When Mike Caro wrote his magnificent Book of Tells, neither stud nor
hold’em were permitted in California and only closed poker games
were legally played in the Golden State. In games like draw and lowball,
where you never see any of your opponent’s cards, there are only
two ways to determine what they might have. One method is by analyzing
betting patterns, and in games like draw and lowball, with only two
betting rounds, these patterns are not as clearly established as they
are in games with multiple betting rounds. The other way to put your
opponent on a hand is by recognizing tells.
Tells are nothing more than a combination of behavioral patterns, involuntary
physical reactions like veins that might pulsate on an opponent’s
neck when he’s holding a powerhouse hand, body language, or vocal
patterns. All of these can provide information about an opponent’s
In games like stud and hold’em there are other ways to deduce
what a player might have. Because you can obtain clues about an opponent’s
hand in seven-card stud from up-cards and discards, and clues are available
in hold’em from the board cards, tells are not the only way to
discern what your opponent might be playing. Hold-em and stud also have
more betting rounds than draw and lowball, and your opponents’
betting patterns coupled with the cards that are exposed on each successive
round are all methods players use to put their opponent on a hand.
So why bother with tells? Because they’re valuable, that’s
why. Understanding tells is enough to turn a break even player into
a winner. That’s true even if you’re able to spot only one
tell every few hours, especially if that tell either wins a hand for
you that would have been lost, or causes you to fold when you would
have called — and found yourself trapped behind subsequent raises.
Tells are too powerful to ignore. Some are obvious; others are subtle.
There are some tells you can use with absolute certainty. There are
other tells that players emit only part of the time. Moreover, a tell
for one person might not be a tell for another. Consider, for example,
the most common of them all: Tell Number One. Players holding weak hands
act strong, and when they’re strong, they act weak. That’s
a tell you can rely on with a high degree of certainty in most low limit
games. But it’s not foolproof because you’ll always find
some players who act strong when they are strong and weak when they’re
weak. Even if this tell is accurate in your game only 70 percent of
the time, it’s still a significant improvement over a guess —
when your chances are only 50 - 50.
If you run across an extremely tough player who suspects you’re
a student of tells, he might toss out a counter tell to confuse you.
If he’s sharp, he’ll act weak when he’s strong, and
once he figures that you’ve established a read on that, he’ll
reverse himself — but only with you — by acting strong when
he is strong, since he knows you’ve read him for a weak hand and
now presume that he is attempting to win the pot by bluffing. Once he
knows that his counter tells have confused you, he’ll probably
start randomly interspersing counter tells with his normal style of
play, so you’ll seldom be able to get an accurate read on him.
In the years since Mike Caro published his Book of Tells, there’s
been precious little research in this area. And while theories about
tells abound — indeed, it’s hard to meet a poker player
who doesn’t consider himself an expert on everyone’s tells
but his own — there is much more work that ought to be done. Caro’s
book depicted tells through a series of posed photographs. Yet documentation
on tells could be done more effectively by having experts on body language
and poker study sub rosa films of poker players. Of course, it would
be difficult to publicly screen these films or use them as teaching
aids, since those who were filmed would have to grant permission for
Yet asking for prior permission is all too likely to put players on
their guard, and the results would be suspect. So what’s left?
Perhaps some subsequent researcher could still make use of film or video
tape, rather than static photographs. There’s also no reason why
sub rosa films couldn’t be studied by actors, who would then act
out the tells they observed.
While any thinking player owes it to himself to be continuously alert
at the poker table, it’s safe to say that most of us are not reading
tells as well as we could. It is nearly impossible to engage in the
highly formative process of picking up tells, relating them to an opponent’s
playing style, then taking advantage of them — all in the heat
of battle. Given that fact that none of us will ever know all there
is to know about tells, it would substantially benefit most of us if
someone were to produce a film or videotape about them.
Even in games where there are other means of discerning what an opponent
may — or may not — by playing, tells are an incredibly valuable
tool by themselves. When combined with observations about an opponent’s
betting pattern, an awareness of the cards that have been exposed, and
a knowledge of whether his playing style is tight or loose, aggressive
or passive, there is quite a bit of information available to assist
each of us in making the correct decision at the poker table. In the
absence on such information we can always fall back on comparing the
odds against making a hand with the implied odds offered by the pot,
or rely on game theory in a heads-up situation, but tells and other
information picked up in the course of a game gives us the ability to
divert from the book play in order to make a better play. In fact, the
next time you see a top notch player make what you consider to be an
ill-advised play, you might just give him the credit he probably deserves:
He may have been privy to information that was available to all —
but only he was able to decipher it.