I want to talk about a tell that is very, very useful against many mediocre players. But it’s also a tell you can catch a lot of pretty experienced players exhibiting, too. Here it is:
The longer someone looks at their hole cards during their initial look at them, the weaker the cards are. Relatedly, though less useful, some players will look away very quickly from strong hole cards.
Of course, like all tells, there has to be a baseline for this. If a guy always looks at his cards for a long time or a short time, then this tell isn’t going to mean anything. Some players will be very consistent in how they look at their cards. But many players will exhibit this general behavior when they first look at their hole cards. (Also should mention, this obviously only applies to players who look at their cards at the same time, and not one at a time, like some people do.)
The reason for this tell, in my opinion, is that players with strong cards are more likely to look away from cards like AA or KK, because they instinctively don’t want to draw people’s attention to their strength. It’s like someone who finds a $100 bill on the sidewalk and looks away quickly, in the hopes that other people won’t look where they’re looking, and they can recover it secretly. It’s an instinctual attempt to not draw attention to an object when drawing attention to that object will mean that you will lose that object.
Conversely, people with weak hands will tend to look at their hands for longer periods of time. Unconsciously, they might want to give off the idea that there is something to think about. Also, I think it’s just the lack of having a reason to look away from the cards.
In my experience, the looking-for-a-while-at-weak-cards tell is much more meaningful and practical than the looking-away-from-strong-cards tell. In other words, players might look quickly at a wide range of cards, from strong cards to weak cards, and so there might not be much information to be gained when you see them look quickly away from their hole cards.
But if someone looks for a while at their starting hole cards, they are much more likely to have weak cards than strong cards. So I typically just look for signs of people looking for a while at their hole cards (assuming I know it is a pattern with them.)
I remember playing guts poker in some home games, where it was all about your starting hole cards and nothing else. This tell alone would make you a huge winner in such games. I would simply watch how fast people stop looking at their cards and rank them accordingly. People who stared a second or more at their cards I discounted as weak. If I saw most of the people staring for a while at their cards, I was ready to stay in on a pure bluff and try to pick up the pot. If I saw a couple people quickly put their cards down, I was ready to fold decent cards.
I had someone disagree with me on this tell recently. He said in his experience, players who looked for a long time at their hole cards were likely to be strong. He plays pretty high games, so I considered that maybe it was possible that in some tougher games, this behavior might be reversed. But in my experience, over a wide range of stakes from low to high, this tell is generally true and useful.