A guy named Philip used to be a regular at my home game. A quiet and somewhat socially awkward fellow, he could often go unnoticed for most of the night until everyone suddenly realized that he had silently accumulated a sizable chip stack.
Despite being a successful poker player, Philip's hands seemed to shake all the time. It was just a physiological issue that he had, a condition called Essential Tremor that was hardly noticeable in common daily interactions. Many muscles in his body would involuntarily shake much of the time, but it was minor enough to be masked and go unnoticed by many folks. It was very noticeable at the poker table, though, when everyone was eyeing one another for tells. When handling chips and his hole cards, he would sometimes look as shaky as a nerve-racked teenager on his first date.
While it appeared that he was scared silly at the poker table due to his physical ailment, the reality was that Philip was a very cool and collected poker player who was well aware of his shakes. After playing with Philip for a few months, I realized that his shaky hands and nervous-appearing demeanor were actually a great benefit to him.
He played steady tight-aggressive poker. His opponents would hardly notice his shakes until a key hand was presented. The opponent would then stare down Philip and allow his shaky hands and jerky movements to play a role in his evaluation of Philip's play and current mindset. At least once or twice a night an opponent would misread those shakes as either a sign of great strength or one of huge nervousness, and make a poor play against Philip based on that interpretation. Over the course of months and months of play, those opponent misreads really added up to a notable influx of easily won pots for Philip.
While Philip's case with Essential Tremor is extreme, this sort of phenomenon happens all of the time at the poker felt. When a key decision is to be made, a poker player attempts to catch a read on his opponent by staring at his nostril flares, his darting eyes, his body position, his breathing patterns, the steadiness of his hands, and more. All too often we use these cues and consider them as tells, allowing them to have a big impact on our decisions. Using this sort of information exclusively is misleading and dangerous, though.
The key is to look for is a change in behavior at the poker table. If you notice a player's hands are very steady when he plays a normal hand but shake when he has a monster hand, then you have a tell to work with. If you notice a player's hands shaking but have no past baseline observations to compare it against, you don't really have a leg to stand upon. An observant player would have noted that Philip's hands were shaky no matter the cards he was dealt. They would not shake any more or any less at the poker table than they would at any other time of the day. With that in mind, they would have completely discounted his shaky hands when a key pot was in doubt.
Finding tells starts well before any big, stressful hands are dealt. You must make a concentrated effort to note each and every player's baseline behaviors at your table. Then, evaluate what the changes in behaviors might mean when you spot them. Never fall into the trap of seeing a common "tell" such as a shaking hand and assume it means something. If you don't have a baseline to contrast it against, you have nothing but incomplete and unreliable information.
Now go make it happen.
John Carlisle is a National Certified Counselor with a Master's degree in Counseling Psychology from West Virginia University. Contact John at firstname.lastname@example.org.