An Introduction to Poker Tells and Behavioral Information
The name of this company is Beyond Tells. We call it Beyond Tells because we are making advancements in the identification of poker tells in addition to expanding people’s capacity for interpreting and understanding behavioral information at the table. Throughout the content that discusses poker on this site, we use two specific terms: Behavioral Information and Poker Tells.
In order to improve our capacity for reading human behavior, we need to define the ways we describe that behavior. At the very foundation of this language is the distinction between what is known as behavioral information, and a poker tell. These two concepts are entirely different things. The more you understand the distinction, the better it can help you establish your reads so you can play significantly better poker.
Let’s define a “poker tell.”
A poker tell is a behavior that is correlated with a specific piece of information. This information can pertain to the quality of a player’s hand, the emotions a player tends to experience during a particular action, or even the coping mechanism a player uses to hide his behavior.
For example: One of our study participants was dealt 111 hands during his recorded session. He played 36 of them, making his VPIP 32.4%. Out of the hands he played, he placed a chip on his cards after checking them 36% of time. This happens to be one of his tells. In fact, if this player places a chip on his cards after checking them, 92.3% of the time he has a marginal hand.
Now we are starting to dive into the real world of tells, but even the statements in our example can present problems we need to examine.
First, a player “places a chip,” is a very subjective description of the behavior.
My definition of “place” is just to put the chip on top of the cards. This description makes no reference to the speed or style of the action. This is why it is so difficult to learn to read human behavior via words, articles, book, etc. When it comes to learning, it is difficult to operationally define or articulate behaviors through language. People are generally terrible at articulating behavior. They say “tossed” without understanding that there are many different ways you can toss chips.
In the example we state that when the chip placing behavior is present, the player has a marginal hand 92.3% of the time. It’s 92.3% because if you use the term “place” as we define it, there is one hand where he places his a chip on his cards with Jacks. However, there is a remarkable difference in the placement’s speed and style. He places a chip on his cards very deliberately and neatly when he has Jacks.
This is a perfect example of how the way we describe behavior can significantly alter our reads. There is a noticeable difference between the way he places a chip on his cards when he has JACKS versus when he has AIR. Without using the proper descriptive language we lose a lot of vital information.
The second problem with the statement in the example is that we say his hand is “marginal” when the behavior is present. Would this be a hand that he perceives to be marginal or one that is mathematically marginal? There is a huge difference. If we want to find out if it’s actually marginal, we have to distribute all the hands he plays, and determine what is strong, marginal, and weak based on the sheer performance of the hand. If we want to consider what he perceives to be marginal, we have to take a look at the actions that correlate with his hands. For example, limping can indicate he thinks a hand is marginal, however, we all know that you can perceive a hand to be strong but still only call.
The third problem with the statement is that it’s missing a lot of information. How fast did he place the chip on his cards? What was the apex timing of his initial card check? Was there any facial movement as a result of checking his cards? And on and on. We left out a lot of data.
There is a quote that says, “In a game of poker, I can put a player’s soul in my pocket.” What we are doing is the literal behavioral definition of putting someone’s soul in our pocket. This is a behavioral breakdown expressed via conditions, and when applied and merged together with the actual information at the table, you can create amazing reads.
Everything we show you is real and valid data. The analysis for one player took ±60 hours to complete. It looks cool, it is very accurate. But this is research NOT poker. When we are at the table, we are striving to make statements rich with observations and context that allow us to make better decisions. When it comes to talking about tells we don’t need to articulate every single thing seen but we definitely need move away from statements like, “Strong means weak and weak means strong.”
We should be striving to create statements like, “He usually puts a chip on his cards to protect them when calling, but this time he did so very quickly and seemed to press the chip down on his cards. His card apex was also much quicker than normal. He seems to be looking around the table more than usual. Combined with the fact that he raised 2x when he normally raises 3x, leads me to believe that he is definitely stronger than 77. I see no value in calling due to stack size, so I am going to fold.”
What we just described is a practical way of expressing tells at the table and is something every single player can do by approaching the identification of tells in a systematic and ordered fashion.
It’s my belief that every single player has a some sort of tell, some tells just take longer than others to identify. Tells can be found in many places on the human body, it’s just a matter of time before you hone in on the right place to look.
Behavioral information is simply information that is deduced from observing a player’s behavior. Let me explain further with a straightforward example:
You are playing against an opponent and notice his eyes. He isn’t looking around actively at what's going on at the table. This player’s gaze direction is a reflection of a player who is not very table-aware. He is probably only concerned with the value of his own cards and isn’t thinking at a high level or along multiple streets. You might ask, “What if he just isn’t aware in this particular hand?” You watch him during other hands and see that his gaze direction is the same preflop almost every time.
This is a very simple example of behavioral information at the table. Because of this piece of information, we know we can’t make make statements like, “He probably knows that I never 3bet, so he is likely to fold when I reraise him.” He’s not paying attention to what we do.
The problem with behavioral information at the table is not that people aren’t aware of it, it’s that they don’t factor it into their decision making process. Behavioral information, specifically the order of a player’s gaze direction, is a window into a player’s decision making process. What we described above is a very uncomplicated example of how you can apply behavioral information. At the table behavioral information can help you identify who to bluff and when. It can help you optimize your bet size to ensure you are extracting maximum value.
In fact, being aware of your own behavioral information can even help increase your own performance at the table.
What’s more valuable, a poker tell or behavioral information? There’s no easy answer to that question. At times you won’t be able to identify a specific tell but a player will be displaying volumes of behavioral information that you can use to establish a significant edge. The best players should be making decisions that are grounded in the context and action of the game, overlayed with behavioral information and the identification and utilization of poker tells. The combination of these worlds (strategic and behavioral) creates deadly players who can hedge risk by establishing edges that use these multiple threads of information, allowing them to make significantly better informed decisions at the poker table.