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.
Hi guys. Zachary Elwood here with a follow-up to my first Upswing poker tells article, which covered 4 particularly helpful physical tells.
This article will be focused on 3 helpful verbal behavioral patterns:
- Weak-hand statements
- Goading behavior
- Irritated behavior
But first, a little about my expertise on this 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 verbal tells below may seem common-sense when reading them, but I’ve found when you really start keying into the major patterns and breaking down people’s speech looking for some of these elements, you’ll start to understand a lot of during-hand much better than you thought possible.
Out of all the work I’ve done on poker tells, I’m probably most proud of the Verbal Poker Tells book. Mainly because the subject was unique and hadn’t been tackled before, but also because I think these patterns, when present, are even more reliable than most physical tells (which are often ambiguous and only slightly reliable).
Below are 3 of the most meaningful during-hand verbal patterns. Behavior associated with large bets is the most reliable type of behavior, so these patterns all apply to players making significant bets.
#1. 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…
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.
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 my free 5-part verbal poker tells email course here.
Read more from Upswing Poker:
- Now that you know some verbal tells, check out Zach Elwood’s 4 Physical Poker Tells That Deserve Your Attention
- Learn how to exploit common weaknesses with Crush Live Poker Games with These 8 Battle-Tested Tactics
- Make sure you don’t believe any of these 5 Tournament Myths Way Too Many Players Believe
Zachary Elwood is a former professional poker player and the author of the books Reading Poker Tells, Verbal Poker Tells, and Exploiting Poker Tells. He has served as a poker tells consultant for two WSOP Main Event final table players.
Check out Zach’s advanced Reading Poker Tells video series here