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How understanding poker tells - the subconscious signals given out by poker players - can give you valuable clues on the strength of an opponents hand.
Aside from using clever poker strategy in your play (and as an enhancement to it), there is another important way to gain an advantage during a game, and that's by watching for signs or reactions given away by your opponents, commonly known as poker tells.
Remember that the brain controls everything we do. Every action is caused by brain activity. Sometimes we react to certain situations in a preconditioned way, normally caused by experiences we've been though in the past but sometimes just built into our personality and developed by evolution to offer protection. It can be impossible, or take extreme concentration, to prevent these uncontrolled reactions. So, you can see that watching for and taking note of these poker tells can give you valuable clues about an opponents situation or intentions.
There are two parts of the brain in use when playing poker, the emotional part and the logical or thinking part. The logical side of our brains controls calculations and decision making, but it can be overruled by our emotional or subconscious side. Understanding how this works gives you an opportunity to use observation skills to spot the poker tells of your opponents, and to prevent leaking clues to those opponents via your own tells.
You can break the skill of watching for poker tells down into three key areas - how and what to observe or watch for, how to interpret your observations, and the ability to hide or mask subconscious actions.
That's covered the background to poker tells, let's take a look at the different types of clues that you'll be looking for, specifically either when playing live or when playing online. As the majority of poker tells are visual, clearly you're going to encounter most in live games, but we'll also cover some you might be able to spot when playing online.
Live/ Visual Poker Tells
When your subconscious experiences an event which it is not comfortable with, it's first step in trying to protect you is to automatically provoke an action to make it comfortable. This is precisely where the well known visual poker tells come from. Widely known examples include nose scratching, movement of the hands, and involuntary exclamations.
Facial movements are one of the most obvious tells you can notice from opponents who are either trying to deceive, hide, or who are under pressure. By improving your observation and interpretation skills in this one area, you might be able to determine if an opponent is uncomfortable with their hole cards, any bet that's been made, or any turn of cards. Movements of the lips are particularly revealing and watching for this can pay dividends. Tightened lips are potentially a sign that there is some internal disagreement occurring in your opponent, possibly their logical process is not synchronised with their emotions. Other lip movements such as licking or biting can also have exploitable meanings.
The human brain can often try to pre-empt an action with the subconscious preparing your body in advance - a player leaning forwards with more of their arm showing than normal may well be getting ready to bet. This would be a great clue if coupled with another tell such as a flaring of the nostrils. Here the brain will be preparing your body to draw in extra air so as to be in a prime state for action or conflict.
Any player making upward movements with part of their body or speech is a good indicator that they're comfortable with their situation. Maybe they're sitting on a nice hand. Raised eyebrows are one of these upward movements to watch out for. They like what they see ( this is a useful indicator of interest in human relationships as well, you can see how this applies in different situations).
Smiles are another area to watch for, most people can notice a fake smile but not many can hide it. If the smile doesn't extend to the eyes, it's likely the smile is false and there is something being hidden. Also watch carefully for movements of the hands and feet, these are hard to prevent for reacting to subconscious signals.
Now you've gained this appreciation of how players can give off signals by involuntary movements, you can use this knowledge to hide or attempt to prevent your own actions. By minimising the information you give out, you are removing one of the key ways in which your opponents will be attempting to read you.
Online Poker Tells
With online poker the contact between you and your opponents is via a PC. The art of looking for clues in the actions of opponents is still valuable, though to a much lesser extent, and of course those opponents are under less pressure and more able to deliberately create false actions in an attempt to mislead.
The most likely online poker tells are generally recognised to be:
Responding slowly - a pause followed by a check can often indicate weakness, while a delay followed by a raise sometomes indicates strength.
Responding quickly – a very fast check can indicate a weak hand, quick bets on the turn or river can often indicate a strong hand.
Automatic play – a lazy approach to the auto buttons lets a player slip into a set pattern of play. Any breaks in this pattern are clear tells.
The video below provides a useful conclusion to this page, detailing the 10 most obvious poker tells you'll come across in poker games.