Poker Tell

poker face

Hand reading

A tell in poker is a change in a player’s behavior or demeanor that can indicate the strength of their hand. A player gains an advantage if they observe and understand the meaning of another player’s tell, particularly if the tell is unconscious and reliable. Sometimes a player may fake a tell, hoping to induce their opponents to capitalize on bad information. More often, people try to avoid giving out a tell, by maintaining an expressionless ‘poker face’ regardless of how strong or weak their hand is.

A tell may be common to a class of players or unique to a single player. Some possible tells include leaning forward or back, placing chips with more or less force, fidgeting, doing chip tricks, showing nervous tics, or changing one’s breathing, tone of voice, facial expressions, direction of gaze. Other tells are associated with a player’s actions with the cards, cigarettes, or drinks, or merely by their style of play.

An underlying rule to many tells is: ‘weak means strong, strong means weak.’ Thus, players who hold weak poker hands attempt to convince other players at the table that they are in a better position than they actually are by doing things like staring down an opponent or throwing chips down forcefully into the pot in an effort to discourage others from calling. Alternatively, players who hold strong hands tend to try to disguise their hand as being weak. They attempt to fly under the radar by being a passive player at the table – not making direct eye contact, softly tossing the chips in, being friendly and talkative. They are deliberately trying not to come across as intimidating, so as to entice a call.

Non-physical tells exist in both casino and online poker, but tells like speed of play, betting patterns, the quantity of chips that a player plays with, and player chat can be particularly revealing online. Online poker tools exist to assist players in making these tells more tangible without closely paying attention. One study found timing measurements to give a slight advantage over chance, by analyzing large sample sizes at PokerStars $2/$5 Zoom games. Studies on trends such as ‘RFI Fold to 3bet%’ and ‘3bet Fold to 4bet%’ based on timing ranges were shown to have a 9% and 11% edge respectively when properly applying timing tells. These studies were also found such tells to be more reliable for analyzing players of average skill (weaker players and beginners are more erratic and advanced players are better at disguising their behavior). Additionally, weak players often make mistakes about the relative strength of their own hand, unwittingly giving a false tell. Players can also make mistakes that may seem like a tell, like fumbling chips out of clumsiness or betting the wrong amount online when clicking the wrong button.

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