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Texas Holdem Tells

What are poker tells?

A “tell” in poker is when you pick up on a behavior of another player that gives you a clear message communicating the strength or weakness of their hand. When most people think of poker they think of tells and bluffing.  Picking up on someone elses tell is supposed to enable you to stomp all over them in a game.

Are there poker tells? Do I believe in them?

Yes I do believe there are tells in holdem that we all have but since we play so infrequently with one another it is very difficult to pick up on them. And in low limit holdem since so many people are doing things that are wacky, it is very hard to read hands. At upper limits and tournaments you’ll notice a lot of mistakes are made because people misread other people.  It is tricky business.  Even experts like Phil Hellmuth misread people occasionally and pay for it.  That just shows how hard it is since they often play against the same players more then once.  This also shows how hard it is to correctly read when someone you are playing with doesn’t play the way you do (as you’ll find in low limit).  You see people all the time in tournaments taken back that someone else would put all their money in with a marginal hand at a marginal time.  This leads to misreads.  At the expert level there is a lot going on that doesn’t at the lower.  Being a good reader of cards (which includes body language that could be considered a tell) is not optional, it is required.  You can’t just play your own cards and hope you win; you must have a good idea of what the other people has as well.

What place do tells have in low limit texas holdem?

Let me start of by saying that I don’t think tells, by the definition above, will be much of a part of your game at low limit holdem.  There are a couple reasons for that:
1. Like I mentioned before, you don’t play with the person often enough and it would be very rare if sitting down with a person for a session would allow you to know all their mannerisms.
2. Basing your game on merely trying to pick up on a sign from another player has you thinking about the wrong thing.  The best hand wins in low limit holdem and you need to have that.  Bluffing is a very small part of the game and trying to pick of other peoples bluffs won’t work very well most of the time since other people will also be in on the hand.

By the way the way I am talking here, you would assume that I don’t think you need to have hand reading skills or pay attention to other peoples play.  That couldn’t be farther from the truth.  You need to be alert and pay attention to every detail of the other peoples plays but you shouldn’t go into the cardroom hoping to pick off some guys hands by a tell.  Reading hands takes time and you can’t force it.  Eventually you will get there but that won’t be for a while and even when you can read hands fairly well, it won’t make things easy.  It will allow you to pick up a few more pots here and there but you will most likely still have to hold something yourself.

Subtle Tells and Blatant Tells

Whenever I write articles here about something you shouldn’t do, I want to also include the info on what you should be doing.  Let’s take the term “tell” and split it into two other terms: subtle tells and blatant tells.  Blatant tells are the ones that we mentioned above, like Teddy KGB eating those Oreos in Rounders.  Now I love that movie too but I can’t expect to make any money by mimicking it.  On the contrary you should be interested in subtle tells.  I define subtle tells as the communication of playing poker.  See there is this constant exchange of information between the players that includes everything from the way they are handling their chips, to the amount they are betting, to their actions in previous hands.  All of that, if taken in, should give you a good idea of what your decision should be.

What would an example of a subtle tell be? A subtle tell might be a tight player who always tries to slow play his best hands (check raise the turn) instead of betting them right out.  If you were watching carefully you should pick up on this and be able to pay him off less when he does catch something.  Another subtle tell might be if someone constantly over plays their hands.  A common example would be someone raising AK preflop and betting it down religiously to the river regardless of what they catch.  One thing to note is that usually people don’t just do things some of the time.  A person really aggressive in one situation will most likely be very aggressive in others.  This isn’t true as you move up the ranks (it becomes more situational) but in low limit a person tends to be in one category. Another tell or read would be that a player is very loose and aggressive.

They often raise preflop with little or nothing and keep betting after the flop.  Against this type of player you shouldn’t always assume he has AA, AK, or KK when he raises.  Another tell might be someone like the one just mentioned raising every other hand but playing normally after the flop.  You might see that one player likes to jam it up every time he has a flush or straight draw.  Other players may just call in that position.  These are all reading skills that help you make better decisions but they aren’t tells by the strict sense.  Another tell which makes your play pretty easy is if there a flush draw and you raise on the flop and a good player calls two bets cold.  Now either he already has a good hand or he is in there for the draw.  All of this is good old fashion deductive reasoning.  If the guy is drinking tons and raising every hand then most likely your AT is looking good preflop while you might not want to play that against a tight players raise.

So the moral of the story here is that you most likely won’t be using blatant tells much in your poker career but you definitely will be using subtle tells.  If you learn to listen to the communication of poker, you should end up doing well.  Mastering hand reading takes time and it is an imperfect art but it is well worth the effort.  You’ll end up making way more money if in each session you can fold a few more times when you should and call a few more times when you should.