Liars are everywhere. But nowhere are they more prevalent than at the poker table. You can master the game and learn all the tips and tricks you want, but being able to spot a bluff or a player’s strength is one of the greatest skills of a good poker player. In fact, it’s a skill that can translate to other areas of your life as well.
In poker, the ability to read an opponent at the table is a huge advantage. It’s called a “tell” – a detectable physical reaction or change in behavior or demeanor that gives (or tells) the other players information about your hand.
I recently interviewed a group of the best poker players in the world for a book called Poker Wizards and all these great players believe that observing your opponents actions is a critical poker strategy.
Many of the best “tells” are apparent in the way people bet not just the way people move. The relative amount of chips the bet in various situations are called ‘betting patterns’ but learning the most common physical tells can also give you a lot of valuable information. To do so, it is very important to constantly watch the players you’re at the table with, as well as monitor your own behavior to make sure you’re not giving anything away. When people are bluffing, in poker and in most other situations, unless they’re sociopaths, they feel some level of discomfort. Normally, when they have a good hand they are more confident. It’s your job to sense that discomfort or confidence.
Physically, there are many ways for those feelings to manifest themselves and if you’re vigilant and observant, you can spot many signs. The first place to look for signs of discomfort is a person’s face. Start at the forehead and scan down, looking for clues which are new and contrary to their normal behavior.
Facial Clues 1. Forehead furrowed or sweaty 2. Pupil dilation 3. Eyes closed or looking up and to the left or right 4. Rapid eye movement 5. Nostril flare 6. Tight lips 7. Smile 8. Wetting lips, swallowing or gulping Next, take a look at the person’s hands and body. There are several clues to be found there.
Hand Clues 1) Hands covering or touching the face 2) Rubbing eyes 3) Steepling of fingers 4) Touching hair 5) Tugging at clothes
Voice/Speech Clues 1) Someone who is usually talkative or suddenly quiet 2) Change in speech patterns i.e. speaking more softly or faster than usual 3) Pitch is higher than normal 3) Speaking more forcefully 4) Crackling 5) Verbal or non-verbal sighs
In general, the key to spotting a liar is being observant and noticing changes in their behavior or body language. In poker it involves watching the players even when you’re not involved in the hand.
Poker Tip: Some more experienced players will try to fake you out and misguide you by purposely displaying unusual behavior. Luckily, actors are often easy to spot. Then there’s another group of people who exhibit all the signs of discomfort but it’s not because they’re lying, it’s because they’ve got a great hand! Only prior observation will give you the key to that riddle.
The Poker Face While some people believe you need to have a poker face to be good at the game that really isn’t the case. You can make all the strange faces you want, as long as you’re consistent in doing so. Daniel Negreanu firmly believes in following hints a person gives you that often have nothing to do with physical tells, but more about their general personality, job and comments they make at the table. Use all your senses and follow your gut. When everything else is equal, listen to that voice inside your own head, it’s usually right because it is based on thousands of hands of prior experience that your conscious self has forgotten.
Even though it is a great poker strategy to look for specific tells, the point you really have to remember is that very few tells apply to everybody. One of the many things that Marc Salem taught me when writing Poker Wizards was that:
For one person, leaning forward may mean strength, for the next guy it may mean that he is weak and is just trying to look strong. The best way to get the key to understanding tells, is to be super observant at the table.