Poker Psychology 101: How to read your opponents

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As a poker player, what super power would you want, if you could have any? Let me guess, you probably want x-ray vision or the ability to read minds, right?

Reading other players at the table means being able to make an educated guess as to what cards they hold in their hand. Different players have different tells, and some almost none at all. Tells are patterns of behavior that reveal information about a player’s intended actions or about their cards.

Tells can be a very difficult thing to pick up on because they are often split-second actions that a player does unknowingly (or knowingly if he wants to trick you). Poker tables can be very distracting, so it is very important you keep your eyes and ears open at all times. Remember, you should try and play everyone else’s cards at the table and not just yours.

Just because you aren’t in the hand doesn’t mean you should let your guard down. Keep a mental notebook of every players’ actions, such as their style of betting (how they throw the chips into the pot), how much they bet, what they say (or don’t), where their eyes go, etc. Here are the most common poker tells. Keep in mind that there are always exceptions to every rule.

Look around at the chip stacks

Before the game even begins you may be able to get a very basic tell on a player from their chip stack. A messy chip stack indicates a loose player who likes to gamble, while a neat chip stack indicates a tight player who will not bluff a lot. Keep in mind that this is one of those rules where there are exceptions, specifically if a person wants to give you the impression that they are tight or loose.

Watch how each player bets

If a player puts their chips into the pot messily and then tries to straighten the bet, this is usually a bluff. The thinking goes that if someone accidentally makes a messy bet, this might make others suspicious.

Also, carefully watch how each player makes a bet. A good player will mix up their style of betting to throw people off. However, many new players will use extra emphasis on a betting action. It might be something as big as splashing the pot, or it might be just a little flick of the fingers at the end of a bet, but this often means they are bluffing or they are not comfortable with their hand.

Watch the other players, not your cards

When the flop comes, it is natural to want to look at it. Avoid this temptation and instead look at the other players’ reactions to the flop first.

If the flop comes and a player quickly turns his attention away from it, this is usually a sign that they have a strong hand. He wants to appear disinterested in order to get you to bet. On the flip side, players that stare at the flop or their cards often have weak hands.

If a player glances at their chips when a card comes out, it generally means they have a good hand and are thinking about betting. When a player stares at you, this is a dare and it means they are probably acting. They might call, but a raise is unlikely.

If the flop shows two or more cards to a flush, and a player glances at their cards after the flop, this player is checking to see if they have cards of that suit. People tend to remember the rankings of the cards, but not the suit. This is a good opportunity to bet and get your opponent off that drawing hand.

The thing that you need to always do is remember your cards!

Keep your ears open

If you keep your ears open amongst the table chatter, rattling of chips and loud music, you will hear another noise. It is often a sigh or a slight sound of disappointment. This is a tell. It means your opponent caught a good hand and is trying to quietly indicate otherwise. He might also shrug or generally look and sound unhappy (i.e. saying “bet” or “call” sadly).

Nervousness indicates a strong hand

Think about the last time you were really nervous in a poker game. Did you have a big hand? Nervousness almost always indicates a big hand, either pre-flop or after the cards have come out. Many people tend to think that nervousness indicates that that player is bluffing, but this is wrong.

So how do you tell if a player is nervous? Pay attention to their body. When they bet, if they look especially stiff or rigid and their hand is shaking, they have a big hand. Also look at their breathing, especially if they swallow hard. Temporary nervousness causes dry mouth.

Talk to your opponents

Sometimes just engaging in casual conversation with someone can throw them off their game and let you in on their hand. If you ask them a question like what they did today, and they fumble over their words or mutter something incomprehensible, it is probably because they are bluffing.

Reaching for chips before a bet

If your opponent reaches for chips when it is your turn to act, they probably have a weak hand. They are trying to indicate that they will call your bet, but in reality, they just want to see another card.

Conclusion

You can never be sure what cards your opponent is holding, but if you pay close attention to other players’ behavior at the poker table, you can catch tells that can turn the tide of the game in your favor.

Poker can be a distracting game. The more you pay attention to the actions (and inactions) of your opponents, the more successful you will be.

22 thoughts on “Poker Psychology 101: How to read your opponents”

  1. Good advice. Either go to a game to win or socialize, not both. In other words what you are advising is great as you really need to keep working even when its not your turn to bet.

  2. Hey Neil, I follow your personal blog and look forward to watching this poker site grow! I am a poker affiliate as well so it will be interesting to see what you do with the site.

  3. Hey Neil!

    Very cool. Didn’t know you had started a poker blog. I was a big online player in college (before I knew about the wonders of SEO, lol).

    I’d actually love to guest post on here sometime about similarities between poker and business, if you’re interested sometime in the coming months.

    Vik

  4. The best two resources I’ve found about poker tells are books. The first is Caro’s Book of Poker Tells by Mike Caro. It’s an older book now, but the psychology on it is really solid. (Many of the tips you mention above are included in his book.) A newer book on the subject of tells is Phil Hellmuth Presents Read ‘Em and Reap: A Career FBI Agent’s Guide to Decoding Poker Tells. It’s not written by the poker brat though; it’s written by Joe Navarro, who is a retired FBI agent.

    One thing a lot of beginners forget is that reading other players is an intermediate skill. If you haven’t mastered hand selection, aggression, and flop reading, then reading other people’s tells doesn’t make too much of a difference.

    1. Thanks for the book recommendations. I haven’t read either of them and will definitely go and buy them off of Amazon.

      Also, good point on the skill level. If you haven’t master the basics, reading other players won’t help you that much.

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  6. It is easier to read minds of those players with whom you play often. When you play often, you learn opponents style of play and when something is unusual it is easy to detect, but in the casino or online, it is very very hard thing to read the mind especially with pros.

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