You hear a lot about players giving off “tells” at the table. Just how much should we be worrying about tells? Guest contributor Zachary Elwood is the author of Reading Poker Tells, a book aimed at helping players gain a better understanding of how to “read” opponents’ tells while also putting that information into a proper context at the tables. Here Elwood offers some advice to those just starting out regarding tells.
If you’re fairly new to poker, there’s a good chance you might place too much emphasis on poker tells. Beginning poker players often think that winning poker is about being able to “soul read” your opponent by picking up on small gestures, expressions, or other aspects of behavior. In reality, you can be a great poker player without being able to read people at all.
Winning poker, first and foremost, is about having a great long-term strategy. It’s also about being skilled enough to understand weaknesses in your opponents’ strategies, and coming up with good strategies to take advantage of those weaknesses. None of these fundamental things have anything to do with understanding an opponent’s physical behavior.
That said, understanding an opponent’s physical mannerisms and verbal behavior can give you an edge in a live poker game. But you would do well, as a beginner, to forget completely about reading tells and concentrate on understanding fundamental poker strategy.
Because I wrote a book about poker tells, I’ve had many beginner-level players ask me for advice about tells and how they can get better at understanding them. I usually tell them that they are best off forgetting about reading tells and just concentrating on improving their strategy, because that is by far the more important thing. Also, the level of play at the lowest stakes of poker is often such that you can probably keep improving your win rate just by concentrating on improving your basic strategy and by trying to understand the strategies and bet-sizing tendencies of your opponents.
Now, having said that, it is also true that you should concentrate on being as “unreadable” as possible. There are some decent players at the lower limits, believe it or not, and some of them will be paying attention to your physical behavior and what you say. So while you shouldn’t worry too much about reading others, it is valuable for you to minimize your own tells as much as you can.
Here are a few beginner level tips for staying unreadable you can use during your next casino outing or home game:
1. Be aware of where you look after making big bets.
After making a significant bet or raise, you should be aware of where you are looking and try to keep it consistent. Many players have behavioral leaks where they tend to look a certain direction after betting with a strong hand or a weak hand. For example, some players will make more eye contact with an opponent after betting a strong hand, due to being more relaxed. Meanwhile other players will avoid eye contact and look down more after betting with a strong hand.
If you are acting one way with a strong hand and one way with a weak hand, it is possible someone will pick up on this. Many good players make a consistent effort just to look at the middle of the table after making a significant bet.
2. Be aware of how long it takes you to bet, call, or check.
Many players have tendencies when it comes to what we call “bet-timing.” For example, some players may tend to bluff more quickly while taking longer to bet their strong hands. Or they may call a bet immediately with medium-strength hands or drawing hands.
The point here is to be aware that how long it takes you to act can be giving your opponents information. So you would do well to wait at least a second or two before acting to be more “balanced” in your bet-timing.
3. Try not to “act” during a hand.
Beginning players often put on an “act” in various ways, either consciously or unconsciously. This is most often done when holding very strong hands. An example would be a player who has a very strong hand and shrugs as he makes a big bet. Or that same player saying “I’m only betting because you checked” when betting a monster.
If you are consciously trying to do something “tricky” behaviorally, there is a chance that more experienced players than yourself will figure out what you are doing.
4. Generally, just try to be stoic.
You would think that staying stoic and silent during a hand would be a fairly obviously smart strategy. But there are a lot of players, many of them pretty experienced, who do a lot of things during hands that they don’t need to do.
It’s fine to have fun at a poker table and make it a pleasant atmosphere, but be aware that if you are too relaxed, either behaviorally or verbally, during hands, you run the risk of giving information to your opponents.
Elwood’s book Reading Poker Tells is available via Amazon in a variety of formats (including as an e-book). Also visit Elwood’s website to learn more about the book and read more advice and analysis regarding tells, and follow his entertaining Twitter account @apokerplayer.