I went to Spirit Mountain Casino (in Grand Ronde, Oregon) this past weekend to study the difference between no-limit tells across a range of three different stakes: $1-3, $2-5, and $5-10. I wanted to do this because I’d been working on some chapters for the book related to how tells differ across stakes and between limit and no-limit. I’ll tell you a few interesting observations I made on the $5-10 NLHE game.
First, the players were pretty good at concealing some of the more obvious tells you see at the lower limits. People, for the most part, acted in turn and didn’t give away obvious intention-tells (like making it obvious they’re folding when it’s not their turn, or obvious they’re intending to play) like you see a lot in multi-way pots at lower stakes games.
I did spot a good amount of bet-timing tells; specifically how long it would take people to check. A couple people were regularly taking a long time to check when their hand was vulnerable, whereas they’d check more quickly when they had an easy calling hand or a strong hand. (I used this tell to buy a few pots.)
Often accompanying this tell was the acting-like-I’m-going-to-bet tell, where a player with a vulnerable hand riffles his chips thoughtfully, or looks like he’s counting his chips, as if considering a bet, and then checks. Only two players displayed this tell, but it was very meaningful when they performed it.
I spotted one player with a major tell, the most obvious one I saw in the game. When he was ready to bet with a big hand, he would riffle his chips several times and play with them a little bit before making a bet. When he was bluffing, he would “confidently” pick up a stack of chips and place them in the pot, without playing with them or seeming to deliberate at all. When he was making a significant-size bet, this tell was 100% reliable as far as I could tell.
That same player also had the typical eye-contact tells. If he had a strong hand, after he bet, he’d be more willing to make eye contact with you. If he was bluffing, he would have his head facing your general direction but he would not make eye contact with you. Not saying he’d stare at you; that’s not what this tell is about, although it can manifest itself as staring. But the usual pattern is more intermittent in nature, like sneaking quick glances at their opponent or seeming to study their opponent.
This was true of a couple other players at the table in big pots, but for the most part, this tell was much less apparent than in the $2-5 game or the $1-3 game. Players in the higher limit games are usually better at limiting these types of tells. They are much more versed in maintaining a consistent demeanor after betting, which usually involves staring at the pot and keeping still (which is a highly recommended thing to do in my opinion.) While occasionally I saw a couple players give away some post-bet tells, they weren’t that evident.
Another tell I used regularly was one player’s betting movement behavior. He would throw his chips in with just a little more force when he was bluffing than when he was value-betting. It was a pretty subtle movement; just a little more upward flourish with his hand when he put the chips out. This is pretty standard in games at any limit; a player will either show this tendency or the opposite tendency (betting with more force when value-betting and less force when bluffing). Some players’ tendencies will be very consistent one way or the other.
But all in all, I didn’t spot nearly the amount of tells at the $5-10 game as I saw in the $2-5 and $1-3 games. Which is not surprising and what you’d expect due to the increase in stakes and average skill level. Also, all of the people I played with were regulars, which makes it less likely that they’d be giving away too much. In a more touristy poker room, you’d be able to spot a lot more tells at the higher limits.