Last updated on March 4, 2018
In poker, we are surrounded by a wealth of information. And to a major extent, being a good player is about noticing, and correctly interpreting, this information. Bad players won’t even pay attention to anything beyond the world of their own cards; great players take in and examine everything. This everything begins with the tactical basics — the number of opponents in a hand, size of the pot, betting patterns, etc. But in live games, another part of this everything is the demeanor and body language of opposing players. In a word, tells. And while interpreting tells should never take the place of those basics, it can be an enormously helpful supplement, especially when faced with borderline decisions.
When it comes to reading poker tells, oftentimes we’ll spend so much time examining every nuance of each other’s faces, that we’ll overlook another part of the body that’s just as expressive — our hands. The human hand is incredibly sensitive and animated, and the fact that our hands are very closely wired into our nervous system means that there is an extremely strong correlation between whatever we’re doing with out hands at any given moment, and how we’re really feeling. Being able to correctly interpret what your opponents are saying with their hands can provide a goldmine of extra data. And as a bonus, hands cannot be hidden behind mirrored sunglasses or giant hats.
It begins at the simplest level: When it’s your turn to act, take a moment and look to your left. A surprising number of your opponents’ hands will be telegraphing what their brains are planning to do. This is especially true preflop, when that quick leftward glance can reveal some of your opponents already putting a chip on top of their cards, or else holding them in a close and protective manner — pretty obvious indications that they intend to enter the pot. Others behind you may be just-as-obviously itching to throw their cards into the muck already. So with this one glance, you can often get a more accurate picture of how many opponents intend to play in this particular hand. Which is crucial when you consider that certain types of starting hands play better against a large field, while others prefer only a few opponents.
This is as good a place as any to add the usual caveats. Put everything in context. It depends. Any tell means much less coming from an opponent who is a poker idiot — or a poker genius. People in the first group are too clueless to even know where they’re at most of the time, and people in the second group are too skilled at concealing their tells. So consider the source. Also, there is a universe of difference between interpreting the “hand language” of an opponent who is aware that you are watching him, versus somebody who is not aware. Players who know you are looking at them will often send out a false signal on purpose. A classic example of this would be the fake-grabbing-at-chips tell: As you’re ruminating over whether to check or bet your hand, an opponent will start grabbing at his chips, as if he is eager to bet himself. This is almost always a cheap attempt to trick you into checking.
So be wary. Always put in context. This includes comparing everything you notice about another player, with what body language experts call their “baseline demeanor.” Whether your opponent is drumming his fingers impatiently, rubbing his cards compulsively, or stroking his face thoughtfully — the real meaning if his actions lies in comparing this with his usual behavior. If he does this kind of stuff all the time, then it doesn’t mean much. But if these actions are sudden and out of the ordinary, then obviously they mean a great deal.
What about when a poker player starts tapping his fingers on the table, playing absently with his chips, or engages in some other repetitive meaningless activity? Well it can mean any number if things, most likely boredom, impatience, or mild anxiety. The one thing it almost certainly does not mean is that they are bluffing at you with bad cards. Bluffers are always afraid of being caught, and the body’s natural response to fear is to freeze absolutely still. Now, if a table-tapping or chip-shuffling opponent suddenly stops what he is doing, right around the same time he makes a big bet — then it’s quite likely you are looking at a bluff. By the same token, if that player continues to tap/shuffle/whatever after he has made a big bet, now this indicates a strong hand. The fact that he just keeps on doing his little activity without any break means he is not afraid. It’s also worth noting that a compulsive tapper/shuffler suddenly picks up the tempo, that most likely means he is excited and holds some quality cards.
You also may want to consider the manner in which your opponents touch, hold, and protect their hole cards. Whenever an object is valuable to us, we humans have a natural desire to guard it, touch it, keep it close. So a player in possession of premium cards will be apt to do one or more of the following: One, keep those cards physically close to himself. Two, carefully protect those cards from being mucked, if not with a chip/card protector, then with his own hands. Three, stack the cards very neatly on top of each other (again, compare with the baseline, how neat or messy is this person in general?). And four, just touch them a lot, whether it’s by rubbing the cards absently with his fingertips, or compulsively shuffling them back and forth, or whatever. Quite simply, the more precious an object is to us, the more we’ll have a desire to touch it.
While we’re on this subject, it’s worth mentioning that anytime we touch ourselves — typical examples at a poker table would be rubbing one’s opposing hand or arm, or resting one’s hand on a cheek — it’s usually done as a kind of calming/soothing gesture, in response to stress. Now the source of that stress could be any number of things — a bad losing streak, frustration after a solid hour of nothing but garbage cards, or maybe it’s a tummy ache. But keep in mind that liars (e.g. bluffers) are putting themselves under enormous stress every time they lie. Partly because it creates an inner conflict, but also because they’re just plain afraid of getting caught. And that inner stress often manifests itself by self-touching, specifically, by touching the face. Once you know to look for this, it’s really quite amazing to see how often a liar will manage to touch his own face during a lie.
Also watch the way an opponent handles chips as he bets. In the poker tradition of weak means strong and vice versa, forceful, emphatic betting actions are typically a sign of weakness, while soft, gentle betting motions are a signal that he holds the nuts. In the first case, they’re trying to scare you into folding, in the second, they want to lull you into a sense of false security. Along these same lines, any kind of “palm down” gesture is aggressive and intended to intimidate you, while “palm up” gestures are submissive, aimed at luring you in.
Finally, there’s the “shaking hands” tell. Whenever you see a player putting chips into the pot with trembling hands, if you don’t hold a very strong hand yourself, get out. They’ve got a monster. This tell is virtually 100 percent reliable — unless you’re looking at a player who is elderly or sick (baseline again). So listen to what the hands are telling you.