I think the key to mastering behavioral poker tells is knowing how to efficiently look for and interpret player behavior. What behavior for a player is giving you the most information? What behavior does the player exhibit the most frequently? What behavior is easiest to spot? The answers to all of these questions can be hard to figure out, and some behaviors will be very reliable but hard to spot, or very reliable but only performed infrequently.
You might have a player who has a very reliable tell (like playing with his chips a lot before betting when he has a very strong hand). But this tell is not ALWAYS performed when he has a strong hand; it’s just that when you DO see it, you are sure he’s got a strong hand. This can make it kind of inefficient to always be looking for that tell, just because if you’re always focusing on looking for that tell, there may be other information you’re missing. He might have other tells that are not as reliable (for instance, he might be more prone to talking after betting with a strong hand, or he might be more prone to betting with a quick motion when he’s betting a good hand) but that are much more frequent and easier to spot. How do you most efficiently observe that specific player? Should you be looking at his hands as he bets? Should you be focusing on the speed he bets with? Should you be watching his eyes? His posture? You only have so much power of concentration, and you’d like to put it to the most efficient use you can.
This is mostly the problem I run into. I see many, many tells in most games I play in, and usually my main challenge is figuring out the leaks that are carrying the most information, and figuring out where I should be focusing my attention. I usually feel, in most significant pots, that if I could study the complete behavior surrounding the hand, from start to finish, like on a video feed, then I could come to extremely accurate conclusions about my opponents’ hands.
Of course, in the heat and speed of poker battle, no one can absorb ALL relevant information. And trying to absorb even a good amount of it is pretty draining (and arguably not worth the mental effort that could be better spent studying the basic fundamental betting tendencies of your opponents.) I’m frequently finding myself in situations with players who I’ve played a good amount with, and who I’ve made good observations about, but during the play of a hand this information is not at my immediate disposal, and I’ll call a bet I shouldn’t have or miss a bet I should have made, just because I’m not fully focused and recalling all of the information I’ve collected.
This is one of the reasons I think I’m only at a fraction of my tell-reading abilities, just because it is such a huge challenge to categorize the information you’ve gathered about people and have it in an easily-recalled format in your mind. Me “knowing” a bunch of stuff about particular players or players in general doesn’t do me much good if I’m not storing and parsing that information efficiently during the live play of a hand.
The next couple of posts will discuss meaningful tells I’ve seen recently in limit poker. This is because this is the main game I’ve been playing lately, and also because I regularly have people tell me that tells are not important in fixed limit, just because the bets are so small and the edges aren’t great, so I want to show that this is wrong. By showing how tells can play a part in mid-stakes limit play, it will be obvious how they are meaningful at all stakes, in any game.