What is a Tell in Poker?
By poker tells we refer to those actions, either physical or verbal, players make at the table that might give away information about the strength of their hands. (Credit: PokerNews)
Seen Teddy KGB eating an Oreo in Rounders as he plays poker and revealing the strength of his hand to Matt Damon? That just doesn’t work outside movies. In most cases tells are contradictory and inconsistent and don’t reveal enough information to base a play on in the short term.
Many experts have written books and articles about tells. Most of them are too broad to actually be useful. Or they're too narrow and you'll rarely find an opponent exposing this specific tell. Some players deliberately act a certain way to deceive their opponents, and in the meantime give away info to those able to see through their “hollywooding” (performance).
If you’re an amateur/beginner player, we suggest just focusing on playing a strong game with a solid strategy, rather than poker reads. However, if you want to expand your repertoire, you can follow our list of the most common poker tells to look out for - in both live and online poker rooms. Do not scroll on your phone, especially at a new table with new players.
Caution: Before you look for these poker reads in others - first check yourself and see if you’re not giving away info mindlessly.
Top 8 Live Poker Tells to Trust
If you're playing against weaker players who don't have a lot of live experience, these live tells can be helpful to you. As with all live tells, however, these actions needed to be repetitive to be reliable indicators of weakness or strength.
1. Straightened Posture and Body Language
When you see this soft tell, your eyes should light up. A player who straightens his posture to play a hand or while in a hand usually has something he's at least interested in. More often than not he even has a very strong hand and is getting ready to pull out the big guns.
Players that act weak usually have a strong hand. Sighing, shrugging or a gloomy face very often indicate a very strong hand. It's a natural instinct when attempting to conceal a big hand to try and appear weak. A player shrugging and raising usually has a strong hand, so don't fall for that trap!
A player suddenly waking up and getting impatient during a hand often indicates a strong holding. Asking questions like "who's turn is it?", “Why are you taking so long?” or goading you to call or bet. Even perhaps calling the clock on you. This may all indicate that the player is in a hurry to rake in a nice pot.
3. Abrupt Silence, Talking, and Voice
Players wearing hoodies or sunglasses might feel protected from giving away tells, but they're not. Often the sound of their voice tells a lot about their hand. Players holding a strong hand have an easier time talking and answering questions.
Players that bluff are often scared to give away a tell and sound insecure. A player who freezes after placing a bet is bluffing very often. Because it’s not easy to talk when you're bluffing. You're afraid to trigger a call. This tell also works the other way around: a player who is very talkative after placing a bet usually has it. Trying to lure in a call by any means possible and trying to keep you interested in your hand.
A player who normally talks a lot and suddenly becomes silent usually has been dealt a very good hand. The same holds true for players that usually don't talk but all of a sudden start to babble after getting dealt a hand.
More on Table Talk as a Poker Tell
- How to Avoid Pokers Table-Talk Tax
- The Art of Table Talk: Good for the Game
- Poker Table Talk: Romanello Deploys His Chirping Chips
4. Handling Chips and Cards
A player protecting their hole cards (by putting a chip on top of them or covering too much) is really simple. Some players fall for the trap of protecting only if they’re strong. This tell should, by all means, be exploited to the maximum. Keep watching the players’ hands - how are they handling their chips? Many play with their chips to disguise nervousness or trembling. It’s really hard to fake shaky hands.
Players who reach for their chips before action is on them are likely strong and can’t wait to bet. Or perhaps checking and re-checking their cards repeatedly, because this can be ostentatious behavior. If they’re re-checking cards after a check or call, they’re nervous and are probably weak. If they’re re-checking after making a big bet, it’s because they love what they see - and are strong.
Players weak in that hand may not touch their chips as a defense. A player pounding out a bet or splashing chips very often has a weak hand and is trying to cover up for this by acting extra strong. If a player uses a little bit more force than usual, it may be a bluff.
5. Eye Contact and Glancing
A player who, after seeing his hole cards, immediately glances at their chips or starts to fumble with them usually has a very strong hand. Right after seeing the hand, they’re thinking about the upcoming bet sizing. And thus involuntarily looks at their chips.
The same holds true if a player looks at his chips right after the flop has been dealt. It means the flop has helped his hand and he's getting ready to fire up the action. Daniel Negreanu also confirmed the same belief in his Poker Masterclass.
While we’re talking about eye contact, know that players looking at you square in the eyes are confident. They are likely relaxed since they have a big hand and hence feel comfortable making eye contact. Players who are about to bluff or weak will inadvertently avoid that.
Make a habit of watching your opponent's eyes on every street when he looks at the board. The quantity of eye shifting is often staggering. With practice, you'll be able to decipher just how likely it is your opponent is looking to fill in his gut-shot straight or how concerned he is that the third heart just fell on the turn. Remember: watch them while they're not watching you.
6. Bet Sizing (Live and Online Poker Tell)
This is one of the best-known, top poker tells and it's seen very often among new players. This tell works without looking at players - so it’s both a live and online poker tell. Weak players often have problems with bet sizing and their bets show exactly how strong their hand is. If big cards mean big bets, and small cards mean small bets, you can always be sure of that player’s holding.
7. Timing Tells (Live and Online)
If you want to learn how to read poker players, timing poker reads are important to pay attention to - live and especially online. These are some of the most common tells you will run into, especially in the live sphere when you can bank on less tells.
Players who tank (take extra time) then check - are usually debating whether to bet or check. They may have a medium-strength hand that is wary of a bigger hand. Or perhaps semi-bluffing with a draw.
A quick check or a quick call is generally weak. Quick calls post-flop generally indicate drawing hands or medium-strength as we mentioned. They were quick because they immediately ruled out a raise.
Making the first bet quickly also indicates weakness because a player may want to appear strong. However, a player with a genuinely strong hand may take more time to consider bet sizing so as to extract value and elicit a call.
8) The Big Blind Peek
In a standard live ring game, you should make a habit of casually observing the player positioned on the big blind - especially when you're sitting in the small blind. A surprising number of inexperienced or impatient players will peek at the cards almost as soon as they've left the dealer's hands.
Whenever you spot this you should make a conscious effort to gain as much information from this player before the action turns to then. Be sure not to let them notice that you’re spying.
If this player has any serious interest in participating in this hand, they will show this through inadvertent body language. Players who are last to act or close to will leave you plenty of time to get a read on their demeanor. If there are few (or no) limpers and it's your turn to act in the small blind you can raise knowing they’re displeased with the hand. Or get out cheaply if you've noticed they’re getting ready to tango.
Four Most Difficult Live Poker Tells to Hide
Regardless of the strength of your hand, your body has autonomic responses in high-stress situations. Despite your best efforts, it may be difficult to control them. Here are a few tells most poker players can't help but give off:
- Twitchy Fingers - This is why some players ask opponents "how much do you have behind?" - the stress and increased blood flow may cause fingers to tremble. You can practice breathing exercises to lower your heart rate to attempt to avoid this.
- Cracking Voice: Try not to talk, especially when trying to disguise a bluff. Changes in your inflection can tip off a strong player. On the contrary, if you're trying to induce a call sometimes too much talk can unveil your confidence.
- Shifty Eyes: Even if you keep still, your eyes may run rampant. If you try to force a fold by staring at someone, you may actually end up enticing the player to call. Keep your gaze calm and stationary.
- The Gulp/Swallow: Even at low stakes, the tension and adrenaline can cause you to suddenly get a dry mouth. Then it happens - the Gulp. It's inevitable; just hope no one notices.
Why Pre-Flop Table Talk is Massive Poker Tell
According to Zachary Elwood, pre-flop players with strong hands usually have a few reasons to be more stoic and silent, because they:
- Are more focused on thinking about the situation and their opponents.
- Want to maximize their value and think about the best way to play the hand. (Weaker hands don’t have this motivation.)
- Don’t like to draw attention to themselves. There is an instinct to seem inconspicuous and usually results in more normal, stoic behavior.
- Want to build a pot when it’s small and not “waste” a good hand by scaring an opponent off.
Early-hand ostentatious behavior, like talking, laughing, smiling, will usually be from players with weaker hands. For these reasons, you may decide to raise an opponent lighter than usual or to call with lighter holdings than you normally would. So that you can remain balanced and unexploitable.
Ostentatious behaviors from pre-flop raisers are mainly only useful for making AA and KK, maybe QQ, less likely. This is because with most other hands, even strong hands like JJ and AK, players are pretty ambivalent. Whereas players facing a raise and holding hands like JJ, TT, AK, and AQ, will usually have a decision to make. And thus be more thoughtful and stoic.
So talking, laughing, and smiling are useful for discounting a wider variety of strong hands. For example, when one player raises and another player calls behind pretty quickly while muttering something and laughing, it’s unlikely that the laughing player has hands like TT+, AK, and AQ.
Beware of Deliberate or False Poker Tells!
False tells in poker are just as common at a poker table so differentiating between the two is just as important as spotting tells. Players may be doing a reverse tell to trick you into thinking one thing when it’s actually another. Another consideration to make is that… they might just actually suck at poker. They may believe they have a huge hand but don’t really. So don’t let yourself get hoodwinked based on this player’s reverse “tells”.
Watch Out for Poker Actors
Any obviously strong player with large amounts of poker experience who suddenly exhibits obvious tells from the first half of Caro's famous Book of Tells is suspect. If you can label a player as an actor you just have to do the opposite of what you would if you took the tell at face value. If an actor starts showing a tell that would normally induce you to fold, then that's exactly what they want you to do.
These players are the most fun to bust and often carry enough ego to rebuy due to an absolute need to get back their money. Take them down once and they'll set their sights on you, setting themselves up to get knocked over repeatedly.
What Are Online Poker Tells?
There can be patterns of actions that give away online poker tells as well. Unlike live poker tell, these mainly come down to the timing of an opponent’s actions and patterns and bet sizing.
Tanking (Excessive Time to Act): Strong
Occasionally you may see some players get creative and turn this tell into a bluff. However, most of the time this is a surefire sign of strength if a player tanks and then bets or raises. You should be cautious about calling in such situations. Alternatively, if you’re playing against some seasoned players who may also know this tell, you can try pulling off a reverse tell of your own. Meaning you tank with a weak holding then go for a bigger bet as a bluff to signal strength.
Instant Check: Weaker
This is an online poker tell because someone who instantly checks online has likely clicked the Check/Fold pre-action. Like if you’re in the big blind with a trash hand and want to get out of the hand asap if there’s a raise. Or you saw a flop with five other players out of position and didn’t connect with it at all.
Similarly, a quick (but not instant) check online can mean the player is eager to move onto the next hand when they are weak. Because even if a player decides to slow-play a big hand, they will still take a few seconds to think about bet sizes and whatnot. You can use this online tell if you’re in position to steal smaller pots after an instant check from an opponent. You can also try a reverse tell and check more string hands to confuse your opponents.
Check Then Insta-Call: Drawing Hand
A player who does this online is likely drawing with a marginal hand and planning to call once or twice before giving up. It’s best to keep the board and player’s ranges in mind when you see this. Because that player may end up hitting on a connected board (straights and flushes) and then you face a check-raise in a difficult spot. However, if the board stays clean, you can up the aggression and watch them scatter away.
Leading the Flop (Donk Bet): Weak
The reason a player would do this is that they have a weak hand and want to stop you from continue betting when you have already bet or raised pre-flop. This is more common at lower stakes, but we’ve seen it at higher levels too. If you see your opponent doing this a few times, you can use this tell to your advantage. You can just raise their bet on the flop and more often than not you’ll see them insta-fold.
River All-in / Overbet: The Nuts
We say this means the nuts but it actually indicates a polarized range. Meaning that player has either got the world or nothing at all. The latter is less likely, especially in tournament formats. The same goes for check-raising the river.
You would see this a lot from players who have a full house against a player they know has also hit their flush. You shouldn’t call such bets as 90% of the time it’s legit. And that other 10% is just not worth risking your stack for a lot of the time. Consider that 10% call only if you know your opponent extremely well.
Odd Bet Sizes: Value Bets
Often, players will use the pre-defined bet sizes available in the poker client software. Like 1BB, 2BB, 3BB, for example. So if you see a very specific bet size typed out in the bet box, like 6.6 or 3.6, then it’s likely a value bet. Players who are attempting a bluff don’t usually take the time to get specific with bet sizes and go for overkill to scare someone off.
Frequent Limp-calling: Newbie
You don’t find that many experienced players limp-calling a huge part of their range. So if you see a player limp-call almost every hand, you can be sure that they are an amateur still trying to learn the game and play passively. If you’re feeling charitable, you can let this one slide. However, we’re here to win and exploit the fish at the table. So you can isolate them into heads-up situations and raise more to print some money off them. They will probably keep calling you with weaker holdings or fold to your bluffs.
Blowing up via Chatbox / Emojis: Tilted
Ranting, discussing their bad beat, or insulting you is a strong indicator that a payer is on tilt. And what does this mean? They’re prone to mistakes and are likely to lose the next hand as they chase a win after a recent loss. Use this, especially if you have a decent hand, as you’ll likely get paid off. Don’t be afraid to bet a bit bigger or get a bit more aggressive.
How to Avoid Giving Off Online Poker Tells
- Ignore the Chat - pretend the chat box doesn’t exist and never rant. Don’t “teach” people how to play by telling them what they should have done or something. Other players may exploit your behavior on later streets. Or try to tilt you by gauding or taunting you, which as we know is detrimental to you.
- Keep the Same Timings - Use the same amount of time for each action you make, especially post-flop. Other players will be watching you to see if you’re weak or strong. But don’t tank too long because you will annoy most players at the table and they will try to isolate you.
- Use Static Bet Sizing: Especially against tanking players - open the same amount pre-flop and c-bets.
Best Poker Tells Book
The typical tell is complex and psychologically interesting. It is usually picked up subconsciously, intuitively, and is based on the detection of patterns of behavior, action, speech, and - most importantly - of betting. Elwood’s poker book series on Reading Poker Tells has been the talk of the industry on the topic. You can learn more about his video series at www.readingpokertells.com.
Poker Tell Patterns Hold True for Amateurs
You should have some reason to trust these patterns for specific players before basing a big decision on them. And, as with most poker tell information, these patterns will mainly hold true for more amateur and inexperienced players. The more experienced a player is the more likely it becomes that they will be more well-balanced (doing these behaviors with both strong and weak hands) or tricky (reversing common expectations).
Poker Tells FAQs
What is a tell in poker?Tells in poker are physical/verbal behaviors or patterns (online) that give away information about the strength of your hand. They are different on online or live poker tables and must be a pattern, not a one-off to convey accurate information.
Are pressed lips a poker tell?In Zachary Elwood’s Reading Poker Tells, pressed-together lips are an indicator of a strong hand. Many players with strong hands instinctually try to look weak; pressing lips together is one way to do this. Biting lips is another.
Is biting nails a poker tell?While this is generally true for non-poker situations, you will unlikely see a person involved in a serious pot, whether bluffing or just vulnerable, bite their nails. As with the pressed lips and the biting of lips, most people are generally aware that biting your nails is indicative of stress, so why would someone with a vulnerable hand do it?
Is hand on mouth a poker tell?Similar to a player hiding his neck, a player covering his mouth (unless at the high levels where you see the opposite) is usually trying to conceal something. They are trying to hide the fact that they are weak and afraid their body language will betray them.