On any given Friday night hundreds of thousands of Americans—men and women alike—pile into basements, garages, and back rooms to play their weekly poker game. Though a love for poker cuts through all social and economic distinctions, these games have a number of recognizable similarities. At every table will be someone who talks too much, someone who can't seem to deal the cards properly, someone who always spills food on the felt, and a dependable loser—that poor slob who, for the life of him, can't seem to capitalize on his strong hands and can fool no one with his weak hands. Though he probably feels unlucky, cursed by the partisan poker gods, his lack of success has a more reasonable explanation: through some subtle, unconscious action—a smirk or a cough or a nervous little laugh—that guy's giving his cards away. He's got what is known in the poker vernacular as a "tell."
My close friend Steve and I spent the last week of August, 1984, at my grandmother's place in the Adirondack Mountains. Even at an awkward sixteen, Steve had a gift for finding women no matter where he was. He had a girlfriend at the time, to whom he was supposed to be faithful, but for as long as I've known him, his claims to monogamy have been suspect. On this summer trip he managed to conjure up a female companion from the limited population of Paul Smiths, New York, and to spend most of his six-day vacation with her. The night we got home, Steve and I met his girlfriend and some other friends at a restaurant. He walked up to the table and kissed her passionately. She looked him in the eye and said, "I can't believe you cheated on me again."
After the obligatory exchange of accusations and denials Steve finally confessed to his infidelity and groveled for forgiveness. A few hours later she accepted his apology, and they went on to another glorious three weeks of being together. After receiving absolution that night, Steve asked his girlfriend how she had figured out his indiscretion so quickly.
"Easy," she said. "First, you didn't look at me while you were walking over to the table. You were staring at the ground the whole time. Second, you kissed me like you were some porn star. And to top it all off, once I accused you of cheating on me, all you did was smile and blink." I looked over at Steve while she was saying this; sure enough, he was smiling and blinking like crazy. Steve had a tell.
Pop psychologists theorize that tells are unintended actions birthed in the subconscious. Most people are taught at an early age a number of rules that are meant to govern their actions throughout their lives. Parents, teachers, and the Bible preach to us that telling the truth is always better in the long run. That rigorous education settles into the subconscious and becomes the foundation for the character we display as we grow into adults. Tells are simply a result of conflict between the implanted notion of morality and our intention to deceive.
We give our little secrets away every day, even though we don't want to. Some say that only the guilty sleep well in jail. The theory goes that if a guilty man gets caught, he figures that he is where he belongs and might as well get some sleep. An innocent man tosses and turns, trying to think how to escape his undeserved peril.
We are riddled with these tics and twitches. They are everywhere and in everything we do. Those of us who have not been trained to deceive have a tendency to cover our mouths or avoid eye contact when telling lies. That's why I would never date an actress—while normal people are studying, say, the market economy of the original thirteen colonies, actors are learning how to look you dead in the eye and pass along an absolute fabrication.
Our innate desire to tell the truth is most counterproductive at the card table. Having a poker tell can be disastrous. When I was just learning the game, I bought an instructional video called Caro's Pro Poker Tells. I didn't get around to watching it until years later, the night after I was knocked out of the 2000 World Series of Poker. Caro described a tell in which a player, thinking about whether to call a bet, suddenly asks the dealer or another player how much he can raise. Caro's point was that anybody playing in a reasonably high-stakes game knows how much he can bump a bet. Somebody who takes a lot of time and then asks that question must be trying to seem stupid or desperate. When I read that, I thought Caro had to be making it up: no one is that dumb.
The next day I went to watch the final table of the tournament I'd just been knocked out of. When I arrived, only three players were left, all great talents. At one point Melissa Hayden bet, and Men Nguyen, a three-time champion, just sat there looking confused. After a while he looked at his cards and then asked an official how much he could raise. The guy told him, and Nguyen raised. Hayden called, and Nguyen turned over a full house, laughing as he collected the pot. I guess Hayden figured that even the great players have tells.
Overcoming a tell is as difficult as changing any other habitual aspect of your personality. I knew a cardplayer who videotaped his regular card game every week for a year. He would watch the tapes for hours and make notes about his mannerisms and reactions to keep his body language from giving away anything about his hand. He found that even after playing the game for thirty years, he still had about ten noticeable tells.
I asked him if he thought that any of them were obvious enough for other players to notice. He said, "I don't know—you tell me. I smile when I have good cards and pout when I don't. Think somebody was gonna pick that one up eventually?" He had a point.
Anyone playing poker is trying to deceive his opponents. Deceit is essential to the game. Therefore most tells are a matter of common sense. In Texas Hold'em, a game popular at high-stakes tables, each player is dealt two cards down. Five community cards are dealt face up in the center of the table: the first three at once (the "flop"), then the fourth (the "turn"), and then the last (the "river"). There are betting opportunities between rounds. From those seven cards each player makes his best five-card hand. If somebody gets a great hand from the flop, what is he going to do? Common sense dictates that he'll act as if the flop missed him completely. And sure enough, a lot of players do just that: they pretend to have no interest in the hand. They look away, watch TV, talk to other players—anything but look at the cards on the table. Somebody who stares at the flop for a long time almost certainly can't use it. He is examining it as if hoping that he will suddenly notice something new.
Now I'm going to do something extremely stupid. For the benefit of my readers I am going to open up the book of tells I have accumulated over almost twenty years and let the people I've played with know what their little tics are. My brother, for instance, is a sturdy player—so sturdy that he remains completely calm when he's bluffing, his hands as steady as a rock. But—and this took me a long time to figure out—when he has a sure winner and he's got a player trapped, he gets so excited that his hands shake.
Here are some other classic tells in my Tuesday-night game. Johnny California (this and all the names that follow are my invention), a man with the worst posture in the history of primates, sits up as straight as a board when he has good cards. Tom Lemme has a chip-related giveaway. When he stacks his chips neatly while putting them in the pot, he usually expects to be getting them back. When he throws them in aggressively, he's usually trying to bluff. And when he tosses them in sloppily, he's usually making a reluctant call.
The kind math professor who mentored me through my developmental years of poker, in graduate school, had a tell. I feel like a heel admitting this, but I never told him that I had picked up on it. I guess I should have, but we used to play together often, and keeping it to myself saved me a lot of money. The professor had a tendency to look at his chips when he got a good card, as if he wanted to make sure that his money was still there to bet with. If, for example, in a game of Texas Hold'em he had a pair of nines after the flop and the turn came up a nine, he'd stare at his chips and then look away into the distance. I knew what that meant. I folded a lot of high pairs after the turn was dealt when I saw him look at his chips like that. Sorry, Doc. A better man would have told you sooner.
He is a perfect example of why a player should never look at the flop as it's being dealt. Most people are so intent on what cards are about to come that they give something away by their reaction. Don't watch the cards being dealt. Watch the faces of the players who are watching the cards being dealt. You can check your hand later. See if anybody flinches or blinks or smiles or even looks away when the flop hits the table. Any of those reactions will tell you something about what's going on around you. This is why dealers flip all three flop cards at the same time—nobody can discern a player's reaction to an individual card.
I'm aware of two great tells in my Monday-night Hold'em game. Andrew Megget has a weird way of looking at his cards: he picks them up with only one card visible, puts them back down on the table, slides the bottom one over the top, and then looks again. He does this every time—well, almost every time. Occasionally Andrew takes a second look at the first card. I didn't figure out why for the better part of a year. When the first card is inconsequential, maybe a five, he quickly looks at the second. But if the second card is an ace, he has to check the first one to see if the suits match, because he didn't pay attention before. Almost every time he examines his cards a third time and then calls the bet, he's playing an ace and a small card of the same suit.
The other great tell in that game belongs to Chris Wigmore. For a long time he was a very conservative player. But in the mid-1990s he took a job at an Internet company and made a fortune. Chris started playing loose after cashing in on his stock options. He now plays a very aggressive game. But even though his bank account allows him to be carefree at the table, his subconscious is stuck back in 1991, when he was a lowly ad exec, hoping not to lose so much in a game that he couldn't pay his rent. Whenever he makes a big bet in my direction, I just sit and wait. He probably thinks I'm calculating pot odds or something like that, but I'm waiting for him to get uncomfortable. When he has a great hand, Chris is dead serious. He waits me out without saying a word. When he's bluffing, he tries to act as if he's waiting me out, striking up nonchalant conversations with people at the table. That's when I call him.
Chris also has a funny tendency to separate his winnings from his buy-in. This doesn't make much difference in limit games, but otherwise it can be a huge disadvantage. A player who stacks his chips that way is obviously concerned about the game's outcome. He likes to know that he's ahead. So if Chris has, say, $300 set aside from his $2,000 buy-in when we're playing no limit, I know that unless he has a great hand, any raise over $300 will usually knock him out, because he doesn't want to end with less money than he started with.
When I was in college, I used to play with a guy we called Stoner. He was, as his nickname implies, a heavy doper. Stoner was peppered with tells. He was smart enough to figure them out and make corrections, but he didn't really care enough to do so. If the flop was three cards of the same suit and Stoner didn't look at his down cards but did bet, I knew he had a flush. But if he looked at his down cards right away, I knew he was too high to remember what suits they were and had to check them before deciding what to do. If he called any bets after checking his cards, I knew that one of his cards matched the suit on the board, and therefore he needed the turn or the river to make a flush. He'd do the same thing in seven-card stud. If his first three up cards were of the same suit and he had to check his down cards, I knew he didn't have a flush yet.
Stoner was also one of those players who never bet an incomplete hand in five-card draw. If he was dealt a four-card flush or straight, he always checked or called and then drew one card. But if he bet or raised and then took one card, that meant he had two pair. Also, the way he looked at the drawn card was a giveaway. When he was drawing for a flush, he'd shuffle the drawn card into his other cards and then squeeze the hand out slowly.
He did the same thing in seven-card stud: when he was dealt the last card, if he shuffled it into the rest of his down cards, he needed a good fifth card to complete his hand. If he just picked it up and looked at it, he'd had a made hand before the seventh card was dealt.
The last hand Stoner and I ever played together was a game of pot-limit five-card draw. He dealt me the ace and king of hearts, the three and eight of spades, and the nine of clubs. I had been losing all day, so I opened the betting with three dollars. Stoner called. I kept the ace and the king and drew three cards. He drew one. After dealing himself the card, he picked it up and looked at it. Miraculously, I drew a ten, a jack, and a queen, and ended up making an ace-high straight (known as "Broadway"); I bet the maximum. He raised me the amount of the pot. That was a scary raise: I would have been terrified that any other player had made a full house or a flush. But not Stoner. Because he had called my original bet and then taken one card, I knew he didn't have two pair, so a full house was out of the question. And he had picked up his one drawn card and looked at it without shuffling it into his hand. So I knew he had a straight. Since I had the highest straight possible, the worst I could do was split the pot with him, so I raised him the value of the pot. We each raised once more, and then he called and flipped over his king-high straight. He lost more than $200 in one hand of a dollar-ante game. That's hard to do.
He actually accused me of cheating after that hand, because my last raise was suspicious in his eyes. He wanted to know why I hadn't thought he had a flush or a full house and just called him. Well, buddy, here's your answer.
That hand with Stoner provides a perfect example of the deductive reasoning necessary to becoming a winning poker player. No single observation helped me all that much, but when I put them together, the information became extremely useful.
Obviously, the longer you play against a player, the easier he is to read. If you make notes about your opponent's play over time, eventually you will be able to predict his or her actions. However, certain universal truths about human nature translate directly to the card table. Take any cliché about the human psyche and you will find something that applies to poker players.
Somebody much smarter than I am once said, "The vigor of youth gives birth to the misconceptions of immortality." That's a little flowery for my taste, but it aptly describes life at the poker table. Younger players have not become jaded by years of improbable defeats. They feel vital at a table. For the most part, the younger the player, the looser he is, the more likely he is to bluff. Older players tend to be wiser, more in control of their emotions, and to play a much more straight-up game.
What players do and say unrelated to poker often opens a window onto their psyches. Drunks bluff more. People who bet on sports or horse races while playing poker participate in hands only when they have premium cards, because their attention is being diverted and they're not concentrating enough to bluff with any savvy. The same is true for people who eat at the table. People who dress up for a game in fedoras or fancy sunglasses often play a complicated game, bluffing or semi-bluffing and slow-playing (pretending to have bad cards by not betting) much more than the average player does.
A few nights after I got knocked out of the 2000 World Series, I played a medium-size game of pot-limit Texas Hold'em at the Bellagio, in Las Vegas. In one hand I found myself contending with a man who looked exactly like Uncle Fester, of the Addams Family. After many raises and reraises, the last of the common cards was dealt. I still had exactly what I had started with: a pair of jacks. Given what was on the table, no one could have a flush or a high straight, and the only card showing that was higher than my jacks was the last card dealt—a queen. Before the queen came up, I had ended each round of betting, meaning that I had either bet or raised and Fester had called me. But as soon as the queen showed, Fester bet the pot—about $500 dollars. Now, I had never met this man before. I had no way of knowing if he was bluffing. I decided to try an old standby move: I pretended I was going to call his bet, motioning toward my chips while watching for his reaction. Most of the time a player will react to a called bet. If he slumps in his chair, he has nothing. If he jumps toward his cards to flip them over, he usually has a huge hand. Well, Fester just sat and watched me—but he also got steamed that I had tried such a sophomoric move on him. So he started to hassle me. "What the hell was that—you trying to steal the money, kid? What you gonna do with it, anyway? Buy some Rogaine?"
I had managed to annoy a total stranger, which I didn't feel good about. But then I considered his insult. I do have a receding hairline; that is an undeniable fact. But I still have a good deal of hair on my head. So what was he trying to say? If some guy with Fabio hair had leveled that volley at me, I would have thought he was trying to provoke me into calling with a losing hand, and therefore I'd fold. But this man was himself Telly Savalas bald. I'm not even sure he had eyebrows. Some guys can get away with that look, but it wasn't particularly flattering on him. So why was he talking to me about Rogaine? I saw it for the desperate ploy it was, and I called. Fester turned over a pair of tens, I turned over my jacks, and the dealer pushed the $1,000 pot over to me.
My reading of Fester could have been completely wrong. He could have had queens or better, predicted my reasoning, and insulted me in hopes of getting me to call. That's why a lot of players have fake tells. They are, after all, trying to deceive you. But one thing is certain: the more attention you pay to the body language of your opponents, the less money you'll leave on the table when you walk away.
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