I noticed a few poker tells I thought were significant in the 2011 WSOP Main Event final table, and I’ll be talking about them for the next couple blog posts. But for the most part, the tells were very few and far between. There were only a handful of moments in the play between the final four players (Heinz, Lamb, Staszko, and Giannetti) where I thought someone’s body language was giving away good information. This lack of tells is due to a couple reasons, in my opinion:
1) Poker tells are rarely useful in any game between good players
2) Most good players are smart enough to become fairly unreadable with a minimum amount of effort
I’ll talk about the first point in this post; the idea that tells play a very insubstantial role in most poker games played between strong players.
You might assume that because I write about poker tells that I think they’re very important. But nothing could be farther from the truth. I find them the least important thing to focus on; fundamental strategy is by far the most important thing to learn. (Having said that, I think tell knowledge can add significantly to a player’s win rate, but that’s only going to be after a player is very skilled fundamentally.)
In a no-limit game, I believe the most important situations in which to spot poker tells are these:
1) Pre-flop, when a player makes a significant bet (usually a 3-bet or more) with either a very strong hand or a very weak hand (which will essentially be a bluff)
2) On the river (and occasionally the turn) when a player makes a significant bet with a strong hand or a bluff
The thing these two situations have in common is that they are spots where a player’s hand strength is polarized (either strong or weak/bluff) and the player’s hand strength is fairly defined.
A player’s medium-strength hands, early on in the game, will generally not produce tells. For instance, a good player who 2-bets or 3-bets pre-flop is capable of doing this with a wide range of hands that he doesn’t feel one way or another about; he is making most of these plays just because it is good strategy. Similarly, a player who makes a continuation bet on the flop with a high card or even top pair doesn’t feel one way or the other about it usually. He could easily be ahead; he could easily be behind. These situations are not yet significant enough to cause a player to exhibit tells; they are just pretty standard situations where hand ranges are not very established and not many chips are at risk.
But if a player is making a significant 3-bet pre-flop with a hand like J5, he knows he is making a move, and he knows he would like to get a fold. If a player has tells of weakness, he will be likely to exhibit them in such a situation. Similarly, if he is raising with AA or KK, he will be more likely to be very relaxed. If he has tells of strength, he will be likely to exhibit them at that point. But, for the most part, good players aren’t going to be exhibiting tells in most situations, and that’s even assuming they have reliable tells in the first place.
A significant river bet is another situation where a player might exhibit tells if he has them. This is because hand strength is usually completely defined on the river. A player who bets or raises the river will usually know whether he wants a call or not. Whereas, on the flop or the turn a player could easily be betting high cards or a draw and not feel any way one way or the other; he could just be playing based on an opponent’s perceived hand range and proper strategy. But when you bet the river, you are most always going to know whether you want a fold or a call to your bet. (I say ‘almost always’ because good players are capable of balancing their actions in such a way that they really might not feel a particular way about whether an opponent calls or folds.)
This is why, when I play no-limit against decent players, I tend to only look for spots in the situations I’ve mentioned; when a player is making a significant bet pre-flop and when they are making a significant bet on the river (and occasionally the turn). Unless there’s a significant flop or turn bet (like an all-in), I tend to not waste my time looking for tells on the flop or turn.
In most live games these spots don’t come up very often (slowness of the game is a factor of course.) Even when they do come up, it’s not a given that there’s going to be a tell involved. It’s only in those spots when the bet is significant AND when a player’s hand range is polarized and fairly well-defined (either quite strong or quite weak) AND when that player actually has tells to exhibit. Obviously these situations do not align very often in a live game, and even less so when you’re playing with decent players.
I would also add that the nature of big tournament poker makes it even less likely for reliable poker tells to arise. This is because good tournament players know they have to be aggressive in order to give themselves a chance to win. They are capable of making a lot of moves without feeling one way or the other about them. They also are under a lot of pressure and stress overall (especially these final tablers), which results in an evening out of the tells they exhibit.
I should end with the point that poker tells are only infrequent when playing against good competition. Most bad or mediocre players will have a ton of tells. This is where most of the value of reading poker tells comes from; playing bad players. The fact that there were only a handful of meaningful tells on the WSOP final table shouldn’t discourage you from learning about tells, because you probably won’t usually be playing against high caliber opponents for millions of dollars.