I’ve been playing more limit hold’em lately, and I’ve put some thought into the tells that are most useful at limit versus the most useful ones at no-limit. Obviously there’s a lot less psychological pressure in limit, which makes for less tells. And the regular players, even the horrible ones, are accustomed to the common situations of the game and therefore give away less information.
But there are still many tells that are very useful in limit. Below I’m going to go into the four main ones I rely on, in no particular order, and how to read them. This is very valuable stuff, in my opinion – one of the tells I’ll describe I’ve never seen or heard discussed anywhere else before.
Reaching for Chips
Caro described this one back in the day, and it’s still very much on-display. I’ve seen this in the highest limit games I’ve played ($40-80) and I’m sure many mediocre players at higher stakes display it. It often amazes me how much information even otherwise decent regular players leak with this tell.
Players who are reaching for their chips out of turn, or who are blatantly making a move like they’re going to call your bet, do not usually have very strong hands. At it’s most extreme, you will see players beating you into the pot with their chips, before you can even bet, in an attempt to show just how tenaciously they’re going to call you down. Usually they do these “I’m gonna call you” tells because they want to dissuade you from betting, because they have a drawing hand, or a hand like top pair, weak kicker or second pair. They usually must have something to do this, because a player who has absolutely nothing will rarely go through the trouble of faking this tell.
In no-limit this is a tell you’d use to bet people off their hand, or to properly size a value bet. Because it’s limit, these people will usually end up calling you if they’re drawing or if they have top pair, or maybe second pair. Even though it’s not so much useful for bluffing (unless you’ve seen a player exhibit the tell and then fold when bet into), it is tremendously valuable for value-betting. If you’re betting an overpair, or top pair with a good kicker, you can feel much safer value-betting all the way as long as you see an opponent displaying this tell. If you’re betting a hand like two-pair on a coordinated board, and a straight and a flush card get there on the river, you can confidently bet your hand into someone who’s obviously showing weakness with this tell.
This tell can also be very player-dependent, and you’ll need to adjust it to how you see it displayed. Some players will always call when they display this tell; some will often fold on the turn or river if they can’t dissuade you from betting.
Looking Down After Betting
This is a very important tell, and it’s one I’ve never seen discussed elsewhere. The fact that it’s so off-the-radar makes it one of the more practical tells. In some of the tougher limit games I’ve played in, this will be the only tell I’ll be able to spot.
When someone bets with a weak hand, there is often a tendency for the bettor to look down for a moment as they’re betting, or right after they complete the bet. It’s can take the form of a quick head dip down toward their chips, or it can be a much more subtle glance straight down with their eyes.
I think the looking-down movement is probably due to a liar’s inclination to look at the ground, averting their eyes, when they tell a lie. Or it may be just because of a relief of pressure after making the stressful action of betting. I don’t know what causes it; I just know I see it a lot. I often use this tell to raise someone off a hand heads up, or to raise a bettor to try to knock some people out of the pot.
People who are betting real hands won’t often look down; they’ll usually keep their heads level, looking straight ahead or at the pot. You won’t often witness a head dip like the one I’ve described when someone is value betting.
Indications of Folding
Indications of folding aren’t necessarily tells – they are usually just honest movements telling you what someone’s getting ready to do. In no-limit you’d be much more likely to give someone credit for being tricky by acting like they were going to fold out-of-turn; not so in limit, where there is very little to be gained by such actions. The repetitive, often-robotic nature of limit makes it much more likely that people will just tell you, verbally or physically, where they’re really at in a hand.
It should be second nature to watch what the people behind you are doing. Pre-flop, for example, I always watch how the people behind me handle their cards. Many people without a hand, who know they’ll be folding, don’t have much to gain by acting in this spot. Therefore, you will often see people honestly showing you that they’re intending to fold. If I get a sense that there are many folds behind me, I can raise or call that much more confidently.
Even if they are not directly telling you if they’re folding, they will often arrange or hold their cards a certain way if they’re going to be folding. Some players will grip cards they’re going to fold in a certain way, maybe holding them farther forward than they do when they’re calling. Some people will place a card protector on cards they intend to call or fold with, but just hold cards they want to raise with. Study one person at a time to get a sense for how they arrange their cards and how it correlates with what they do.
Indications of folding are useful after the flop as well, primarily in multi-way pots. Similar to pre-flop, in multi-way pots players are less likely to feel there’s much to be gained by acting. In multi-way pots people are less likely to be thinking of bluffing, and their guard is generally lowered. Also, if they’re upset at not making a draw on the river in a multi-way pot, many people just don’t care if they’re breaking poker etiquette or not; they’ll sometimes just show their disappointment.
If you are in between a bettor and another player, study what the third player is doing with their cards. Sometimes giving a little pause will make the third player frustrated enough to where he gives away his intentions prematurely. If you don’t see any indication that the third player is going to fold, this could be valuable information if the player is a player who would usually give you such an indication.
In general, when it’s your turn to bet and your opponent stares at you in a somewhat hostile way, or puts on what could be called an intimidating posture, they are usually weak and don’t want you to bet. They may call you, but they probably won’t enjoy it.
Generally, most people who look at you when it’s your turn to bet are weak. But if aggressiveness is present, it sets it apart into another tell, and increases the likelihood greatly that they are weak.
The “intimidating” body stance is usually more likely to be seen when the person is sitting next to you, or two seats away. They are unlikely to take on this stance if they are across the table from you, but will be more likely to rely on looks. If you are a small person, or seem like someone who might be easily intimidated, you might witness this tell more often than a tougher-looking guy or a woman.
Also, these tells of intimidation are more likely to be exhibited on the larger rounds of betting than they are on the flop when bets are small.
I was playing with this guy recently who exhibited this tell in a very obvious way. He was sitting to my left. On the turn or river, when it was my turn to bet, and he didn’t want me to bet, he would angle his body toward me and kind of bring himself up sitting straight in his chair. Sometimes he would call, usually he would fold after acting upset, but he was always weak. This tell was very reliable and made it easy to know when to attempt a bluff or make a thin value-bet.
The “intimidation” won’t usually be this obvious, but you should be aware of people turning slightly toward you or puffing themselves up. And of course look for people who are trying to stare you out of betting.