Texas Holdem Tells
A Texas holdem poker tell is any action that gives away information about the strength of a player's hand.
Here's an example:
If one of your opponents touches her nose every time she's bluffing she's giving a tell.
Or if another opponent runs his left hand through his hair every time he has the nuts he's giving a tell.
Tells can be profitable in the right situations, but they can be as harmful as helpful in others. In the sections below you'll find good and bad things about tells, how to decide if you should use them or not, how to keep from giving them in your own play, and how to give false ones when the time is right.
You'll also learn more about playing tendencies and how they're similar to tells and how to use them in your play.
The best thing about tells is they can change the profitability of entire session.
Here's an example.
You've played against an opponent so many times that you know his right hand shakes when he has a big hand. You just hit your flush on the river, making your pocket ace queen of hearts the best possible flush, but the board paired so a full house is possible. You make a bet and your opponent makes a re-raise that's so big your first thought is that it's a bluff.
Many players over bet when they're bluffing, but you notice his right hand trembling when you're deciding what to do. Instead of calling the $1,000 bet you fold.
At the end of the session you find you're up $500. If you'd called the $1,000 bet you'd have lost $500.
If you can use a tell ten times a year in this situation you've made an extra $10,000 for the year. A simple tell used less than once a month can be worth a great deal over time.
Here's another example.
A semiprofessional female player you often play against has a bad habit of clenching her teeth when she's bluffing in big pots. It seems like smaller pots don't always cause the same reaction, but in ones over $500 or so she seems to always clench up when she's bluffing.
At the end of a big hand she makes a $100 bet into a $1,500 pot. On the surface this seems like such a small bet that it's begging for a call. At lower levels you have to call a small bet like this unless you have no chance of winning, but at the higher levels a small bet can signal a strong hand, depending on your opponent.
You know your opponent is good enough to make a small bet with a big hand or on a bluff, but in this case you see her clenching her teeth.
You fire a raise into the pot and she folds. You win a big pot turning your losing session into a winning one.
If you can pick up a few tells while playing poker it can directly lead to a much higher yearly profit on a year in and year out basis.
Of course it depends on the financial level where you play, but if the average tell is worth $500 and you pick up one a week it's worth over $25,000 a year. This is a huge amount of money and the exact reason tells can be an important addition to your poker game.
What could possibly be bad about tells?
The biggest problem with tells is they're rarely correct 100% of the time.
If you're relying on a tell to make a decision in a big holdem pot it can cost a great deal of money if you get a false tell or miss something because you're focused on a possible tell.
You'll also find that as you move up to higher levels of competition a few of your opponents may be capable of giving false tells.
Many times you're better off ignoring any possible tells if you aren't quite sure the information is accurate. Here's an example situation of when you might need to consider tells that aren't always right.
Your opponent just made an all in bet on the river and you need to decide if she's bluffing or not. You have a decent hand that can beat a bluff, but if she hit her hand on the river you're going to lose. The pot has $1,000 in it including her $300 bet, so you have to call $300 to win $1,000.
You think you know a tell. It seems like most of the time when she's bluffing she stares directly into her opponent's eyes and most of the time she's not bluffing she mostly avoids eye contact.
Other than the possible tell you don't have any other information about her possible hand.
In this situation you only have two options. You have to either call the all in bet and place $300 in the pot or you have to fold. Obviously if you fold you lose the hand and can't win anything.
If you call you either lose the $300 or you win $1,000 plus get your $300 back.
You can figure out how many times you have to win the hand to make a call correct without using the possible tell using this information.
If you're in the same situation 100 times it costs $30,000 to call every time. To break even you have to win 30 times, because you win $1,000 each time you win and 30 times $1,000 is $30,000.
This is important to know because it looks like you should usually call the bet unless you know from past experience that your opponent almost never bluffs.
You also are probably asking about the money you put in the pot earlier in the hand. You don't consider it yours when you determine the best play at the end. It's simply part of the pot.
Every decision has to be made with the current information and future considerations if they may come into play. In this case there are no future considerations.
Let's get back to the possible tell.
In this case the possible tell doesn't have to be accurate a great deal of the time. You can probably ignore the tell and make the correct long term decision, but if the tell is correct over 50% of the time it makes your decision easier. But this can be said about almost any tell situation.
Less than 50% accuracy can hurt you and greater than 50% accuracy is almost always helpful and / or profitable in the long run.
The bottom line is if you aren't sure using a tell will be profitable your best bet is to ignore it and play based on all of the other information you have.
Should You Use Them?
The use of tells, even fairly accurate ones, is directly related to the level of poker you're playing.
At the lower Texas holdem levels tells are not as valuable as they are at the higher levels, but they're often more reliable.
As you move to higher and higher levels of competition you run the risk of picking up false tells, falling into traps, and making mistakes. Mistakes tend to be more costly at the higher levels.
I've already covered the real answer to whether or not you should use tells.
But you shouldn't focus on tells at all until you've mastered the other parts of your poker game. Almost every other aspect of your play is more important than tells.
I know holdem poker players who ignore tells and are able to play profitably on a consistent basis, so it's not one of the skill sets where you have to master it in order to win.
Online Texas Holdem Tells
Tells are generally believed to only be useful in brick and mortar or live poker games.
How are you supposed to read a tell when you're playing opponents online where you can't see them?
While physical tells are impossible to read while playing online, a different type of tell is possible. Most players call them playing tendencies, but the way certain players play certain hands can be tracked and used against them just like tells.
Just like regular tells, playing tendencies are more or less effective depending on your level of competition. At the lower levels players tend to play the same hands the same way most of the time. When you play at the higher levels most players are good enough to change up the way they play hands from time to time.
At the lower holdem levels a player in first position to the left of the big blind could have a wide range of hands. You'd like to believe their hand is strong, but the truth is they could have almost anything.
When a player enters the pot from the first position at the higher levels the odds are they have a strong hand.
Some players will make a continuation bet after the flop if they raised pre-flop no matter what hits on the flop, while others only make a continuation bet when they feel they still have the best hand.
Other players will check and call until they have a hand and then instantly start playing aggressively.
I realize that this may seem simple, but these types of players can easily be found at low levels. They're easy to read and they're quite profitable.
Even some of the players at the medium and upper levels have distinct playing tendencies if you pay attention. These can be tracked in live play or online and can be profitable over time.
Avoid Giving Tells
One area that's important is the ability to avoid giving tells, so you should always pay attention to what you're doing while playing a hand.
- Are you holding your breath or clenching you teeth?
- Are you staring down your opponent or avoiding eye contact?
- What types of hands are you playing when you do each of these things?
- What do you do with your hands during a big bluff or when you have a monster hand?
- How quickly are you acting on good hands and bad hands?
If you've ever watched Chris Ferguson play Texas holdem, he does an excellent job of taking the same amount of time when he bets, raises, or folds.
You need to focus on acting the same way no matter how strong or weak your hand is.
Most players are able to correct tells by being aware and constantly keeping it in mind. But one of the things that can help you know if you're failing is if certain players seem to always be able to call your bluffs and fold to your best hands.
If this starts happening, double your efforts to avoid giving tells.
I mentioned playing tendencies in the last section and just like tells, you need to avoid being too predictable. The problem is when you start making plays that aren't the most profitable in the long term to vary your play it starts costing profit.
The way to start varying your play is with your best hands. Though there's a correct way to play pocket aces or kings in every situation, at the higher levels you can limp with them instead of entering with a raise every once in a while. You can't do this at the lower levels.
High level play is usually played with two or three players in the pot. At the lower levels if you limp with aces you may have five or six other players in the pot.
With that many extra players in the pot you aren't a favorite with aces. You're a favorite over any other single hand, but not over all of them.
Start paying attention to your playing tendencies and look for places to alter them. This isn't important at the lower levels. At low levels you're better off playing straightforward poker to maximize your profits because most players aren't paying attention to what you're doing.
Learn to Give False Tells
Once you learn how to avoid giving real tells you can consider giving false tells.
If you're able to develop a few false tells you can set up an opponent for a big pot. The secret is to develop the tells in small pots and then pull the rug out from under them in a huge pot.
One thing you'll find that will probably surprise you is how poorly most players are at picking up tells. Only the best players usually pay enough attention to see tells.
At the lower and medium limits no one is paying enough attention to make using false tells profitable. Most of them can't figure out when you have a dominant hand so they won't fold on the river even though they're clearly beaten.
You can also use your playing tendencies against players who pay attention. If you've raised the last six times you had a made hand after the flop against a certain opponent, check the next time. You may find that your opponent fires a bet because of your supposed weakness even if they don't have anything.
The bottom line in any Texas holdem poker discussion is if it's more or less profitable in the long run.
Tells fall squarely in this bottom line. If you see a possible tell is it more or less profitable in the long run to act on it?
Is it more or less profitable to develop a series of false tells to use against your opponents?
Another real consideration is something called opportunity cost. It may be profitable in the long run to develop and use a series of false tells, but could the time you use to master the false tells be used to learn something else that's more profitable in the long run?
Here's an example:
If you don't have all of the common outs and odds plays for holdem memorized and can't determine pot odds quickly, you'll do more for your long term profitability learning about them than developing false tells.
As I mentioned above, one of the big problems with false tells is your opponents have to be good enough to look for and see tells but not quite good enough to see the false ones. This makes a narrow window of use for false tells. It can be a profitable window, but you need to concentrate on mastering the basics before investing too much time on tells.