Given the level of psychology and strategy involved in playing poker, any insight into the strength of an opponent's hand is a worthwhile advantage. Thus, learning how to quickly recognise a reliable tell can give you a valuable edge in any game.

What Is A Tell?

If you’ve spent any significant time at the tables you’ll have come across the term “poker tell”. This phrase relates to specific actions carried out by players that gives away information about the strength or weakness of the hand they’re holding. These actions can be either verbal or physical and more often than not, are completely involuntarily carried out by the player - thus, giving rivals an insight into whether they’re bluffing or holding an ace hand!

A Disconnect Between Words & Body 

One of the most obvious signs that someone isn’t being honest is a disconnect between what they say and what they do. For instance, your opponent tries to convince you they’re holding a winning hand but unknowingly, shakes their head slightly as they speak. While words of positivity come from their mouth, a resounding ‘no’ inadvertently leaks from their body language. If you ever feel someone is telling you their hand is strong but their body disagrees, this is a loud indicator of deception and it might be time to challenge their bluff.

Holding In Their Secret

In poker, most tells are a physical representation of the truth trying to escape from the player. While a player really wants to keep the truth of their hand concealed, their body doesn’t always cooperate. This is why a lot of tells involve players unintentionally covering their mouths or even their eyes while masking a bluff. Subconsciously, players are holding the truth of their hand inside and don’t want others to notice. This is why so many players favour the use of expression-concealing hats or sunglasses for their poker wardrobes. These items serve as an obstacle for rivals hoping to read their expressions and spot a tell. This can also apply to a player with a strong hand, who wants to fill the pot with chips from rivals who have underestimated their strength. There’s every chance that that secret they’re holding in is a royally good one. 

The Eyes Have It 

Similarly to the above, many tells involve a player’s eyes suddenly behaving differently. Even outside of the arena of poker, we tend to trust those who are capable of looking us square in the eye while conversing. This tells us they have confidence in what they’re saying. Thus, more than likely they’re conveying the truth. In the case of poker, this could also indicate that they feel very safe with the hand they’ve drawn. Therefore, it’s a strong one. 

On the flip side of this point, it’s human nature to mistrust those who appear shifty with darting eyes. People who display this behaviour make us uncomfortable because we know there’s more going on behind their eyes. In poker, this player’s mind is racing as they try to determine the best move to make next. Were they holding a strong hand, they probably wouldn’t have to consider this move as heavily. If a player displaying this behaviour has just made a considerable bet, it could be a good time to call them on it. 

A Change In Speech

If the typically quiet and reserved player at the table suddenly begins chattering more there are two possible reasons. Firstly, they could have found their rhythm in the game and simply want to make friends. If so, great for them! More likely, however, they’ve just drawn a strong hand and are acting too hard to look relaxed and casual! This effort to look “normal” is a telltale sign they have a hand that’s anything but. Of course, you can flip this scenario with a particularly chatty player who suddenly clams up and stops talking. Take their new behaviour as data to take into account when deciding your next move. Then, ask yourself, would they behave like this because they’ve picked up a strong hand or a weak one?

The Most Important Factor

With each of these possible tells there’s one important factor to consider - is this behaviour out of the norm for the player? Essentially, this calls on you to look at your rival's behaviour as a whole throughout the game, not just in the instance where you think you’ve spotted a tell. 

How have they been playing throughout the game? Does their speech pattern and eye movement regularly accelerate prior to laying out a dud hand? Has their body language only begun to become disconnected in the latest hand, whereas before it was completely in line with what they were saying? For instance, some players regularly appear agitated with shifty eyes, regardless of the hand they’re holding. When studying these players you can’t hold too much weight on this element of their behaviour throughout the game as this is in line with their normal actions. 

Obviously, the better you are acquainted with a fellow player, the better you’ll be able to spot a faithful tell. This is because you can more accurately gauge whether they’re acting out of character making distinct gestures that they normally wouldn’t. That’s why focus and attention to detail are pivotal to success in poker.