Just because I focus on how to read physical tells on this website does not mean that I rank this skill as more important than other skills in poker. I think it can be, similar to the psychological understanding I talked about in another post, what separates a great player from a very good player.
Learning how to read poker tells is something most players should not concentrate on. These players would, as most experts point out, be much better off working on their fundamental poker skills and pattern recognition. It is true that many players will concentrate on poker tells and neglect learning even the simplest things about the game. These players are doomed to fail. They simply will not be paying attention to the correct things.
The main reason I concentrate on physical tells is because it is a subject very much overlooked and unaddressed in the literature. This is because of the popularity of online poker and the decrease in emphasis on live play.
However, it is incorrect to assume that just because poker tells are a red herring for many new players, that they are meaningless. Don’t throw the baby out with the bathwater. Just because a lot of bad players like to talk about tells, don’t let that make you think that these things aren’t important. There’s a reason the best players look like the emotional centers of their brains have been disconnected, at least when they’re playing against other great players: it’s because they know how much information you can gain from your opponent’s tiniest mannerisms.
In any scenario, physical tells are to be treated like any observations you make at the poker table. You should give them weight based on how sure you are that they are important. If you are not sure at all of an opponent’s body language, you would not assign any weight to a possible “tell”. If you had played with them for hours or days or weeks, a tell might be much more reliable and thus will influence your play. No one forces you to rely on a tell: it should only be relied upon after careful consideration of whether it has been statistically significant.
I was rereading Dan Harrington’s How to Win at No Limit Hold’em Money Games Volume II the other day. It’s a good book, but I think he does a disservice to the art of reading tells in that book. I think his arguments as to why tells are not important are some of the most commonly heard perceptions about the weakness of using live tells in games. But I think they are mostly wrong, and I’m going to address them.
I think Harrington’s main mistake is in not believing that someone could be better than him at understanding how to read tells. I think it’s a common misconception amongst winning players. It is hard to imagine when you’ve had a lot of success (at anything) that someone else can be so much better than you. It’s hard to imagine there are many other skills at work that other people may have mastered to a higher level than you. Harrington’s success supports the idea that you don’t have to be good at reading physical tells to be a great winner at poker. But it doesn’t make any statement on the idea that being a good reader of people could make him an even better player than he is.
Lest you get the wrong idea, I do not fancy myself a great reader. On a scale of 1-10, 1 being a brand new player and 10 being Stu Ungar, I’d rank myself a solid 5. At the same time, most of the people I play with are simultaneously full of tells and probably a 1 or a 2, at most a 3, on that same scale. Because of this, increasing your tell-reading proficiency even a little bit can have a substantial impact on your live results.
Harrington, in his Evaluating Tells chapter, says he takes a “contrarian approach to the business of tells”, and that he is going to argue that “the whole science of spotting tells is more difficult and less useful than people suppose.” He says reading tells is “the icing on the cake” (which I agree with) and that is can get you that “last fraction of a percent of vigorish”, which I disagree with: I think it can get you tremendous profits.
Here are Harrington’s arguments as to why reading physical tells isn’t that important a skill:
Problem #1 – Finding tells is difficult. The first problem he presents is that finding a tell is difficult. He says spotting tells isn’t easy, that sometimes people fold and you can’t see their hand, that you have to match people’s actions in certain situations to their actions in specific situations later, and that there are lots of people you’re supposed to be watching. He says “it’s a daunting task.”
Well, yes, Dan is right. Poker can be full of daunting tasks. This is just another one. If watching your opponents isn’t worthwhile, I’d like to know what is. What exactly are you doing when you’re sitting at a table not playing a hand? Dan might be listening to an Ipod, I’m not sure.
Anyway, in the course of even an hour of play, you can continually see many situations that allow you to correlate a player’s body language in certain situations to their relative hand strength. The fact that Dan presents this as reasons to not study tells really makes me wonder if this is part of some grand conspiracy to lower people’s guards. I mean, since when is the fact that something is difficult reason to not study it?
Problem #2: It’s hard to tell whether a tell is real or random. Continuing with the same “it’s hard” argument, Harrington points out that it can be difficult to tell whether someone’s movement or gesture indicates something about the hand or just something random that they did. Yes, again, it can be difficult to study people. Most people of average dedication give up when faced with the difficulty of studying people. Does that mean it shouldn’t be studied?
Problem #3: Is the tell real or deception? Harrington points out that some opponents will actively send out false signals. Another “it’s hard” point. He says “you may have to observe someone for quite a while before you can sort things out.” All right, it’s going to take a little while, might as well give up, right?
As talked about earlier, no one forces you to act on a tell. A tell’s importance should be weighted. If you feel, either because you have no fore-knowledge of an opponent, or because you’ve seen him act several contradictory ways when in similar situations, that the player’s body language isn’t reliable, then you simply discount it. When in doubt, just forget about it and play your best fundamental strategy.
Problem #4 – It’s hard to tell what a tell means. Harrington then thinks up the scenario where you have a sure tell on a player (named Ted). You know that when he stares at you he’s strong (though this is not the example in the book, just a more realistic one). Harrington then describes a river card which makes this player perform his tell: i.e., stare at you. But the board is paired, there’s a possible straight, a possible flush, and you have the lowest full house possible.
Harrington makes the observation that because your opponent could consider himself strong with a wide range of hands (some of which you beat, some of which you don’t) the tell has become meaningless. This point, although presented well, does not hold any water. Sure, in this specific situation, the tell doesn’t help us reach a conclusion. But for every situation with this amount of uncertainty, you’ll probably have 3 or 4 where an opponent’s tell (if considered highly reliable) will more surely clue you into what they have. Not every board is going to have a pair and a straight flush possible.
Harrington accurately describes the process of finding a reliable tell: “It’s passed all the tests – you spotted it, it’s not random, and you’re sure Ted’s oblivious to the tell, so it’s not deceptive.” The funny thing is that Harrington concedes that it is possible to have such a tell on an opponent, but he still finds an unlikely hand to illustrate to us that tells are still not useful even with this information.
Even just imagining the same hand, but that Ted’s tell means weakness, not strength, you can imagine how useful it would be to know he’s weak when he bets out, so you can raise him confidently. Or, in a similar situation, when you have J’s full of 9’s, I think you could still logically assume that Ted’s bet on the river is more likely to mean a straight or a flush type of strength, which would allow you to size your raise accordingly.
I mean, I think it’s pretty apparent that it’s easier to imagine scenarios where a reliable tell is important than it is to imagine scenarios where a tell doesn’t help. It’s very surprising to me that Harrington would pull these kinds of logical shenanigans.
The truth is that there are plenty of situations in poker where the correct choice is not readily apparent from a logical perspective. There are often situations where it can be equally defensible to either fold, call, or raise. Like a situation against an unknown player who raises under the gun and you call with QJ suited in the big blind. It’s a tournament and you’re both pretty deep-stacked. The flop comes J92 rainbow. You check and the player bets out substantially.
Now, you could come up with equally-valid reasons to either fold, check, or raise in this spot. He could likely be on an overpair or he could have flopped a set of nines. He could just have AK or AQ or an underpair. You might want to fold because it’s possible you are way behind and could risk losing more. You might want to call to see how the turn plays out: you could hit a J or he could check behind. You might want to raise to further define your hand: if he pushes you can fold; if he calls you feel better about your hand. There are many defensible things you could do.
Reading a potential physical tell, even if it is only slightly reliable, will separate the experts from the rest of the field in these type of situations, because they will be acting on observations that are simply not available to most players. Let’s say when your opponent does his continuation bet on the flop, he looks down at his chips for a few seconds after he bets, which is a common tell for weakness. You decide to raise him because you think it’s likely he has overcards or an underpair. He folds and you prevented him from seeing the turn for cheap.
Or suppose when he bets his continuation bet that he stares at you in a relaxed manner, a common tell for strength. You decide to fold and pick a better spot to take a stand against this player. Even if you are only right a bit more than you are wrong you are adding to your bottom line substantially by choosing the correct play in these potentially break-even situations.
I picked Dan Harrington’s arguments because I think they represent a lot of the negative information out there about physical tells. I think when examine logically, it is easy to see that there is a lot of value in learning how to read tells, even if it is the “icing on the cake”. I mean, icing’s kind of important when it comes to cakes, in my opinion.