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Misunderstood Tell

by Diane McHaffie

 A few months ago, while playing at the Downstream Casino, I was able to save my bankroll from being endangered by properly reading an often misunderstood tell. I wonder how many other players have been saved from a devastating blow by evaluating this tell correctly? Or did they misinterpret the tell and watch their chips dwindle?

Misdiagnosed: Often, you will hear this poker statement, “A player who is bluffing is nervous, and you’ll often see his hand shaking.” Ah, the “shaking hand tell.” Apparently, this can be a bewildering tell, and one that is frequently misdiagnosed. Beginning players often think that the player demonstrating a trembling hand is anxious and unsure. Hey, there may even be a few skilled players who read this tell incorrectly. Let’s examine the true meaning of a shaking hand.

 If a bluffer is nervous, his hand will often be stiff when shoving chips into the pot, not quivering, as the above statement suggests. Sometimes the player’s fingers almost appear locked. In fact, he’s fearful that any movement, any jerking of his hand, coughing or reaching for his soda, could result in an undesired call from a suspicious opponent. Therefore he remains as still as a wooden Indian statue in front of a cigar store. You may not even be aware of him breathing, because a bluffer will frequently hold his breath. That’s right; you’d swear old Elijah was sitting across from you!

 Suspicious: Yep, Elijah isn’t going to move, sniffle, or moan, as that could illicit a call from an opponent that he usually doesn’t want to happen. He wants to score that pot uncontested. So he bets, stiffly shoving his chips forward and then sits quietly, waiting.

 I’ve been in Elijah’s position before, and let me tell you, I’m very careful not to make any suspicious moves that could result in an unwanted call. Now if I wanted a call, I would definitely be shifting in my chair, humming, coughing, or popping my gum. That’s because I was seeking a call that would enlarge the pot for my benefit.

 That’s right; if you actually want an opponent to call, any suspicious movement on your part will tease him into calling you. After all, the players at the table are there hoping to call and it doesn’t take much of an excuse to encourage them to do so. That’s why bluffers are so fearful. Hey, you can even talk players into calling. Mike Caro pulls that off quite successfully on a regular basis!

 Shaking: A shaking hand is an expulsion of trepidation. No longer is the player apprehensive about his cards. He’s absolutely buoyant about the finale of the play in which he’s going to be the one to profit! He is not nervous! Do not mistake his quivering hand to mean uneasiness or panic! He’s jubilant! He’s ecstatic! He’s going to stomp you! He’s potentially holding the mother of all hands! So unless you have a very impressive hand, don’t bother calling. Save yourself the pain of handing over a portion of your chips to this opponent.

 So when I observed Peter, the suave, suited, assured gentleman seated to my right, shove his chips into the pot while his well-manicured hand trembled, I knew! He wasn’t nervously bluffing. Oh, no. He possessed a hand much stronger than mine and I wasn’t going to challenge him.

 Ah, but, poor Davey on my left, misread the trembling hand and thought Peter was bluffing. He smugly called that shaking hand and discovered much to his chagrin, that he was wrong! He watched in horror as Peter raked in the chips.

 And that’s what saved me that Saturday night! I correctly read the shaking hand of my opponent. He had a giant hand and my hand couldn’t compete!

 Diane McHaffie is Director of Operations at Mike Caro University of Poker, Gaming, and Life Strategy. She has traveled the world coordinating events and seminars in the interest of honest poker. You can write her online at

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