The poker tell is one of the most romanticized ideas in gambling, the notion that there is a code that will tell you everything about your opponent's hand just waiting to be unlocked. In reality, tells are usually more subtle than they are in the movies, but that doesn't mean there aren't some big, honkin' obvious ones. Here are some of the most transparent ones to ever make it onto television, and how to spot (or avoid making) them yourself.
We'll start with a hand from the show Poker After Dark, Season 4, episode 40. Businessman Dee Tiller flops a full house with his 22 when a flop of 442 falls. Facing a bet from Eli Elezra, Tiller puts on a show, feigning consternation, disapproval, and maybe a death in the family. Tiller's actions while waiting to call Elezra's bet include:
- Checking his hole cards multiple times (which Eli Elezra humorously imitates before folding)
- Facial expressions of disappointment, such as a stretched out mouth like you see when someone says "That's too bad" while shaking their head
- Subtle shaking of his head
- Saying "God durn, it's a hard…" as if he's really struggling with this fairly minor flop decision
When someone acts like their decision is very difficult, and there is more action still to happen in the hand, your alarm bells should go off. Why would someone who was actually facing a tough decision let you know they're facing a tough decision? When a player makes an over-the-top performance like this, it's very likely they have a huge hand and are trying to make you think the decision is difficult when it is not.
Pokerstars' The Big Game show featured amateur players pitted against a table of pros. In this hand, amateur David Fishman rivers the nuts: a Broadway straight. Hellmuth has 2-pair and bets the river. Fishman then does a series of things before raising that should have made Hellmuth very, very wary:
- Sighs, as if facing a tough decision
- Shakes his head, as if upset with the situation
- Says "I'm not going to let you do this to me again, Phil."
Fishman repeats the line "I'm not going to let you do this to me again, Phil," which is a very obvious example of misdirection. He is trying to give another reason for his shove—that he is tired of Hellmuth pushing him around, and not that he actually has a strong hand. When someone gives you a stated reason for an action they are taking, you should ask yourself why that person would tell you their true thought process.
And after all of this acting weak, Fishman raises all-in. He even does a fake hesitation before shoving, as if uncertain about the decision. As in the Dee Tiller hand above, when you see someone giving obvious signs of disappointment with a hand and then betting or raising, you should ask yourself why they would be acting this way if they actually had a hard decision.
This is a hand from the 2009 World Series of Poker starring Matt Damon, the actor who played a professional poker player in the movie Rounders and who also apparently enjoys acting while playing poker.
Damon limps in the small blind with T6 and the flop is TT6, giving him the nuts. Damon immediately sits weirdly back in his chair; Norman Chad says "Damon got a jolt from that flop." He also looks away from the table in a forced nonchalant way, as if not interested in the hand. The flop gets checked around.
The real meat of this poker tell comes on the turn, when Damon checks, a late position player bets, and Damon turns on the acting skills. He tries to act saddened in a variety of ways, similar to the previous two tells. He gets the stretched-out, disappointed, pouty lips; he actually shakes his head, as if he can't believe what's happening, while going through all this. He sucks on his upper lip. He licks his lips and blows air out of his mouth in a stressed sigh. As the WSOP announcer puts it, "A Hollywood star with some pretty bad acting."
Damon checks again when a blank comes on the river, hoping for another bet, but his abysmal acting has frozen the action, and he takes down just one bet after flopping the nuts.
This hand is from the 2007 World Series of Poker and features Beth Shak, a poker hobbyist and noted shoe collector. She looks down at pocket Aces and goes through a series of behaviors often seen in amateurs who have very strong hands. She makes a bunch of shrugging gestures with her hands and arms as if uncertain what to do. She says "Um" before announcing her raise, again trying to communicate uncertainty. Finally she goes all-in, still shrugging her arms as if to say, "I guess I'm all-in." Whenever anyone shows any signs of uncertainty in a poker hand, with action still to come, it should raise alarm bells. A lot of the obvious tells in this article are seen in much more subtle forms in more experienced players. For example, a player might make a very tiny shrug when pushing all-in with a strong hand instead of the very over-the-top shrugging gestures seen here with Shak.
Humorously, Beth Shak continues to give signs that she has a super-strong hand, even with another player still to act. She dances around the room singing, "I got it, I got it" in an obvious display of joy. She makes strange upside-down "A" signals with her hands behind her back to indicate Aces. Her husband, Dan Shak, watching from the rail, correctly reads her hand, as does the rest of the poker-playing universe.
This last tell is a bit more subtle than the others. Jamie Gold was known for his talkative performance in the 2006 WSOP Main Event, saying and doing some counter-intuitive things that threw off his opponents. In this hand he flops a set and rivers a full house versus Allen Cunningham. Cunningham bets the river and Gold raises all-in. Gold then does quite a few things that are much more likely to be associated with strong hands than with weak hands:
He stands up. This is a general tendency for some people with strong hands who go all-in in tournament situations, as it indicates relaxation (see the video above this one where Shak and Hellmuth stand up after they both shove with AA for one example.) You will occasionally see players with weak hands stand up after bluffing but it is much less common. (This behavior, in this case, is also player-specific: in an analysis of footage from the edited ESPN broadcast of this event, Jamie Gold was seen to stand up several times when he had strong hands and only once when he was bluffing.)
He acts aggressively towards Cunningham. Gold tells Cunningham, "I got ya" and "I knew you didn't have it," both of which are aggressive statements that seem intended to goad Cunningham into calling. Players who are bluffing are very unlikely to engage in competitive, aggressive talk toward an opponent; they don't want to arouse their opponent's competitive instincts and risk a call. While Gold was very talkative in many hands during this event, he never obviously challenged the strength of another player's hand in a similar way when he was bluffing.
He holds his cards out as if ready to muck. Fitting with the "acting aggressive" behavior above, Gold holds his cards out in an ostentatious manner, as if waiting for Cunningham to either muck or call. This can be interpreted as a goading behavior, so it's unlikely to be a bluff. (Gold did this one other time when he was strong in this event. He occasionally held his cards in a similar, but much more gentle, non-confrontational way, closer to his body, when he told opponents he would show them his cards if they folded; those were times he was bluffing.)
I ended with this Jamie Gold hand because it requires a more in-depth analysis than the other, more-obvious tells in this collection. You'll notice that these tells didn't end with their offender going bust. But they did have a large negative effect on how many chips could be extracted out of strong hands—something you've got to maximize if you want to be a long-term winner in any poker game, cash games or tournaments.
Image by Sam Woolley
Zachary Elwood is the author of Reading Poker Tells, the critically acclaimed book on poker behavior. His blog is at www.readingpokertells.com.