10 Oct

Reading Poker Tells 101: Physical Behavior

The easiest poker tells to read and what they represent.

Daniel Negreanu Impenetrable Poker Face: The easiest poker tells to read and what they represent.

See that picture on the right? That’s Daniel Negreanu, the world famous Canadian poker pro. He’s known for a lot of things, like being the second-highest cashing live tournament player of all time. He’s also one of the best tell-readers ever to exist, and a near-impossible player to read. Look closely at that face. That impenetrable poker face. That is his constant expression at the table. It rarely changes. This is the face all other poker players strive to mimic, giving away nothing.

As Negreanu knows full well, poker tells are a wonderful thing—at least, for the more experience players who know how to read them. For inexperienced players who don’t know how to hide them, or aren’t even aware that their giving away all this information, they are the worst thing since taxes.

There are two main types of poker tells you can pick up on; physical tells and betting patterns. Today, we’ll talk about physical tells, as they are the easiest to read. If you’re developing your skills, look out for these. If you’re doing these things, stop!

See also Reading Poker Tells 101: Betting Patterns

What Are Physical Poker Tells?

A “tell” is something that gives other poker players intel, or insight, into a player’s poker hand. Physical tells are observable in a player’s attitude and body language. They can be observed in a player’s reaction—or lack of reaction—to different situations.

You might think poker tells would evolve over time, just as poker strategies continually evolve, but that’s not the case. Tells are not something players do intentionally. They are unconscious reactions that go unchecked by less experienced players. Thus, you can rely on these behaviorisms as tell-tale signs of Strength (good hand), Weakness (bad hand) and/or Uncertainty (hand with potential that needs improvement; often a draw hand).

Unfortunately, not every player whose eyebrow twitches has a strong hand. It could mean they have the nuts, that they’re one card from a Royal Flush, or that they’re flat out bluffing. This is the part that makes poker tells so difficult to read. Each player has their own reactions to different situations. As observant players, we have to play “pin the tell on the donkey”, pairing specific tells with specific players.

Once you know the guy on your left throws chips in the pot and keeps his hands close to them on a bluff, you can call that bluff every time. Assume the guy on your right is bluffing on the same action, and you could lose your shirt.

Keen observation and memorization are the key to success here. Who does what and when?

Physical Poker Tells and What They (Usually) Mean

There are a lot of easy to read poker tells you should be watching out for (or making sure not to commit). Again, what they mean can vary from one player to the next, but we’ll provide the most common connotations for reference.

Strong Hand Poker Tells Weak Hand Poker Tells
  • Quickening of speech
  • Stops blinking
  • Hands tremble; plays with chips
  • Any facial muscles twitching, especially cheeks
  • Rise in blood pressure; reddening of face, pulsing vein in forehead or neck
  • Pupils dilate (get larger)
  • Deeper / more rapid breathing
  • Lack of patience; tapping foot or fingers
  • Sits back, suddenly becoming relaxed
  • Sits up, suddenly becoming attentive
  • Wide, relaxed smile
  • Full relaxed lips; effort not to move lips
  • Any part of body rising higher than normal (eyebrows, hands, arms, shoulders, head, nose)
  • Hands moving closer to the pot, middle of table
  • Glancing at own or others chips, counting to determining their next bet
  • Staring at community cards, then a quick glance at other players out of corner of eye
  • Staring at community cards, then glancing intently at other players
  • Feigning distraction, looking at something elsewhere in the room, then betting the moment it’s their turn
  • More protective of hole cards than normal
  • Feigning weakness (slouch, shrug, sigh), only to call or raise (classic reverse psychology!)
  • More rapidly chewing gum, toothpick; grinding teeth
  • Speech slow, forced, cracks, higher pitch or otherwise unnatural
  • Staring at betting opponent
  • Holding breath
  • No movement, stiff
  • Checks hole cards again after flop
  • Bets chips with force
  • Reaching for or grabbing chips, as if to bet immediately if an opponent bets first
  • Starts breathing through mouth
  • Squints, blinks or rolls eyes
  • Covers eyes
  • Lips get smaller, tensed, upper lip stiff
  • Sticks out or licks lips
  • Bites lip
  • Tongue in cheek
  • Feigns smile
  • Hand(s) over mouth
  • Bites nails
  • Brings arms/hands closer to body
  • Audible inhale, then blank stare
  • Rubs body parts (hands, arms, legs, neck, chin, etc.)
  • Stops performing any of the nervous behavior in the first column (shaking, twitching, tapping, etc.)

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