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Poker Tell Training Tips

Beware of the shrug tell

Beware of the shrug tell

Some of the old guard laud the current generation of math heads who have all the probabilities of poker on lock-down. While an essential part of understanding the game, playing the odds correctly like a robot may be costly when you miss opportunities to “play the player”.

This is where finding tells can be invaluable.

Before I dove into the poker literature a decade ago, I read Book of Tells: How to Read People’s Minds from Their Actions by Peter Collett. It is a thorough examination of common tells and their social and biological origins.  Truly fascinating.

Although some common behavior portrays themselves as tells simply by chance (unattached to any intention), under certain circumstances Collet argues you can make reliable assumptions about the feelings and thoughts of other people through how they act. This is particularly the case when they are under duress.

Of course, Mike Caro is an authority on tells in poker. We have posted on him previously. Check that out for a refresher on specific tells you should be aware of.

This weeks post is not about any poker tell in particular. Rather, it is about how to get better at analyzing tells. Let’s dig in with 5 simple steps for finding tells.

1) Pick the right game

First, you are unlikely to find a lot of tell analysis from opponents at the lower stakes. Yet, you are more likely to see more obvious tells at these levels. Therefore, low stakes is a great place to work on reading people. This is not to say you won’t run into sophisticated opponents at your local 1/2 tables but you will run into a lot more beginners. Beginners will rarely consider the information they emit and put most of their energy into their owns cards. Put differently, you want to play in games where your opponents are thinking at Level 1 (What are my cards?) or Level 2 (What are your cards?). Level 3 players (What do you think I have?) are a considerable leap in difficulty.

2) Find your target

Once you are in a manageable game, concentrate your efforts on 1 player (2 if you feel comfortable). The bad, fishy players are a great place to start. Now, this does not mean ignoring the others. You can still be observant of others as you go. But by targeting one or two, you can keep your analysis clean and simple as you attempt to improve at reading people. Focusing on one player is important because tells vary across opponents more than they do within them.

3) Collect information

Without being a creeper, watch them when you are not in a hand. After all, there is a lot of down time between the action. Watch how they look at their hole cards and any reactions they give off. Watch them as the action comes around to them. Watch how they bet. Look for their idiosynchracies like twitches, itches, facial expressions, and the like. Most importantly, when they ever showdown, work backwards about how they acted throughout the hand they had. After all, you have all the information right there in front of you.

Use two simple questions as you do this:

  • What do they do when they are strong?
  • What do they do when they are weak?

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Sounds simple doesn’t it? However, it is very easy to observe our opponents like we are watching television. These two questions break the t.v. passivity. Having these questions in mind allows you to notice little things you wouldn’t otherwise.

4) Look for confirmation

Just because a player does something straight out of the Caro’s book does not mean you have them pegged. The key to tell analysis is patterns. I play with a friend who always (and I mean always) does the “oh well, why not?” shoulder shrug before pushing all-in when he holds the nuts. He had know idea about it until I pointed it out.

To identify patterns you need data from several similar hands. For example, when you notice that an opponent always ends up folding when he has his elbows on the table  you may have caught a pattern of weakness. When drawing, perhaps he always leans in to see the turn or river cards as they are dealt (keenly interested to see if the next card completed his hand).

5) It only takes one

The edge gained from noting tells does not necessarily come from reading each person perfectly (that would help though wouldn’t it?). That’s impossible unless your name is Daniel Negreanu. It just takes one to be able to exploit it.

And what about the others at the table? Consider this approach more about opening your mind than having a book on everyone. Training your mental game, which is what tell analysis is, in manageable little chunks like this creates habits. Soon enough, you will be able to pick up important tells on more than one player by refining your mental approach.

If you haven’t done this before, it just starts with a simple direction. Don’t be fooled, this simple direction takes energy and concentration. Otherwise, everyone would do it.

Kelly Doell, PhD is a mental performance consultant. He is always ready to speak to you about your mental game at www.KellyDoell.com


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