Be aware of tells in yourself; be aware of tells in others.
The order in which these two points are expressed is no accident. I have always been of the opinion that the first place to go to learn about tells is not your fellow player at the table, but rather yourself. poker lore dictates that if you've never before given thought to tells, then you're probably full of them. Any good book on interview skills warns you against such physical slights. The first thing you have to do is be aware of them. There is clearly only one exercise in observing and preventing this kind of activity. Aside from your friends filling you in on your own tells, the only way to track them is to pay attention to them.
In getting you started, I'll run you through my own experience with tell-finding. First, I bite my nails. This is a habit I've never even tried to stop; I will always bite my nails. As far as I can tell, I bite them most when I'm anxious or bored. At the poker table, I consciously stop myself whenever the urge strikes me to go to town on my fingertips. Second, I used to smoke cigarettes regularly; now, I smoke casually, which is probably worse. The urge to light up a cigarette is trigerred by different things in different people. As a casual smoker, I tend to light up again when I'm anxious or bored.
At the poker table, I consciously time my cigarettes at approximately one hour between them; with that kind of consistent frequency, it gives nothing away of my game. Third, when looking at my hand for the first time in a game, I sometimes pick up the cards, look at them, and hold onto them; other times, I pick them up, look at them, and drop them right to the table. Unlike a nervous habit like nail-biting or cigarette-smoking, it is hard to target what triggers card-holding versus cards-down. Quite frankly, I've just as soon decided that it does not matter. In games with two hole cards (ie. Hold 'Em), I have trained myself to look at them once and put them down every time. In games with more than two hole cards (except for Stud), I have trained myself to keep the cards in my hand throughout my whole tenour in the game every time. What we have here is an intraspection into my own unconscious physical tendencies, slights, habits, and twitches at the poker table. Each one of them is triggered by either one situation or another. There is nothing to suggest that one twitch means I have a good hand, and the other means I am bluffing. In fact, it is quite possible that none of these tendencies give anything away of my actual hand. The point is that it does not matter. These are unconscious physical tendencies that should be reigned into consistent action regardless of the hand I am holding. Now, I don't bite my nails at the poker table.
Now, I smoke cigarettes in timed intervals. Now, I always hold my cards in some games, and never hold my cards in others. There is another school of thought that talks of purposely using assumed tells to mislead players as to your true hand. Such a tactic might involve biting your nails while playing a purposely ill-played and inexpensive bluff to showdown, so that the table thinks you bite your nails when you bluff. Advertising, as it is called to mislead players this way, is a subject that will be discussed at length later. The next step in your quest to use tell-smarts at the poker table is obviously to switch taking note from yourself to taking note of others. The problems with this are obvious. How are you supposed to keep staring at people -even at the poker table- without making some people angry? What classifies as a tell as opposed to a player's once-in-awhile twitch? How do you keep an eye on everybody at the table? Who do you watch? These are all valid questions.
If poker was played for nothing but fun like cribbage, then ideally, we would all just sit around and play our hands honest. But when there's money on the line and deception is an important part of the game, you need to be aware of tells in other players, and you need tact in noticing them for later reference. There are a number of ways of going about this.
Here's one. From hand to hand, take note of the players involved in the action. There should only be two or three of them in any given hand, but the players who are involved in betting are players obviously holding a strong hand or else, bluffing.
Logically, these are also the players most likely to play their hand until showdown, at which point you will be able to see what they were holding, even if you'd previously folded out of the hand. While looking for tells, you are able to associate a potential tell with that player's hand at showdown (either as a bluff or a legitimately strong hand). Because only a few players are ever involved in any real action, there are not too many for you to have to watch.
So, you know what few people you need to watch from hand to hand. You also know what to look for at showdown, be it a bluff or a strong hand. But, what are you specifically looking for in these players? This is the part that makes abstract and vague any discussion on tells. It is hard to say exactly what to look for.
A tell is involuntary, so it could be as minute as bottom-lip-biting or as obvious as a sweaty forehead or shaky hand. It could be anything in-between, if nails are bitten, how a cigarette is smoked, if cards are held sometimes and put down others. A tell could be anything...body language of any kind. If you think you've spotted a tell, take note of what that player has at showdown, which costs you no money, as we've discussed. If you think you've made a connection, put it to the test the next time that player is involved in any action. The rare repeat of tells connected to a hand of specific strength just might be the winner you are looking for. Be forewarned however that the skilled poker player has no to few tells. True enough though, anybody can slip up and forget to watch themselves. This brings up the point of one-time tells. Even trickier than repeat tells is the possibility that a player can do something once (and if a skilled player, probably only once) that helps identify that player's hand. A widening smile on any player's face would tend to suggest a bluff in a skilled player or a strong hand in an unskilled player. A long pause from any player would suggest mixed feelings towards one's hand, or hesitation to play out a mediocre hand. Any player who is overanxious is showing far too much interest, and is likely bluffing or holding a monster.
There is even an off-chance that your self-search of tells will help identify possible tells in others. Once you have corrected them in yourself, and once you have begun to seek them out and use them against others, you are making use of the home game's most underrated weapon in card-reading, player-reading, and situation-reading.
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