How to Read Basic Poker Tells

Read Your Opponents and Improve Your Game

Friends playing at poker at Casino
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One of the key skills most good poker players have is the ability to read their opponents at the table. That is why you hear so much about “poker tells.” A “tell” is any physical reaction, behavior, or habit that gives (or tells) the other players information about your hand. If you learn the most common tells, you can not only watch your own behavior to make sure your body language isn’t telling all your secrets but also watch for the habits and tics in the poker players you’re at the table with. If you can accurately read your opponent’s tells, you’ll make the right decisions against them more often and win more money.

Everyone has their own unique set of tells, and it’s great to watch individuals and pick up on their unique tells. Luckily, there are also a few involuntary and common tells that you can watch for even the first time you sit down with someone. As a general rule, remember that when a player acts strong, he’s probably weak, and when a player acts weak, he's probably got a really strong hand.

Poker Tells that Say "I Have a Good Hand!"

  • Acting Uninterested in a Hand While Still in It: This is usually a sign of a strong hand. The player is pretending that he’s not excited about his cards – but he is.
  • Shaking Hands: During a hand, if you notice a player’s hands are shaking as she places her bet, she has probably gotten a really, really good hand. 
  • Rapid Breathing: Some players can control the shakes, but it's harder to control the automatic heart-racing that comes when you see pocket aces or hit the flop really hard. If you can see a player's chest visibly rising and falling, they have an excellent hand.
  • Sighing and Shrugging: If a player makes a show of sighing or shrugging and says things like “Oh, I guess I’ll call,” or even “Why am I calling?” he is probably overacting and trying to hide a big hand.
  • Glancing at Chips After Looking at Hole Cards: When a player looks down and sees strong hole or pocket cards, she may glance over at her chips to see just how much she can bet.

Poker Tells that Say "I Have a Weak Hand!"

  • Staring Down Other Players: If an opponent is staring you down, he’s trying to represent strength. Usually, though, he has a weak hand – he might have something, but it’s something that can be beaten or drawn out on.
  • Holding Breath: Often, inexperienced players will hold their breath if they are bluffing.

Poker Tells that Say "I Have a Drawing Hand."

  • Checking Hole Cards After a Flop: If the flop shows the possibility of giving someone a flush or straight draw, watch for people re-checking their hole cards. They’re checking to see if they have a piece of it – whether that black Ace was a spade or a club. The player doesn’t have the flush or straight at that point, because if they did, they wouldn’t have to check, but she is seeing if she has a draw to it.
  • Taking a Long Time Before Calling a Bet: If a player looks into the pot and seems to be doing some calculating in his head, he probably is. He’s most likely figuring out the pot odds to see if it’s worth it to try and catch the cards he needs to complete his drawing hand.​

A final note: more experienced players may give off false tells, so the first thing to read about other players is if they’re novices or pros.