Spotting a Poker Tell







How to spot your opponents poker tell with this free advice and tips to help you observe them


Master the art of reading people and poker will be as easy as taking chips from a baby with the help of this free article.


As well as earning the distinction of being the best no-limit player ever, Stu ’The Kid‘ Ungar was probably the best reader of others. One example of his phenomenal ability came from a heads-up match with 1990 world champ Mansour Matloubi. After Mansour went all-in on the river for tens of thousands of dollars, Stu Ungar looked at him hard. He quickly called, but before he did he named Mansour‘s hand exactly – a busted straight draw. Mansour was just getting over this when he looked down and saw what Stuey had called with – his hole cards were 10-9 giving him just 10-high. He not only called the hand but with cards that could only beat a total bluff. Mansour Matloubi – former world champion – got up from the table and said he would never play heads-up with Stu Ungar again.

Ungar had what every player dreams of – an almost supernatural ability to know what others are holding. The ability to read others cards based on information they don‘t mean to give you is the most exciting skill and gives you a buzz like nothing else at the table. The feeling you get when you make a call for all your chips and pick off a bluff. Or when you pick up on weakness, push your stack in with 8-3 and watch your opponent fold his winning hand. It‘s unalloyed pleasure – and the only place you can get this buzz is playing live.






Online poker is great and has changed poker forever and for the better. But if you want to be the real deal, live is where it‘s at. You haven‘t passed the real test this game has to offer until you‘ve sat down with the pros and been stared in the eye by someone who‘s forgotten more about it than you‘ll ever know. It‘s like he‘s looking right through you – you feel naked, vulnerable, tiny – like the end to a bad date. And that‘s when it all falls apart.

Your mouth is dry, you are shaking and your heart is pounding at a thousand miles an hour. You don‘t know where to look as his eyes bore through you; and at that point you might as well have your hand tattooed on your forehead. You have become a mass of tells.


A tell in poker is – literally – something that ’tells‘ your opponents information about your hand. It could be the way you stack your chips, the size of your bets, the speed of your pulse, a scratch of the nose, the tone of your voice and on and on. But before you become petrified and swear never to sit down in a live game again, don‘t worry, your ability to spot tells and to stop giving them out will improve – starting here. In fact it can become something that makes a serious contribution to your profits. Remember, as TJ Cloutier says, ’Every poker player has tells, even the great ones.‘


The fundamental rule of tells is this – people will act strong when they‘re weak and weak when they‘re strong. It‘s that simple. Of course, not all tells are an act – some are just a natural reflection of your personality. For example, if someone stacks their chips neatly in value order it‘s likely they play a very conservative game... and work in accountancy. If their chips are all over the place they‘re more likely to play in a wild care-free fashion and their chips may not be theirs for very long. Occasionally they will represent the opposite to the truth. Double bluffs – or reverse tells – do exist but only at the higher levels. For now all you need to know is that strong means weak and vice versa. So if someone bangs his chips down and stares at you he probably doesn‘t have too much. However, if he‘s talking easily and doesn‘t seem to be taking too much notice of the game then get ready for him to raise your bet.




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But while tells are a very important part of reading someone‘s cards, you should be careful not to take a tell as too universal. It‘s true that sometimes people have a specific tell that gives them away but this is rare. For example, in the movie Rounders Teddy KGB – played by Russian impersonator John Malkovich – eats an Oreo cookie a different way based on whether his is strong or weak. This is rubbish – he‘s supposedly one of the most feared players on the New York circuit yet no-one‘s spotted this. The point is you should look at tells as a piece of information that should be seen in the context of their play of that hand and all other game variables. For example, if you‘re unsure what a bet means and are 50-50 on calling based on factors like pot odds, but your opponent has stopped playing with his chips and is staring straight at you with a tense mouth, then you really need to get your chips in there!


Spotting tells and reading should be something you work hard to improve. It‘s impossible to spot a tell unless you‘re observing those you‘re playing with and constantly learning their habits and mannerisms. This means when you fold you keep your head in the game and watch the action that follows. It means not spending that time thinking about your work meeting tomorrow. Watch the game and try to make an educated guess what those involved are holding so when you‘re in with them you have information you can use. This is a great habit to get into and will make you a much better player.

When determining tells, trusting your instincts is extremely important. Your ’feelings‘ about a situation are not spooky or mystical but based on your hours of play at the table and years of people-watching away from the table. All this accumulated experience feeds back to you in the moment you face a difficult decision so try and go with it – you‘ll be amazed how often it‘s right.

Practise reading tells, trust your instincts and one day you‘ll know what they are going to do before they do it. And maybe one day someone will swear never to play heads-up with you again.


A tell is any habit, physical reaction or behaviour that gives others more information about a poker hand. As in most facets of life, holding information or additional knowledge can only put you in a stronger position, and this is the case in poker too.

Is it possible that users on the internet can also display ‘tells?’ Okay, you won’t be able to see any outward physical signs such as trembling, flexing muscles, pupil dilation or the vein in the top side of your opponent’s head throbbing, but yes, it is possible to derive information by observing the way other people play online.

This list of internet poker tells will help you detect weakness or strength. One word of warning here, exercise caution, just as in live games experienced players may well vary their actions and give out false tells to fool. Additionally other factors may also be involved, for example, if someone has been disconnected several times during the game, his slow betting is merely a sign of a bad connection. Similarly, many operate on more than one table at a time, don’t read too much into his betting speed, because this is influenced by the demands of his other tables.

Observation allied to sound tactics is the key to success, studying your opponents, spotting their patterns and or styles of play. A good player will always mix his style to confuse others and this is what you should also strive to do.

Fortunately there are plenty of poor players online to take advantage of and these people make many of the mistakes highlighted below.


Every online room has a set number of seconds that each has to respond before he has to make a check, bet or raise or else they are folded. However, often, the speed of play can be a good ”tell.” Typically, a quick bet is a sign of weakness, and a delayed action is a sign of strength, as he is calculating his strategy with what he perceives to be huge. Watch how much time it takes the others to make their action, and mentally make a note of it. If you get a chance to see their cards at showdown, see if you can determine what they ”slow bet” with and what they ”fast bet” with.


As a general rule, if someone pauses a long time, then bets, that still means he probably has a good hand and is trying to figure out his play. If, however, he pauses for a long time and just checks, it usually means his is mediocre at best.


Most online rooms have little boxes you can check for quick play. As a general rule, you shouldn’t use these. They give too much information away.

Someone who pre-selects the check button probably has a weak one; if he selects the call any bet button, most likely he has a good hand; and if he selects the raise pot button he is probably holding a monster.

Moreover, those who use pre-action buttons are most likely not paying attention to the game. They are either playing on multiple tables or doing something else on their computer. These will only bet if they have good hands, and are less likely to employ fancy tactics like bluffing or check-raising.


A quick check usually indicates a weak hand. If you are on the button and all the others before you checked quickly, you can probably take down the pot with a strong bet.

However, be very careful if he re-raises after checking quickly. In this situation, your opponent’s early quick check was probably an attempt to trap you into betting into his strong hand.


One who pauses a long time before checking is probably trying to give the impression he is thinking about making a bet and fooling others into exercising caution and checking as well. The “pause and check” person hopes the pause will convince others that he is holding a monster hand, and that he is taking his time to decide whether he should bet or check-raise. In reality, he usually has a drawing and is using the pause to get a free card.


One who thinks for a long time before betting usually has a monster. He hopes others will read the pause as weakness and bet into him.


Invariably there are those who sit at the table and chat. Often it can be interesting to observe what is going on and revealing in terms of assessing what sort of person you are dealing with – getting a glimpse of that particular psyche.
These can fall into many different categories, a tilting player is easy to spot as they often tend to become abusive, sarcastic and basically insult everyone in attendance. If they are irritable and angry their judgement will be affected.

Some chatty people who suddenly go quiet may have flopped a good one.
Others will flat out tell you what cards he or she is holding, incredible as it sounds if the pot size is small, these are most likely telling the truth. The honest strategy is to candidly reveal his cards if the pot size is small.
There is often a know-it-all type who talks down to people. He or she will tell you the best strategy to employ. Humour this person into revealing his or her strategy.


When you sit down at a Hold’em table, you have the option of waiting for the big blind to get to you, or you can post a matching big blind and start playing immediately. If the person plays immediately he or she is demonstrating impatience and that is not a quality a good player lacks. Conversely if the newcomer does wait for the big blind they might be more disciplined or just cheap – find out which!


All it takes is several deals of play to get an initial read on an opponent. Many opponents will try to always see the flop, no matter how bad theirs is. If you’re playing against someone who’s always getting in to see the flop, you can count on the fact that many of his may not be very good...and a little pushing will usually nudge him out.


Some will mostly fold. This typically means they are patient, waiting for one of the top pre flops to play. If they end up betting into a round, watch out...they probably have a strong one and won’t be afraid to bully you with it.


Sometimes you’ll notice someone who loses all his money, frequently reloading his cash. This probably means he has some cash in the bank, but isn’t good enough to keep it! If you see someone who’s refilling the bank a lot it could be that they begin to chase their money as they lose money and go on the tilt.


One of the best things about playing online is that you can easily see how much the others at your table have in cash. If someone started playing with £30 and is now down to £8, the chances are they will either leave the table or just blow the remaining amount on an all in. If they’ve been seeing a lot of flops, raise them with a good one and try to get the rest. More often than not, you’ll be the one sending them packing.


Though most sites have prompts to save you making this mistake, some amateurs will fold instead of checking it, when the check would have been free. This is usually the sign of a poor player. However, a good one may fold instead of check on the river if he’s been bluffing and doesn’t want anyone to see his bluffing. This is also a good tell, since you’re getting a read on a good opponent’s bluff.


Finally, take a look at your opponents’ names. As a general rule, serious people use their real name, a clever alias or a non-descript alias for playing. Fish many times have silly names or “rude” names. Though this isn’t always the case, it’s a general rule that can many times give you a read on the maturity level of your opponent. However, as with every other rule listed above, study their play first before rushing to make a judgement.



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