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How to Read Tells in Poker
Caro on Gambling
by Mike Caro

Today, let’s talk about poker tells — mannerisms that give clues to your opponents’ cards. Are tells real or are they mostly imaginary? While many players who take tells seriously become skillful in reading opponents, others suggest that profitable tells don’t exist. The main premise behind Caro’s Book of Tells — The Body Language of Poker is to stop seeking tells that are particular to an individual. Sure, it’s possible that Martin looks at his watch and grits his teeth every time he has three sixes. But I think you could waste a poker lifetime looking for tells like those. They’re probably unreliable, and even if it does happen, it’s most likely a coincidence that won’t indicate the same thing next time.

But there really are tells that are reliable. As I explain in my book, poker opponents are either acting or they aren’t. Your job is to determine if they’re acting, then figure out what they’re trying to get you to do, and disappoint them! Fortunately, it’s not too difficult to read tells when opponents are acting. They’ll act weak when they hold strong hands and strong with weak ones. If an amateur player shrugs, sighs, and says, “I bet,” in a sad voice, he almost always has a strong hand. He’s secretly gloating while trying to convince you he’s miserable — so figure the opposite is true. Players usually go out of their way to act disinterested when they hold strong hands. So, instead of watching the action approach clockwise, study players who act after you. Players having strong hands, who are waiting to raise, don’t want you to know this until you’re in the pot. They make it seem safe for you to bet, often looking away from the action; a dead giveaway that you’re in trouble.

Players who are going to fold try to look interested, often staring at their cards or watching the action approach with a false look of concentration. Why do they bother when they’re going to fold anyway? Poker instinct! They’re in an arena unlike the real world. In the real world, it’s okay to tell the truth but if you do that in poker, opponents usually will know what you have. So, players often act opposite of their true hands. Not every poker player does this, but many do, and those players you can read time after time.

What happens when a player is bluffing? That player usually becomes less animated. He’s afraid that anything he does will seem suspicious and cause you to call, so he does nothing. Seeing a previously animated opponent bet and then become unmoving, scarcely breathing, is usually a sure sign of a bluff.

Okay, so tells exist. But why do players have trouble spot-ting them? It’s because they’re trying to look at all opponents at once. You need to focus on one opponent at a time. Most tells are subtle and you’ll miss them if you try to watch too many things. Another problem is that players expect to see many tells. I only see two or three sure-fire tells an hour on average. If you’re trying to see a tell every hand, you’ll imagine many that don’t exist, keeping you from mastering the broader science of tells. The worst thing players do when trying to use tells is to form a bias toward calling, wanting action so much that they mentally manufacture tells that allow them to call while ignoring tells that suggest they should fold. Yes, tells are all around us. But you won’t see them every hand; you won’t see them at all if you’re looking at too many players at once; and they won’t do you any good if you’re not willing to obey tells that say “fold” as readily as tells that say “call.”

This story was first published in the October - November 2002 issue of Gambling Times Magazine.

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