Learning poker tells is a very fun aspect of mastering poker. It gets away from some of the mundane technical strategic points and makes the game a lot more human. It becomes a challenge of psychological warfare and intimidation instead of just numbers and statistics.
Plus, poker stories are far more interesting when tells are involved. You may have heard one like this: “I had three Queens and was just about to fold on the river… when I saw Joey raise an eyebrow. I knew he had just shown his tell…”
Here are three tells that are very common in both poker and everyday life. You’re probably doing these yourself without even realizing it. Take note of the tells below and see how many come up at your next poker game.
1. The Hand-Shrug
Are you a fan of the show “Lie to Me”?
I used to be really into it. The main character is a professional deception expert who makes his living in observing and interviewing witnesses and suspects to see if they’re telling the truth. He reads micro-expressions, which are subtle manifestations of body language that most people don’t pick up on.
The show’s got a lot of value, but the first micro-expression I started seeing all the time in the real world is the hand-shrug. It’s when someone rotates his or her hand in the outward direction. Most of the time the person’s hands will be on the table and one will just subtly move.
This is a small but major admission that the person is unsure of what he’s saying. In poker, you’ll notice it when someone makes a bet or call and is trying to sound confident. The hand movement will betray his outward confidence and show he really isn’t sure he has the best hand. This can also show how confident the person is in general, because if he’s hand-shrugging when he’s not even holding cards yet, it reveals that he really feels outmatched at the table.
2. Deep Breathing
It’s a tough irony in poker that some of the very things you can do to calm your emotional state and get off tilt will reveal to other players that you’re on tilt in the first place.
If you go to an anger management class or a social anxiety workshop, what they’ll tell you to do is take a series of deep breaths when you’re stressed or upset. This is your body cooling off, both figuratively and literally. In Yoga, you’re instructed to breath out through your mouth when you want to cool your body down and through the nose when you want to maintain your heat.
So when you see another player take a major exhale through her mouth, you can tell that she’s releasing stress and trying to calm down. If this happened after she called a high raise, you can tell she’s feels like she took a bit risk and wants to sooth the emotional snap-back.
For your own playing, you may feel this is a paradox. Should you force yourself to breath normally even when you’re totally stressed out?
If you’re making a betting decision, your true calmness is much more important than your appearance of calmness. Bad decisions are made all the time in poker by nervous people. If you feel like some deep breathing will help your focus, then be as subtle as you possibly can while cooling yourself down.
However, once you’ve made a decision and other people are going around the table to bet, you need to put on a total mask of serenity and confidence. Even if you’re shaking on the inside, the outward illusion may be the one thing that causes your opponents to all fold. We all know that the quickest easy money comes where everyone folds at once.
Of course, you must assume you’re being watched all the time, so even your heavy breathing before your bet can be costly. As long as you keep cognizant and don’t let your breaths run wild, you can find the right balance between cooling your system and looking cool.
This is another “Lie to Me” classic micro-expression. It’s actually one you’ll see in the “real world” very often, once you’re made aware of it. The facial expression is just someone curling up one corner of his mouth. It’s sort of like a semi-smile but only on one side. Most facial expressions are symmetrical, so this is a relatively unique form of facial body language.
This expression of contempt comes up with someone is disapproving of someone or something. Maybe your opponent disapproves of the dealer, or his opponent, or even his hand. It doesn’t have to be contempt for a specific person. It could be contempt for lady luck or the speed of play. Either way, you can bet it means he’s not having a good time.
Obviously, if you see the contempt expression when someone looks at his hand, it’s likely that he’s disappointed and hopefully getting a little on tilt. However, bear in mind that if someone chooses to stay in with a bad hand, his cards can quickly become a very good hand, depending on the flop, so stay careful to watch your opponent’s current facial expressions. What his mouth looked like three minutes ago is now irrelevant.
You can also ascertain someone’s betting strategy from watching the contempt tell very closely. If someone looks like he’s trying to lure people in to bet, he’ll have contempt when someone folds. If someone plays very tightly, you’ll see contempt from him with other players bet very loosely.
Remember that tells are just a small, but fun, part of your overall poker strategy. Tells are what you focus on after you have already mastered things like pre-flop technique, position analysis, and protecting your hand. However, no matter where you are in your poker skill development, you can stay watchful of phenomena like this so you get a head start on improving your player-reading abilities.