.
A weak-hand statement, when said by a player making a significant bet, strengthens that player’s range.
For example, a player bets and says, “I’m just on a draw; don’t worry.” He would be unlikely to weaken his hand range like that, even jokingly, when bluffing. Bluffers generally don’t want to risk such things and stick to neutral statements or strong-hand statements if they choose to speak.
This fits the general and well-known “weak means strong” category of poker tells and may seem somewhat obvious. But there is value in analyzing bettors’ statements to look for not-so-obvious instances of weak-hand statements.
Here are a couple more subtle examples of weak-hand statements:
- On the river, a player studies his opponent and says, “I don’t think you have anything,” before shoving all-in.
By stating his opponent doesn’t have anything, he is indirectly stating that he himself does not need a strong hand to bet. It’s an indirect weak-hand statement.
- A player shoved on the river and when his opponent doesn’t call immediately, the player says, “Whew, I was afraid you’d snap-call!”
His statement’s surface level meaning is: “I have a strong hand, but I don’t have the nuts.” It is a weak-hand statement that removes the strongest hands from his range, and that is something a bluffer would hardly ever want to do.
Strong-hand statements are much harder to interpret than weak-hand statements. Bluffers obviously have an incentive to imply or state that their hands are strong, so you’ll hear a good amount of strong-hand statements from them.
Also, players betting with strong hands may just be very relaxed and enjoy telling the truth, or enjoy trying some reverse psychology. I would wager you’ve seen plenty of bluffers AND players betting strong hands say things like, “I’ve got the nuts, I’m telling you.”
If you watched the 2017 WSOP Main Event final table, you might have seen the hand where Scott Blumstein made a full house with his T♠ 9♠ versus Pollak. Pollak checked his straight on the river and Blumstein bet. After some talking by Pollak, Blumstein said, “You’re going to let me bluff you on national TV?”
In such a high-stakes spot, it’s quite unlikely that Blumstein would risk placing the idea he were bluffing in Pollak’s mind, in my opinion.
One of the reasons this kind of behavior is so valuable is that it’s hard to predict how an opponent will react to one’s “speech play”. This means players are generally very cautious about what they say and don’t want to accidentally influence an opponent to call. This makes weak-hand statements accompanying significant bluffs quite rare, even amongst better players who are theoretically more capable of switching such things up if they wishes.
Another interesting thing about Blumstein’s statement: it was a bit goading, which leads me to…
Tell #6: Goading
A goad is defined as something “that urges or forces someone to do something”. Its meaning comes from a tool named the goad, which is a pointed rod used to get an animal to move forward.
Goading in poker takes the form of a player trying to abuse and agitate an opponent into taking some action.
When a player engages in goading behavior when making a significant bet, he’s more likely to have a strong hand. It doesn’t really matter in which direction a goad is trying to influence someone; just the mere fact that it seems intended to get someone to do something makes it a goad and increases the chances it’s said by a relaxed, strong-hand bettor.
The main reason for this is similar to the rules governing weak-hand statements: bluffers do not want to accidentally agitate an opponent and trigger what Mike Caro called a player’s “calling reflex.”
Some examples of goading statements:
- A bettor saying, “I dare you to call me.”
- A bettor saying, “I know you’re folding.”
- A bettor saying, “You’re going to let me bluff you on national TV?”
That last one is the statement we talked about in the last section from Blumstein at the WSOP ME final table. Not only is it a weak-hand statement, it’s also a bit goading. Blumstein’s statement could be interpreted as, “I’m bluffing you and I dare you to call me.”
His statement is of course open to interpretation, but even so, his statement raises the emotional stakes by seemingly trying to influence Pollak to do something, even if we’re not sure what that something is. And that is something that a bluffer tends to avoid, because he has to be afraid of his opponent acting on his goading statement (whether logically or illogically) and calling him.
The fear of looking stupid is another reason weak-hand statements and goading statements are so heavily weighted to strong hands. If a bluffer says something like, “Don’t let me bluff you,” and ends up being called, that is emotionally a tough thing to deal with. In such a situation, a bluffer would often be angry with himself, thinking, “Why did I say I had a weak hand.”
Fear of feeling dumb is a major reason bluffers don’t often try unusual or tricky things; most people don’t want to face the self-doubt and questions involved in taking an unusual risk and it not paying off.
When skilled players play other skilled players, these things are capable of being more reversed and varied. But for most players, these are generally strong patterns.
Tell #7: Irritation
Similar to the reasons why goading is a sign a player is relaxed, irritation or rudeness from a player making a big bet is a clue that player is relaxed.
Bluffers generally don’t want to express irritation or anger because they don’t want to risk agitating an opponent with their behavior. Some examples of irritated behavior:
- A player shoves on the river and says, “What’s taking you so long?”
- A player 5-bets all-in pre-flop and says angrily, “Raise, raise, raise, here’s a raise.”
- A player shoves on the river and calls the clock on his opponent in an agitated way. (One small note about this one: because it’s a well-known indicator of relaxation, I’ve seen this be a reverse tell a good number of times when a good player called the clock on another good player.)
Players with weak hands in these situations do not generally want to risk angering their opponent.
Another interesting way this pattern shows up is in the context of that often-heard question, “Will you show if I fold?” Affirmative responses to this question don’t contain much meaning; you’ll often hear players with both strong and weak hands be willing to say, “Yes, sure, I’ll show,” to this question.
But saying, “No,” to this question is weighted significantly to relaxation and strong hands. This is because bluffers don’t want to risk angering their opponent with a negative answer. It becomes even more likely to adhere to the pattern the more rudely or aggressively the “No” is said.
A note about non-big-bet situations
One important point: irritation from players not making significant bets will be tied to weak hands and defensiveness.
For example, let’s say a player is waiting for his opponent to act on the river and says, “Come on, what’s taking so long?” and seems agitated, it has become significantly more likely that the speaking player is defensive and doesn’t have a strong hand. This is because players with weak hands:
- Are often less focused on the hand
- Lack the incentive of players with very strong hands to not draw attention to themselves
- May have an incentive to say or do something to discourage an opponent from betting.
This is generally true for most verbal behavior, so that most early-hand or waiting-for-action talking in general will slightly weaken a player’s range. This is a general pattern, of course, not a super-reliable one.
One example of how this kind of behavior might lead to practical action: a player raises and you have a hand that could easily be 3-bet or folded. As you think, the raiser looks at you and asks, “What’s the hold-up?” If you’re on the fence, that behavior should encourage you to raise, because this behavior from a player in a non-big-bet situation makes it a bit less likely he has a strong hand.
To summarize: big-bet situations are very different than non-big-bet situations, including early-hand or small-bet bettors. Thinking more about situational factors helps you better understand verbal poker behavior.
If you liked this article, you can sign up for Zach’s free 5-part verbal poker tells email course here.