By George “The Engineer” Epstein
A skilled poker player always seeks out tells from his opponents. Tells are mannerisms that reveal information that can help him make better decisions – win more often and bigger pots.
The easiest tells are when the cards are first being dealt out. I always teach my poker classes to especially observe the players to their left as they first look at their holecards. Those are the ones who will be betting after you.
A tell may give you vital information about our opponent’s holecards or how he plans to play his hand – fold, call (limp), or raise. For example, it’s not uncommon for an unthinking player to handle his two holecards in such a way as to signal that he plans to fold when it’s is turn to declare. He may even toss them into the muck before his turn. He is anxious to get this hand over with, and get to the next hand. That’s a really easy tell to observe – if you are looking for it. Suppose you are in a late position, and everyone has folded to you, then this tell might encourage you to raise to steal the blind bets – especially if you hold a borderline starting-hand.
As you look to your left, you see an opponent suddenly sit straight up in his chair, glance around the table, and grab a handful of chips. If he’s not a particularly deceptive player, those motions signal a strong starting-hand. Say it’s a $4-$8 limit game, and he picks up a handful of chips – eight or more. That tell suggests he is planning to raise.
By the same token, skilled opponents (there are bound to be some at your table) may be watching your reaction as you peek at your holecards. (That’s why it’s best not to look at your holecards until just before it’s your turn to declare.)
What is the true meaning?
But, most other tells are much more subtle and less obvious. You observe what appears to be a tell. But what does it really mean? You can best evaluate a tell when you follow the action to the end, and observe whether that player bets, raises or folds. Make note of it for future use during the session. Actions speak louder than words!
What does it mean when you see an opponent across the table shake his head from side-to-side. He is sort of telling you, “I don’t like my hand.” On the other hand, if a smile sweeps across his face, it suggests, “I like my hand.” But, what if he is deceptive?
A bit of caution is warranted.
It could be a “reverse tell.” In that case, your opponent is pretending just the opposite. Shaking his head from side-to-side may be intended to make you think that he has a weak hand. Watch how he subsequently plays that hand. Did he raise? Now you have a good idea what that tell really means for that player. Make note.
Keep in mind: A similar tell by a different player may or may not have the same meaning. Some players are more deceptive than others. Aggressive players are more prone to be deceptive.
Did his hand shake as he raised? Observe the subsequent playing of that hand. After all, the shaking (trembling) could easily indicate a monster hand. He was so excited when he caught that hand. His hand shook because he was nervous or perhaps a bit apprehensive. Or, was it a bold bluff? Confirm that at the showdown.
Evaluating your opponents’ tells is just as important as observing them in the first place, perhaps even more so. His actions after “giving” that tell are the most reliable source for determining the true meaning. And, of course, the showdown is the best way to confirm your assessment. Then the next time you see that tell from that opponent, you are prepared to best act on that information.
Bottom Line: There are lots of tells; but only a skilled player can properly evaluate each, and then use that information in his best interests. Are you up to that challenge?
George “The Engineer” Epstein is the author of The Greatest Book of Poker for Winners!; Hold’em or Fold’em? – An Algorithm for Making the Key Decision; and The Art of Bluffing. He has taught poker at the Claude Pepper Senior Center, at West L.A. College, and to elderly war veterans at the CalVet facility in the VA/West L.A. George created and organized the Claude Pepper Seniors Poker Group. He was awarded the Senior Citizen Volunteer-of-the-Year Award, in large part for his activities on behalf of senior citizens, and has been elected to the Seniors’ Poker Hall of Fame.