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Common Tells in Texas Hold 'em

Recognizing tells and taking advantage of them can be very profitable. A new or weak player, who doesn't realize the tells he is giving to his opponents, will lose money in a hurry. Your job is to control the tells you provide, and correctly interpret your opponent's.

A tell reveals information about the cards held by a player. There are certain tells that are universal and others that are unique. For example, a universal tell is that the heartbeat increases when holding good hole cards. A unique tell is something like scratching your ears or taking a deep breath. These tells may mean the player has a powerful hand, or is on a total bluff. The players who can pick up on tells and not give away any of their own have a big advantage in the long run.

How to Read Players

There are many different opinions on learning an opponent's tell. T.J. Cloutier says:

I always look at my hand quickly. If you look at your hand before the action comes to you, you can never see whether anything is going on behind you. If you wait until the action gets to you to look at your hand, you will miss a lot of things. Look at your hand as soon as you get both of your cards so that you can observe the things that other players are doing when they get their cards:
  • Little twitches they make when they have a hand
  • Whether they slip their cards back under their chips
  • Whether they are loading up, getting their chips ready to bet.

Dutch Boyd says:

What you have to do is get a line on each player. Each player will exhibit different tells. Look for a difference in the way they play two hands... ANY difference. If you spot a difference that is consistent, it's a tell.

Your goal is to identify a pattern that will ultimately aid your betting. Just keep watching your opponents and watching their cards. With each hand you need to add more information to your mental database, especially when there is a showdown and you are able to see your opponents' hand. Dutch Boyd goes on to say:

It's going to be different for each player, but once you spot a difference in the way they play, you've got them. Then you just look to see him turn over a hand. You correlate the strength of what they show to the behavior variance and you've got yourself a tell.

Common Types of Tells

There are many common tells that are exhibited, especially by weak players. Here are some of the tells to look out for:

  • Forceful bets: The act of physically placing chips into the pot can be a tell. If a novice player forcefully places a bet into the pot, it could mean they are overplaying a bluff. On the flip side, Placing chips into the pot with a gentle motion may actually be a sign of strength
  • Ignorance: Weak players will act as if they aren't paying attention or aren't sure what they are doing, in an attempt to act as if they don't have a strong hand. Phrases such as "Oh, it's to me?" or "How much is it to me?" often is a sign of strength
  • Fast action: Nervous action usually is a sign of strength. However, fast action is typically a sign of weakness. Strong hands take time to process a strategy, while there is no need to strategize over a weak hand.
  • Predetermined bet: If it appears that a player was going to bet a certain amount, no matter what, then it is likely they have a strong hand.
  • Looking twice: Looking twice at your pocket cards can definitely be a tell. Depending on the skill of the player and the situation, this tell could be a sign of strength or weakness.
  • Nervousness: Shaky hands, dilated eyes, trembling voice - all signs of an overload of adrenaline that he's trying to stop. He's got a monster that he is trying to not burst out in excitement about.
  • Shades: If a player puts on the dark sunglasses, what do you think he's trying to hide? Likely he's on a bluff.
  • Posture: Someone who is leaning forward, anxiously awaiting the turn or the river likely has a good drawing hand.
  • Card holder: If someone's looking to keep a monster, they will put their cards in front of them and place a chip holder on them. However, if the player puts the cards off-center and doesn't bother with a chip holder (if he typically does use one), he is probably looking to fold.
  • Betting patterns: Look for betting patterns. For example, some players will always check or call a monster. Some will always over bet a bluff. Some will over bet a monster. Know each player and his unique betting tells.

Your Own Tells

So now that you know how to read tells and what tells to look for, the next aspect of tells to examine is to evaluate your own tells. If all your opponents are giving off tells, don't you think you are too?

You need to find out what they are! Asking your friends might work, unless you play against them for money, in which case you won't get a full, honest answer!

Instead, pay attention to what you do. How do you sit when you're on a draw? Do your hands shake when you have a monster? Do you bet forcefully when you're on a bluff? The first step in changing your behavior is to identify the behavior that needs to be changed.

Counter-Tells

One final note about tells. Good players can tell when you're looking for tells, and therefore will likely use that to their advantage. If a good player notices that you are earnestly trying to find tells, they may try to trap you.

For example, if a good player suspects that you are looking for tells, he may do a common tell intentionally on a bad hand, such as looking anxiously for the river on a draw. He may even turn over his cards just to let you see he was on a draw. Later in the game in a different hand, he may try to bluff by making you think he's on a draw if there's two suited cards on a flop. If he acts anxious, and the turn actually is the possible fifth card of a flush, you may fold fearing he has the flush.

Because of the potentially deadly power of these counter-tells, the pros are cautious not to fall into this trap. However, against novices, counter-tells are an easy way to bancrupt a player.


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