Tells in poker part I: definition, types and practical examples

In poker, a "tell" is any clue that serves another player to obtain information about the state he is in because of his situation in the game. It is a non-verbal communication tool that somatizes a certain communicative behavior, which is a reflection of the state of his game, giving information to the player who observes it.

That is why defining tells in poker is so important: it involves analyzing those non-verbal cues that reflect a state of mind derived from an event related to the cards, helping to define correct strategies.

What are tells in poker? Everything you need to know

It is best to understand tells as pieces of a huge puzzle. You see, tells in poker are related to something bigger: the tell reflects a mood or behavior; it is derived from the state of the player, which is influenced by the play of the moment.

The more tells we have at our fingertips, the more information we can extract and the better we can x-ray the opponent. This helps us to define our strategy, avoid mistakes and base our plays on the study of the opponent.

But be careful, because tells are nothing more than indicators. Indicators that can be induced to provoke an erroneous reading in us. This is done a lot by high-level players who are experienced enough to use these tells to their advantage, cheating their opponents by giving them wrong information.

A false tell can be voluntary or involuntary. It is crucial to pay attention to the intensity and speed of the tells to define whether it may have been spontaneous or deliberate, and whether it may be genuine or false. To do this, it is vital to understand the context in which they occur. For example, a player who starts to spasm or twitch after seeing his cards may well have seen strong cards. But if these twitches occur after an all-in, then it is quite possible that we are dealing with a textbook bluff.

A popular resource for amateur players is to write down the tells they discover and study them later. This helps to analyses the games, to understand if a tell has been made on purpose or not and to study possible alternatives to our play.

Studying tells and having the ability to identify them without taking notes is acquired over time, with experience and with hours of training and analysis away from the tables. Only in this way will we be able to discover our opponents tells and keep our own hidden.

A tip for beginners: take advantage of hands that are not being played to observe. With these hands you can see without being seen, and the accumulated minutes will play in your favour, giving you the necessary background to analyze tells correctly and work on your own body language.

Biological basis of tells

Human reactions are often involuntary because they occur in response to external stimuli that we are unable to control or conceal. There is a biological explanation for this: the neurocortex, the area of the brain responsible for comprehension and memory, which allows the individual to manage memories, data, analyze environments and situations, and to understand rules, calculate probabilities and create strategies. But the limbic system also comes into play, which of the two has more weight in a game of probability and highly analytical like poker?

The neurocortex is in charge of managing reflex, unconscious reactions, while the limbic system is the one related to the more analytical part of the reactions. To make a good study of tells in poker it is essential to analyze whether the tell has been performed voluntarily or not, something that can be studied by trying to measure reaction times.

It is estimated that a voluntary action requires approximately one second between being processed and executed. In other words, a tell with a very short delay may indicate that we are being induced to make a wrong reading. Spontaneous tells, on the other hand, are genuine and appear almost instantly, which would give them more credibility.

Types of tells and examples

There are several ways of classifying tells, so we can accept this way of categorizing them:

  • Peaceful tells.
  • Intention tells.
  • Simulated tells.

Peaceful tells are gestures that are made, voluntarily or not, to calm down. They may be made because you have a good hand and want to hide it, or because you are bluffing and don't want to get caught.

Intention tells are tells that reflect intentionality, that express the intention to carry out an action. They give the game away and are the most dangerous to demonstrate.

Simulated tells are pretend tells, which are usually exaggerated and overplayed, unless they are made by a professional.

Pacifying tells

There are several types of tells depending on which part of the body expresses them. It should be understood that these tells are more intense the more stress the player is exposed to. A very common example of a pacifying gesture is stroking the neck, one of the most sensitive areas of the body capable of promoting a decrease in blood pressure. The main arteries of the body pass through it and it is a recurrent area to induce a state of relaxation.

The face is also the place where several pacifying gestures take place. For example, massaging the forehead, scratching the nose, stroking the beard or touching the face can be representative pacifying tells.

Watch out for other tells such as frequently turning a ring, smoothing your trousers or taking deep breaths: these are other pacifying tells that you should identify.

Intention tells

When a player is preparing to enter the game, they will usually express that intentionality with body gestures that you should be able to recognise.

For example, seeing the nostrils expand is an example of an intent tell. It denotes effort or intention. The same goes for moving your hands towards the center of the table.

Be very attentive to the approach of chips, cards or the player himself to the table. This is a symptom that he is preparing to enter the game. Have you noticed his hands - he tends to put them up and now his palms are down? Any such divergence can be a sign that the player is about to take action.

Simulated Tells

A simulated tell can be a showdown tell. We call conflicting tells those tells that are not clear, that cause us conflict in interpreting them, or that do not give clear information.

If you notice over-acting, unmistakable signs that the player is trying to make you notice their gesture in a blatant manner, or the repetition of the same tell throughout the round, you should be wary. Some tells are easy to spot, but when you're allowed to x-ray them like this, you're either dealing with a player who has no idea about poker, or they're trying to confuse you.

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