How Poker Tells Are Established
Where do tells come from?
If we are striving to use nonverbal behavior in our game it’s not something that’s just “worth exploring,” it’s a necessity to understand how poker tells are established. We can’t use the full power of nonverbal information unless we are able to understand where that information actually comes from. I am going to be using the terms Poker Tells and Behavioral Information quite often so if you haven’t already I strongly recommend you watch the video where I distinguish the two before continuing.
Before discussing the various reasons for changes in nonverbal information at the table, understand that the majority of movement at the table means absolutely nothing. A great big data quote says that 90% of data is useless, you just need to find out what’s the 90%. There are multiple reasons for changes in behavior at the poker table and the majority of them have nothing to do with the actual game.
The framework for explaining how tells and behavioral information are established will force us to simplify human behavior at the table. Movement is created by so many different forces, both internal and external, that it would take us forever to go through them all in depth. To make movement practical for our purposes, we need to simplify it. Useful behavioral information and poker tells are a result of 3 things: a thought process, emotions, and habits. You shouldn’t think of these things as mutually exclusive, they should be viewed like a venn diagram constantly working together and influencing one another.
Poker is a game of thoughts. Poker will always require thinking, but what makes the game so interesting is that the amount of thinking a player actually does greatly varies from player to player. A beginning player may be dedicating a lot of thought towards looking around the table and figuring out when it’s his turn to act. A more advanced player may be replaying the entire hand in his head trying to determine if his opponent is bluffing. Many players openly share their actual thought processes via behavior, which can create very important pieces of behavioral information and establish very reliable tells.
For example: sometimes players will dedicate more effort towards determining bet size before they bluff than they do when they have a strong hand. This creates a pattern that makes time and style of bet a reliable indicator of information.
Emotional displays are at every poker table. Some real, some fake, some leaked, some hidden, some mean absolutely nothing and some mean everything. Displays of emotions can be relatively easy to identify but at times very difficult to actually interpret. A player can display indications of anxiety but those don’t have to be associated with actual hand strength. Perception really disrupts the reliability of emotional displays at the poker table. For example, a new player can perceive A9 offsuit to be a very strong hand and display emotions associated with that, however, you aren’t immediately privy to that information. This is one of the core reasons why behaviors that are a result of thoughts or habits tend to be more reliable than emotional displays.
Finally, it’s important to note that emotions aren’t always the tell. The concealment strategy a player utilizes to conceal his behavior, or a similar sort of coping mechanism, is often the real tell. Let’s say a player stays super still when bluffing and only moderately still when he has a very good hand. He is attempting to use a strategy to conceal emotion but he is unaware that the strategy he uses and the effort he applies creates a reliable pattern.
Humans are habitual in nature and there isn’t a better place to see this than at a poker table. For example: placing a chip on your cards to protect them. Players will say, “I do this every hand this isn’t a tell.” Sure, but when you have a strong hand you do it much quicker and when you have a really strong hand you tend to forget altogether. Or the simple shuffling of a card, which is creating patterns that can be identified with relative ease over time. If you have been playing poker for awhile you are bound to have habits. Little things you do that you don’t even realize you are doing.
How These Three Things Intertwine
A player has a habit of always putting a chip on his cards after checking them. He says he always does this but doesn’t realize that certain emotions and thoughts change the way he does it. He may check his cards and see a speculative hand, contemplate a little bit, and then drop his chip on his cards carelessly.
Or he’s been card dead for the past hour and now he checks his cards and sees aces. He is momentarily excited but he conceals it really well. He isn’t smiling, doesn’t lean in, does nothing obvious, but because he is temporarily excited he doesn’t put a chip on his cards after checking them and ends up doing it much later than usual, and this time he very carefully places the chip on his cards to protect the aces.
In another situation, a very experienced and talented professional poker player who is really good at standardizing behavior and being relatively stoic doesn’t realize that his tell is actually created through emotional regulation and displayed via his blink rate. Changes in blink rate can be correlated with a lot of things but for this player a low blink rate means he is bluffing and a normal blink rate is an indication of a very strong hand. The reason for this discrepancy is that when he’s bluffing he dedicates more cognitive effort to reducing his overall behavior. This increase creates a reduction in blink rate. He regulates emotions using thoughts, which creates a very reliable pattern.
Beyond Tells showed that the number of ways these three facets of human behavior can create information at the table is truly incalculable. The tricky thing is separating what’s noise from what’s useful information. Think about your own game and the patterns and information you might be giving off at the table. If you want to learn how to identify and prevent these, check out our free 3 part training series.