Hi! A short updated preface to this old post. If you don’t know me, I’m Zach Elwood, the author of two books on poker tells: Reading Poker Tells and Verbal Poker Tells. I also recently came out with a new poker tells video series, which uses real poker footage. If you like this post, consider checking it out; I think you’ll find it valuable for $1-2 games.
In the past couple of weeks, I played a few sessions of live $1-2 NLHE with the purpose of studying what poker tell information was the most important and relevant. It’d been a while since I played $1-2 (haven’t been playing much at all with the exception of some $2-5 and the occasional $100+ tournament), so I was kind of curious what I’d find.
First, and most importantly, it reminded me that, for your average live $1-2 player, looking for poker tells is mostly a waste of time. Not that they are not present; they are, but most players’ time would be much better spent studying some basic strategies instead of looking for tells. So if you’re a struggling live $1-2 player, reading this article would not be the best use of your time. Instead, consider reading a basic strat book like Dan Harrington on Cash Games, James Sweeney’s Dynamic Full Ring Poker, or Ed Miller’s Small Stakes No Limit Hold’em.
Second, the other reason poker tells are of limited use in a live low-stakes game like this is because players often do weird, goofy things that fly in the face of logic. So getting a read that a player has a mediocre or weak hand doesn’t do you much good if that player is weirdly and randomly going to give a lot of action with that hand. A lot of players at live $1-2 will passively call off all most of their chips with a pair and a draw, or even just a draw, even if they wouldn’t bet it themselves. Many players also overvalue hands like AK and AQ, and will put a lot of chips in pre-flop with those hands. Or put in a lot of chips on the flop with weak pairs. So this just reinforces the idea that you shouldn’t be wasting too much time looking for soul reads, but should instead be just working on exploiting player-specific playing styles (e.g., calling too much or calling too little).
Third, I had forgotten how passive many players are who play at these stakes. For those players, there were no real post-bet tells to speak of. (Post-bet tells are a category of tells that occur after someone has bet; this distinguishes them from other situations, like ‘waiting-for-action’.) If these players made a big bet, they were going to have a strong hand, period. For many players with this playing style, you can forget about studying them for post-bet tells, just because the likelihood of them ever making a significant bluff is highly unlikely. (But this does point to the fact that if you do have aggressive players at the table, those are the people it is more beneficial to study first.)
Usually, in higher-stakes games (and in some $1-2 games) there are a good amount of aggressive players, which makes looking for post-bet tells more useful. I usually say that post-bet tells, when they come after significant bets, are the most important information to gather, but playing $1-2 reminded me that in these more passive games, where many people are just waiting for a hand, they aren’t that important.
I would say some of the key money-making decision points against more passive, nitty players at this level (besides just waiting for good hands) are:
• Deciding when to continuation bet with weak hands in multi-way pots
• Deciding when to bluff the turn
• Deciding when to bluff the river
Most of that will boil down to fundamental strategy and player tendencies. But every once in a while a poker tell can help you out in one of these spots.
So what poker tells are important? After getting back into the swing of things at $1-2, here were the behaviors I found most important:
• Immediate calls
• Taking a long time to check when weak
• Defensive chip handling when weak
• After cards arrive, staring at board when weak
These are mostly waiting-for-action tells, as opposed to post-bet tells, which makes sense when you’re dealing with players who aren’t betting as much and are instead more passive and calling more. I’ll explain these all in order and give a couple examples.
Immediate calls are one of the most useful bet-timing tells. When someone makes an immediate call, it means they’ve quickly decided not raise. Because players with strong hands tend to at least consider a raise (even if they end up calling), this means almost all immediate calls are made with weak and medium-strength hands and draws. This tell is rampant in low-stakes games.
For instance, in a few hands, players called my continuation-bet on the flop immediately. This tells me that, almost all of the time, they are on the weaker side of their range. If I am bluffing or semi-bluffing, I will continue bluffing on the turn most of the time with this read. For example, I raise pre-flop with KJo and get heads-up. The board is T -7-4 rainbow. I bet and the player immediately calls. I will usually continue betting the turn and maybe even the river, because I think the player will most often have, at most, a ten, and often a lot of hands like 99 and 88 or 98.
I would also you want to be choosy about who you’re attempting to bluff. I wouldn’t want to do this against a calling station, because you could be completely correct in reading them for a weak hand but they still may call you down or even just shove in with their hand. So you want to ideally be focusing on players you know are capable of folding.
Also, board texture is a factor in understanding immediate calls. For more aggressive players, immediate calls will also mean that it’s very unlikely they have a strong flush draw. For example, you continuation-bet a board of Kh 9h 3s and your opponent immediately calls you. If this player is capable of bluffing at all, this immediate call will make strong draws like Ax of hearts and QT of hearts very unlikely, because that player would probably at least consider a raise, even if he ended up deciding to call. So in a lot of cases, immediate calls can help you define a player’s range a bit more than usual.
Taking a long time to check when weak
Some players will take a long time to check to the aggressor when they hold weak hands. Don’t use this tell generally, though, because most players will vary their bet- and check-timing enough (both consciously and because there can be a lot of thought-inducing situations with many different types of hands) that it’s hard to get a good read. But against some players it can be very useful information.
For example, let’s say a player calls your pre-flop raise, hits a medium pair on the flop, checks to you and calls your flop bet. The turn card comes, doesn’t improve him, and he then takes like ten seconds to check to you. Whereas if he had a top-pair hand or better, where he knew he was probably going to be calling, he would only take a couple of seconds to check.
I’m not saying this is extremely useful information, because sometimes, with a medium-strength hand, $1-2 players will call you anyway. It’s going to be mainly useful against the most nitty players; the ones you know are scared to carry on without very strong hands. Those are the ones who you might bet off the hand on the turn if you get some sense of weakness.
Along with taking a long time to check, a player might look very studious in studying the board, as if trying to figure out what to do. That combined behavior is usually a sign of a vulnerable hand. As is the following tell, which you can sometimes see in concert with these:
Defensive chip handling when weak
The gist of this one is that players will often try to make you think they’re interested in calling by handling their chips in a defensive manner when it’s your turn to act. They might hold their chips in their hand, as if ready to put them in. They might start cutting out chips as if ready to call. Basically, any chip handling action that looks vaguely defensive in nature, even if it’s quite subtle, is usually a sign that the player holds a vulnerable hand. When a player holds a strong hand, they want to give no impediment to your bet, no matter how small.
This is a very useful one; it’s one that came up a handful of times in hands I was in, making me feel better about making a large river bluff. In one hand in particular, I had been betting first to act on the flop and turn, and I thought it was quite possible my opponent had flopped the flush draw. When a low flush card came on the river, I probably usually would have given up on the bluff, except for the fact I saw him riffling his chips in his hand while he stared at me (staring at an opponent when they’re waiting to act can also be a sign of weakness), so I bet $100 and he folded.
Two other hands went down very similarly to that. In one three-bet pot, where I’d three-bet and whiffed with AQ, an opponent called the flop, but I pushed all-in on a turn of 9JK3 based on my opponent grabbing his chips and holding them up defensively as he checked to me. It wasn’t usually a spot I would have felt so comfortable in.
Again, even if this tell is only 75% reliable, that’s still a great reason to carry through on a bluff that’s already got a lot of logic behind it; in my experience, though, this tell is more reliable than that for most players.
Staring at hole cards and board cards when weak
When players stare at cards, whether it’s their own hole cards or the board cards, it will generally mean they don’t have a strong hand. I had forgotten how much the staring-at-cards when weak type of tells apply to low stakes.
Why is this a pattern? Players who look at strong hands tend to look away quickly. There’s an instinct to “hide their treasure” from their enemies or competitors. This accounts for the common tendency of players to look at pocket aces and immediately put them down. Whereas players with weak hands don’t have a reason to look away.
Pre-flop, this can be useful when you spot limpers or players behind you looking for a second or two or longer at their cards. When you see this, and if you’ve decided it’s a reliable tell for those players, you can choose to become more aggressive in the hand. For example, you see a few limpers staring at their cards before they call, and you decide to raise pre-flop lighter than you normally would. Or you see a late-position player staring at his cards for a few seconds and he ends up raising. You might decide to call him or 3-bet him lighter than normal.
Of course, players are still capable of calling you with their weaker hands, and then you’ll have to play some post-flop poker. But because the read is generally reliable (and sometimes very reliable for some specific players), you’ll be putting yourself in a lot of profitable post-flop situations where a flop bet will often take down the pot.
Sometimes players look back at their hole cards after the flop, too, and the longer they look at their cards the more it becomes likely they’re weak.
For communal cards, it’s the same basic idea: players who connect well (like top pair or better) tend to look away from the board when the cards come out. This can be seen as an involuntarily, unconscious attempt to distract attention away from their “treasure.” Staring at communal cards, with no looking away, will tend to mean the player had no real reason to look away or be thoughtful about the hand.
Playing some $1-2 again, I got back into the habit of trying to watch everyone in the hand during multi-way flops, trying to see if anyone looked away immediately. Mainly I tried to watch the player or players behind me, because that is more valuable information than what the players in front of me do.
For example, in most three-way (or more) pots, if I’m the pre-flop raiser, I usually will shut down if the board comes down pretty scary and I haven’t connected. Like if I raise pre-flop and the board is 9TQ or something similar, I generally check if I raised with 6-7 suited, or AK, or something that missed completely, because those are the types of boards that hit right in the range of most players who call a raise. Whereas on a really dry board, like K-7-3 rainbow, I will usually bet my misses into two other players (but not usually three other players).
But looking for opponents who are staring at the flop can make me feel more comfortable about betting into a multi-way pot. It happened several times in three-way and four-way pots where I wouldn’t usually have bet from a fundamental strategy perspective, but the amount of staring going on by my opponents made me feel safer. Occasionally, I would still get one caller out of the bunch, but that still put me in more profitable spots than not betting, and I felt more confident, based on their staring, that they had weak hands.
Again, this is not something you want to use to make very large decisions. Good players are capable of staring consistently at the flop whether they hit or not. And even for the people who exhibit this tell very reliably, it won’t always be accurate. This will mainly be useful for determining fairly borderline situations, like when you decide to get aggressive and follow through on flop bets in multiway pots, or follow through on turn bets. Or, when you see people looking away from the board cards, for deciding to take a more passive line. There are a lot of fairly borderline situations where checking or betting or raising could go either way, so a little extra information can go a long way.
All in all, I never want to give the impression that tells are something that will let you crush microstakes, or any game for that matter. I think they can give you little hints here and there for the best action to take, but these are often actions that are dictated by fundamental strategy. Occasionally, you can get really obvious signs from some players that dictate a very specific course of action, but you shouldn’t try too hard to look for those spots. Those are spots that will come to you naturally, the more comfortable you get with tells.