Reading people in poker

Inspired by the poker advice thread (sorry, I don’t know how to do that “this thread” thing that links to it), and as a fairly new player myself, could any experienced players give me the Straight Dope on this?

Firstly, what do you (personally) look for? How accurate is it (obviously varies considerably person to person)? And, perhaps most importantly, do you think it gives you a significant advantage? I.e., should I learn how to or try to do it? Or is it possible to be a top player using just the information that is “on the table”, combined with your knowledge of how someone has bet with previous hands? This is not necessarily specific to a certain type of poker, but I generally play no-limit Texas hold 'em for low stakes. Thanks!

I Googled…

Tells in Texas Hold 'em

…(my bolding) and discovered a pretty fair discussion at

You might try that and other sites in this search.

Incidentally, I have a good book Hold 'em Poker For Advanced Players by David Sklansky and Mason Malmuth, and would you believe there’s no chapter on Tells?

To do really well at reading people, you need to know the people you are playing with right then and there, which takes a while, especially if they’re good. There are a few classic tells that most beginners display, though.

If he is leaning back in his chair and suddenly sits straight up or even leans forward, he’s got a hand.
If he’s been talking and laughing a lot and suddenly goes quiet, he’s got a hand.
A finger across the mouth as the pushes his chips into the pot usually indicates that he’s got a hand and is trying to slowplay it.
If he acts (checks, bets, raises) immediately after seeing cards, he’s probably not bluffing or slowplaying. The decision to bluff takes a couple of seconds.
If he shrugs as he bets, he’s probably slowplaying.
If he pushes chips into the pot in an arrogant manner, looking every other player in the eyes, he’s bluffing.

Now, some players fake these tells, so we come right back to getting to know your players. If a true newbie displays the above tells, they’re probably on the mark.

I’m by no means an expert, but I think tells are highly overrated. Sure, if you play with someone over and over again, you may spot patterns of behavior when they’re bluffing or slowplaying, which can give you an edge. But that’s going to be a fairly small edge compared with keeping track of what hands the other players are likely to play and knowing the odds to win with a given hand and board. Until you’re an expert at these first two things (which I’m not), trying to squeak out a few extra wins based on the way someone plays with their chips between bets is probably not worth your time.

Priceguy points out a lot of the classic tells. However, be aware that I sometimes use those same tells in the opposite manner to throw people off. It’s fun to reverse a tell and have it backfire on someone. You can usually identify people who are tryingto read tells - they tend to stare right at you in a pretty obvious way. Feed him a tell and you can suck him right in. (P.S. Be prepared to change gears if they guy doesn’t catch on!)

Because of these tells are pretty well known, I tend to read people’s tells on a more individual basis. I alluded to this in the other thread: Get to know how each player plays. Do they tend to play pretty tight or are they aggressive? How do they behave when they’ve got a real hand as opposed to when they’re just trying to buy the pot? Do they show their cards when they win the hand, and if so, do they behave differently when they get everyone to fold and then DON’T show their hand?

Aggressive players often aren’t consistently aggressive. That is, they behave differently when they’ve got the nuts than they do when they’re just trying to buy the pot. Keep an eye out for this. That’s why playing tight is nice: Sitting out a hand when you’re not on the blinds will let you watch how the others play.

I know this is really general, but there’s over six billion people out there, and they all play a little differently. I haven’t read the book, but I think Phil Hulmuth classifies players as animal types: Lions are always aggressive, hawks wait and then swoop in for easy pots, stuff like that. I think he’s got five or six different classes. I tend to do the same type of thing – putting players into easily referenced groups helps get a beat on each individual player’s tells, rather than simply tells in general. Phil probably explains it better than I do - his book is probably worth picking up.

My advice for your own tells? Be a machine from one hand to the next. If you can’t remember your hole cards and you need to check them twice, then check them twice every hand. Doing anything out of the ordinary will attract attention. People often double-check their hole cards to confirm that the cards are suited – they’re chasing a flush. Remember that if you see a flush draw on the flop and you DON’T have the flush: Double-check your hole cards and make everyone think you made the flush. Works great unless someone else actually DID make the flush.

Man, this could go one forever…

In addition to Tells, you might want to be alert to cheating, especially if you play live (i.e., not online) with strangers.

If a guy deals seconds, and he’s any good, you won’t see him doing it, but you damn well will hear it. In this form of sleight, the dealer keeps a card on the top of the deck and deals the one imediately below it. He does this to every guy in the game until he comes to his hand and then he deals that top card - usually an Ace or King to himself.

In 5-card and 7-card stud, and Texas Hold 'em, this is a huge advantage.

I encountered such a dealer only once, and he was so good, I was more fascinated by his skill rather than resentful at his chicanery.

Try the basic move yourself. Don’t make any attempt to be subtle about it. With the deck in your left hand, push the top card a little to the left and deal the ones below it, as if you were dealing a six handed game. You’ll find that in the process, the second cards cannot help but rub against the top and third cards so as it comes out of the deck you hear a swish. And as those card go to each player, you’ll hear swish, swish, swish in rapid succession.

It’s a marvelous Tell in itself with such a distinctive sound, that once you hear it, you’ll never forget it.

I cannot remember when or where this game occurred. It was a one time affair, and the second dealing is the only thing I can remember about it plus the fact that he looked and acted like an absolute straight shooter.

Dealing seconds requires some skill and lots of balls. To do it properly, you must push the top card aside, peel out the second card and move the top card back to it’s original position, very fast and very smoothly. And you have to do this for every player at the table except, of course, yourself.

And although I stared at that deck like my life depended on catching him visually, I couldn’t do it.

Of course, I urge you never to try cheating of any kind in a poker game. You risk getting hurt - or worse.

Exactly, that’s why I said only to trust these tells from a newbie, and you need to know your opponents. Generally speaking, tells are overrated.

I agree that tells are very overrated. Every once in a while you’ll catch a hold of one but normally it’s a waste of time. Your time is much, much better spent learning probabilities and paying attention to the cards.

People trying to pick up tells as a way to win are looking for an easy way out. It’s difficult and takes work to master poker. No two ways about it.


Slight threadjack for an anecdote.

Used to be in a weekly poker game amidst friends. We kept chuckling amongst each other about our ‘tells’. Well, one of the guys actually had a pretty severe one. Whenever he had a good hand, he’d pick up a handful of chips, and bet directly from the handful. Mistakenly or not, I did eventually -tell- him about it, and he vowed he would stop.

A week later, we’re playing. The betting on a hand gets hot and heavy. I’m deciding whether to stay in or not, as he’s just bet quite high. I look at him as the betting comes back around to him, and he picks up a handful of chips. He suddenly freezes and looks up directly into my eyes with a ‘caught raiding the cookie jar’ look. He cursed quietly, and simply folded. It was pretty amusing.

I have to think that the recent success of relatively new players from the internet who’ve done very well at the World Series of Poker, who presumably aren’t great at either reading tells, or hiding tells, indicates that the entire topic is overrated.

I thought it had something to do with pupil dilation. An involuntary, unconscious change that can’t be faked.

No. Even if it did, how are you going to see someone’s pupils across a poker table.


If you could actually spot pupil dilation at a poker table, which you can’t unless you’re Superman, you could probably win some money off that tell. As it is, you can’t use it for much.

One more vote for the “overrated” side.

However, sometimes, the mere act of looking for tells can scare your competition into playing either too tight or too bullish. This can be a good thing, or a bad thing, depending on your ability to quickly alter your game.

Taking someone off their game is the key to winning at poker, and if you can do it, then quickly recognize which direction you’ve pushed them, you’ll more often then not take their whole stake.

Thanks guys, I knew I could count on you! FTR, I don’t play online (yet!), so I was more interested in “body language” tells rather than time taken to act. Also, I play (at the moment) for such small stakes (£2 buy-in!) that it’s unlikely anyone would bother to cheat. It’s not impossible, of course, so thanks for the tip.

Phil Helmuth is actually what really inspired this discussion, as he claims to be able to use tells to his advantage. And I agree with most of you that they are over-rated - but he is widely recognised as the best player in the world! This was what got me thinking about whether there was anything to it. But maybe it’s just that his game is so strong in other areas.

Personally, I do try to use tells to give a contrary impression, usually in a fairly obvious and transparent manner, such as sighing when an innocuous-looking turn card makes me a straight. Although you might think this would be easily seen-through, I have won big pots using it! Of course, I don’t do this all the time.

As far as covering my own genuine tells, I just try to act randomly, though not in a conscious way. I figure if I behave wackily enough, no-one will have a clue what I’m doing! However, could there be subconscious tells underneath that an experienced player may pick up?

The seminal work is Caro’s Book of Poker Tells. I haven’t read it and I don’t plan to, as I find tells (meaning a consistent posture change or action) to be very overrated. They’re too easily faked and anyone who’s been playing live games for more than five minutes knows the classics anyway. There have only been about three instances in live games that I’ve caught a bona fide behavioural tell on another player (free tip; don’t smoke at a poker table).

The sort of “tells” I look for are betting patterns. For example, I was playing an onine game yesterday and on my right was a guy who, if he stayed for the flop, would always raise. Every hand. Played with him for two hours and he never once called a blind. Then if no one bet the flop ahead of him he would bet half the pot but if he didn’t hit his hand would fold to any raise. I made it a point to stay in when he was in regardless of what two cards I had because 6 times out of 10 he missed the flop, bet out anyway, and folded to my raise. He finally started getting frustrated because I would never fold to his bets and started raising bigger, but didn’t alter his raise-bet-fold pattern. Very profitable, and I was lucky to get the seat I did.

No he’s not. One of the best, but there’s definitely no consensus that he’s the best.

Yes, it’s the seminal work and it’s a piece of crap. You’re wise to ignore it.

I met Caro one time at Hollywood Park. I recognized him and introduced myself. He’s a nice guy but just because he was friends with Dolly back in the day doesn’t make his advice worth anything.


I play a weekly no limit tournament with the same people week after week. They are all good players, including a couple of fairly major tournament winners. Not one of them relies on physical tells unless they are so obvious they couldn’t help but notice. It is far too easy to use reverse tells or to consciously change your demeanor from hand to hand to make the use of tells a centerpiece of your game.

Betting patterns are another story. Even the best players give away information by the way they tend to bet different kinds of hands. Dave, the rock of our game, consistently raises 3xbb with a very good hand and 5xbb with AA or KK. Chris bets the pot when he is weak or bluffing, half or even quarter pot when he is very strong. Oz pushes all in when his huge hands miss, for example he has KK, and an ace comes on the flop, hoping to be read for AK.

I gain much more information from these tendencies than I ever could from pupils dilating.