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the tells in live poker

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The tells in poker

Reading in a definition of crossword puzzles“a card game in which reading body language is most important,” almost everyone would very easily answer, “poker.”
Even the stones know this, after all the movies and the romanticization of poker by Wild West or James Bond-style luxury casinos. Poker is a card game, yes, but it takes guts, skill, and the ability to read your opponents like an open book.
But how much of this is true? Are nonverbal signals (called tells) are really a discriminator and an essential factor in winning at poker? One look too many is the secret we were looking for to become the strongest in the world?
Let’s have clarity.

What are poker tells?

A “tell” is defined as any behavior of a player from which information about the strength of his or her hand or other aspects of poker can be gleaned.
The most common and famous precisely are the various body language signals, but there are also others starting with those that are directly verbal, behavioral, or simply time-related.
Poker is a game of math, but more importantly of information, which is the most important asset for a player. It goes without saying that even having a little extra information, however general, with little solid basis, can turn into extremely high value.

How much difference does a tell make?

 

Do not think, however, that just learning to read two glances or two facial microexpressions is enough to become the number one player in the world.
Tells by definition cannot have 100 percent reliability, and it also often happens that you misinterpret, make the wrong decision and lose.
The most popular advice regarding tells is to avoid taking them as your main source of information. In fact, they act more as watersheds during a difficult decision, and rarely are they so blatant as to radically change our strategy in a hand.
One of the goals of a poker player is to get the opponent into trouble with a betting strategy that generates the indifference principle, that is, “It is indifferent whether I call or fold.”
The most exemplary situation is a bet that can either be bluff or value in the eyes of the opponent, who then with a medium-strength hand will have no special advantage to call: he will lose and win at mixed frequencies, so that the expected value of a call is equal to that of a fold.
In such a situation, noticing a tell that indicates strength or weakness toward the opponent moves the needle of the scales and may cause us to make a choice that proves more effective than deciding blindly. Do we notice weakness? We call. Do we notice strength? We pass.
In this way, the indifference principle is weakened and unbalanced, leading to the advantage of the player who notices the tell. Absolutes seldom exist in poker, but the impact of a 5 percent higher or lower probability of winning, in the long run, is most powerful.

Only body language in poker? Here’s what to watch

The most iconic tell is undoubtedly the micro-facial expression, probably because it is the one that conveys the most “skill,” looks like an almost witch-like ability, and-it’s cool!
In reality any information we can take from the actions (all of them!) of our opponent can become a tell if interpreted correctly.
Starting with the basics, one that often distinguishes beginners is the sizing tell, which is information hidden behind the size of the bet. There are those who bet high when they have the point and weak when they are bluffing, and those who do the exact opposite. Over time, however, this kind of tell is the one that is resolved first.

The timing at which an action is taken can be a tell

Another one that has nothing to do with body expressions is timing tell, which is how long a player takes to do an action. You can tell a lot about an opponent’s strength depending on whether in that specific hand he plays very fast or lets some time pass. Also like the previous one, it tends to disappear in more experienced players, who have learned to take 10 seconds of reflection for each choice so as not to get caught (and force themselves to think through all situations).
Behaviors, attitudes and words come somewhat close to the psychology of body language. There are chatty players who become quiet on certain occasions; do they do it in bluff or with value? Some people drink compulsively, for example, a behavior that may denote nervousness and an attempt not to express it.
Words are very important; verbal tells can make a difference more often than you think. We need to get some experience and understand our opponent’s mindset, but sometimes all we have to do is ask, “What do you have, A-A?” and he might answer, “I have nuts” or “Call, I’m bluffing.”
Of course, he may not necessarily be telling the truth, but he may reveal the intention that the opponent is looking for. Maybe by saying he has nuts he wants you to fold because he’s bluffing — but some people think reverse psychology is a good idea. You have to figure out what kind of opponent it is.

The most common tells in live poker

As you may have noticed from the previous paragraph, one of the most important things when it comes to tells is that to be meaningful they have to be different from that person’s normality.
To explain further with a couple of examples: if a player is chatty but stops talking, that is a tell that we need to note down to see when he does. If a player is silent in general, his silence at the table will not be indicative of anything.
First you have to create a standard base, and notice when the opposing player steps out of this base behavior.
This guideline applies to all tells, including common and body language tells. A more tense side of the mouth than usual may conceal information, but if it is always tense we should not consider it.
Coming to the point, a whole book could be written (and has been written) on body signals; therefore, it is difficult to go into specifics in an article, but a couple of things we can report.
Believe it or not, the legs and feet are a major source of tell. The reason is that every poker player knows that he or she must maintain a solid “poker face,” but the further the signals get away from the head, the harder it is to control them.
A jumping foot in a nervous manner precisely communicates nervousness, which can be either out of fear of receiving a call or because one is looking forward to it. A dancing foot is usually happy and therefore conveys confidence.

Feet can betray poker players

The most common

Two of the most famous tells in poker are breath and heartbeat. Two things that are difficult to actively control, thus of high value as information, but also difficult to notice from the outside. With some practice, however, it will become evident when an opponent is nervous.
Coming to facial expressions, let’s forget things like “if you look up to the left, it’s bluff.” More often it is the mouth that gives us info, responding to an unpleasant situation with a quick grimace.
The eyes tend not to matter too much, much more indicative are the eyebrows that generate self-explanatory expressions.
The list can go on, but remember to be careful when evaluating these things. It is best to find three or four tells that converge in the same answer, and there you will be more likely to be right.
Calling for an eyebrow twitch and then finding out he was just about to sneeze is not the best.

Are there tells in online poker?

Some people may think that by playing online, without pointed cameras, it is impossible to take information from our opponents.
This is indeed the case, but as we said at the beginning, there are tells of different types.
Sizing tells for less experienced players, and timing tells that online can make more of a difference than it seems.
We can also bring into the “tell” cauldron all the clues that tell us that a player is on tilt, from the most blatant swearing in chat, to the silliest moves at the table.
Live or online, in poker and even outside, there is an ocean of information to take in. We just need to know how to navigate it.

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