Learning to read poker tells

December 18, 2012, Chris  

One question I’ve been asked repeatedly since writing 200 Poker Tells is, “How do I get to where I can read others like a pro?”

When I entered the FBI, I thought I was a fairly good observer. I had been studying body language for several years and thought what more could there be? Well, a lot, so much so that I’m still learning. I honed my observation skills and looked for things I’d never imagined, such as how often a suspect looks at his watch (something about to happen) or what’s his blink rate (nervousness). These cues gave me insight into these individuals and their actions.

We can always improve our observation skills; there’s always more to observe; it’s a continuing endeavor and it never stops because we can never know everything there is to know about body language or tells. The best we can do is study them and validate them every chance we get.

We can study them by brute observation or we can learn from the experiences of others. But no matter how we learn the information, we have to master that information and retain it, and that’s the key. Because like anything else, observing and decoding others is a perishable skill. If we forget what we learned, we can misinterpret the behaviors, and in poker, I don’t have to tell you, that can cost a lot.

So let’s cut to the chase: Get yourself all of the books you can muster. Mike Caro’s books are great; my books and any other book you think will help, including my past articles in Ante Up.

Once you have explored what behaviors are most prominent, prioritize them. Learn the behaviors that stand out as far as showing strength, weakness, doubt, etc.

Remember that in poker you will see behaviors that show: strength and commitment; behaviors indicative of being dubious or marginal; or behaviors indicative of weakness and doubt. Additionally there are behaviors that indicate intentions that are positive (reaching for chips on the flop) or that indicate you’re going to fold eventually (card shuttle: card held between thumb and middle finger and moved side to side over and over).
So now you have read the books and made a list of the behaviors. … Make a list? Yes, if you want to remember the information, read it and write it down again. Now you will begin to reinforce your knowledge. If you’re lazy and don’t want to write it down use 200 Poker Tells on Kindle, which you can scroll through during the game on your phone.

The next step is to go out and validate those behaviors. Off to the poker tables? Not so fast. Players make the same mistakes over and over. They wait to get to the poker room to observe tells. Here’s a secret: Most tells indicative of confidence, comfort, discomfort, dislike, etc. you will see in everyday life, as well as the poker room. We don’t have work and home tells and then poker tells. They’re primarily the same. When you show displeasure at the airport over a missed flight you don’t have a second set of behaviors for the poker room. You’ll most likely use the same when you miss a flush on the turn.

True, in the poker room you see unique behaviors associated with betting, position, with how cards are touched or chips are handled, but everything else you can begin to validate outside the poker room.
The advantage to learning to observe outside the poker room is you learn to pick up on tells quickly so later you don’t have to think about them while playing.

I often see players take their time trying to decipher a behavior. This is where practice makes perfect. When a woman ventilates the back of the neck, you know there’s something negative, in the same way as when a man compresses his lips and lifts up on his shirt buttons (ventilating because they’re marginal or weak). Slowly you learn to observe without staring or being intrusive. By validating these behaviors day in and day out, they come to you effortlessly when you need them the most, at the poker table.

Every minute at the table should be dedicated to collecting information (intelligence) about opponents. It begins the minute you first join the table. Collect information as to how experienced they are, how they sit, how they react, how much territory they claim on the felt, what behaviors they repeat, what do they do to deal with stress, etc. Slowly you build up an intelligence base on each player to help guide you.

If I came to you after a game and asked, “What were the tells of the person in Seat 4?” what would you say? If you don’t know, start writing out checks ahead of time so it won’t delay the game. You have to know. The answer should be “He sits up when interested; he leans forward slightly when he’s marginal to good; his hands fall flat on the cards when he has rags or they arch when he’s strong; he bites his lip when he’s concerned; his lips become full when content or strong, and he looks about more when he has a good hand.”

Ideally you want to read everyone at the table from head to toe, without doubt or hesitation. It can be done, but it won’t happen overnight. It will take time and effort. I’ve talked to a lot of bracelet-winners in the past seven years. There’s one thing I’ve learned from all of them: They did not get there without being able to read others. That’s the reward of applying yourself and observing others.

— Joe Navarro is a former FBI agent and author of What Every Body is Saying and 200 Poker Tells. Follow him on Twitter at @navarrotells.