I want to cover some very basic and very practical information on tells. I wanted to talk about three of the most common misconceptions about poker tells.
First off, let’s start with the much-repeated but not-well-understood adage from Mike Caro that almost everyone knows: Strong means Weak, Weak means Strong. This idea, that people who act strong are holding a weak hand, and people who act weak are holding a strong hand, is the basis for most of Caro’s Book of Tells. Most all of his demonstrations are variations on this idea – a bluffer will try to stare you down, a guy with the nuts will push in a bet weakly. These are the ideas you see repeated all over the internet, and in the many mostly-terrible poker tell books.
While I agree with the basic concept of ‘weak means strong’, in practice it is not nearly as easy to demonstrate as Caro makes it sound. I think Caro’s book was aimed at taking advantage of very, very bad players, and has limited to no application against even semi-experienced players. And I very much disagree with some of the most oft-repeated scenarios; for instance, that a bluffer will usually try to stare you down, or that someone with a good hand will usually act very meek. In practice, you just do not see this behavior that much, so I think it’s a mistake to think of them as the “norm”. They are possible, sure, but it is not doing people a favor to act like these are the large majority of people’s behavior.
And the fact that these are some of the most well-known tidbits from Caro’s book, and that they are so impractical, is one of the main reasons I believe many players end up thinking that tells are for the birds. The thinking goes: ‘If this is the best book on poker tells, and I can’t even correlate some of these tells to the game I’m playing in, this whole tell business is bullshit.’ I’ve seen similar statements in one form or another in many poker forums and even in some books by great players.
The truth is that you won’t see a lot of the tells that Caro writes about unless you’re playing with people who have only recently learned how to play. Most players who are playing in even somewhat challenging games have gotten rid of the most obvious of tells, and, especially if they are younger than middle-aged, are much more likely to be tricky in a number of different ways. While I do agree with the ‘weak means strong, strong means weak’ idea, it is a very subtle aspect usually, and one that takes some serious study to discern in semi-skilled to skilled players.
Another thing about Mike Caro – while his book is what first got me thinking about poker tells, and while I think that most of his advice is very good, I have to say I’m really disappointed that he’s never written a more advanced poker tell book. I don’t know what the reason would be; I’m certain he’s advanced his thinking over the years. And it’s possible that the seminars he gives have some really profound stuff in them that he doesn’t write about. But from the articles that I’ve read of his over the years, he just seems to regurgitate the same basic ideas that he wrote about in the Book of Tells.
Let me address a few of the most common myths. These are either things that I think are impractical, or things that I think are flat-out wrong.
1) A Bluffer Will Stare You Down – This goes under the category of ‘strong means weak’. The idea is that a bluffer will try to intimidate you, or make you think he is strong, by staring at you. Sounds good in theory, but the truth is that it’s just not that common. Most bluffers will avoid eye contact, and avoid anything that could potentially attract a call. This is pretty much common sense, and something you can notice about yourself the next time you are bluffing; when you’re bluffing, notice how your own instinct is to not provoke your opponent in any way. A bluffer will try his best to look neutral, and maybe even carefree, but very rarely will they risk pissing you off by staring at you or intimidating you. Occasionally there will be some guys who will stare at you and even try to look angry with you, but they are the exception rather than the norm. (See a post about Pius Heinz for an example of someone with the staring-when-weak tell, and how most people do not do this.)
This myth is one of the most persistent ones – it’s repeated on pretty much any list of the most useful tells, and it’s pretty astounding to me that it has gotten so much traction.
2) Strong Behavior Always Means Weak – Many sites and books repeat the idea that a player with a strong hand will act very meek in various ways. In fact, with many players, a strong hand leads them to act in a number of ways that can be viewed as expressing strength. Many players will exhibit the typical bluffing tells when bluffing (stillness, quietness, forced postures), but when they actually get a strong hand, they feel like cutting loose a bit: they feel like being witty, they feel like putting on a show, they feel like playing the hero. They’ll try to engage you in banter, they’ll try to guess what you have, they’ll stare you down, they’ll slam their chips in the pot, or they might even tell you their actual hand. Why not? They’ve finally got a hand that’s not going to loose, and it doesn’t matter what you think of their display or whether you call or not – they’re gonna win either way. (That’s what’s going through their minds.)
You’ll see a lot of people with good hands finally get the nerve to speak a bit more, to possibly talk trash to their opponent, and to generally try to get under the skin of their opponents. This is stuff a bluffer generally doesn’t do. But a lot of people see this more-loose behavior and think ‘Well, strong behavior means he’s weak, so I should call his bet’. Then they’ll loose the hand, and think, “This tells stuff is bullshit” and be less likely to consider tells as an important resource.
Of course, many players with strong hands will act weak in many subtle ways (something I’ll write about in another post), but the truth is that if someone is acting in exaggeratedly strong ways (or just unusual or weird) then there is a greater likelihood that they are actually strong. If you do notice the rare player that will put on an exaggeratedly strong display when he is weak, then you must remember this about the player and save that information.
3) Trembling Hands Mean Great Strength – Mostly true, but just very impractical. It’s repeated constantly as if it was one of the most important thing Caro wrote, when it’s really just one of the most obvious things for beginners to spot. While it’s generally true, I think it’s ridiculous for people to spend any time trying to spot this tell. I’ve only witnessed this tell a couple of times over the years, and it really only has usefulness with people who are very much beginners to the game. Only beginners will get so excited when they make the nuts that their hands will tremble – anyone with tens of thousands of real-money hands under their belt (which is most people playing at any substantial stake) hardly ever gets so excited that their hands are going to shake.
Also, there are many reasons people’s hands shake. My hands frequently shake for blood sugar-related reasons. Old people’s hands shake for a myriad of reasons. Anyone’s hands can shake from being nervous. While it is true that a bluffer will keep his hands more still than a non-bluffer will, this whole concept can just fall under the category of bluffers being more still in general.
If you really want to take advantage of someone who you think has recently read Caro’s Book of Tells, or who is just at that particular beginner level of knowledge, wait until you’re bluffing them in a big pot, and do a little hand-shaking when you bet. If you’ve pegged them right, they’ll probably fold their cards very quickly, and probably face-up, very confident in their read.