Tells or Reading Offers We Can’t Refuse

By Chris Jones

Before the daily Covid grind, back when I left my house more than once a week, I’d be at a gathering or dinner and somehow someone would mention some sort of game. One of my friends or loved ones would say, “oh you should ask Chris, he’s pretty good at poker.”

Moments later I’d be face to face with someone who knew nothing about poker. The same general questions would always follow: 

Do you count cards? “No, not really, you’re thinking of blackjack.”
Yes, but do you read souls? “No, the game’s really more about making good decisions and putting other people to tough ones.”  

Well, yeah, but you can tell if someone is lying, right? Unwilling to continue to disappoint this person, I’d give up and say, “Yes, yes I can.” 

I figured they couldn’t tell any better than me whether someone was lying. In truth, sometimes it was just easier to continue the myth than to explain the nuances of a game to someone who didn’t really want to know them in the first place. They wanted the myth, not the truth. This is why these questions are so common, in most popular culture poker players are reduced to the card-counting lie-detector.  

But let’s admit it, this mythology seeps into even the most experienced poker player’s mind. When I’m faced with a difficult decision in a live game, I’ll sometimes find myself staring down my opponent, staring and staring and hoping that for some reason they’ll crack under my persistent glare. They’ll raise up their hands, shrug their shoulders, maybe even start crying to the dealer, yep, he’s got me. You’re too good for me pal, I’m bluffing. Just end my misery.  

I’ve challenged myself to stop this ridiculous behavior. In my entire life, I’ve never seen someone crack under the poker stare down. Most players, even the most basic players, are sophisticated enough to know that when someone is staring them down, they should try very hard to keep it cool. 

So this then begs the question, are tells just a useless concept? Something sold to us by the movies that leads to meaningless staring contests? I think the truth lands somewhere in the middle. 

This January at RecPoker we’re looking at all kinds of tells and reads as our seminar topic. It’s a rich topic, one full of potential nuance and practice to add to your game, but in my opinion, it rarely involves the 3-minute tank stare down. Tells aren’t about crushing your opponent’s spirit under a menacing glare, they’re more about finding unintended information. 

In books and movies, this is called subtext. Subtext often comes down to the space between what is said and what is meant. Let’s take a moment here to think about one of the most famous lines in movie history. 

In this scene there is a chasm between the relatively innocent sounding “offer he can’t refuse” and the implied menace that characters and audience understand for how this scenario will actually play out. 

This is the nature of tells. We want to find that gap instead of staring into the abyss waiting for some magical read. Reading tells is not about staring into a soul, it is about noticing discrepancies between what is said or done versus what is meant. 

In fact, let’s start there, if you’re staring into someone’s eyes, you’re very likely starting in the wrong place. If what we’re looking for is unintended, and everyone is used to people looking into their eyes, this is the least likely place that a discrepancy will exist. People will protect their eyes. Instead, you want to be looking for patterns of movement and speech that don’t align with the story being told. You want to watch how chips are shuffled or bet, how hands or legs move, how the body leans. We’re looking for some of those unintentional movements that suggest someone wants to flee or comfort themselves versus leap in with anticipation.   

There is a common poker adage that strong means weak and weak means strong. But it’s really important to differentiate between the intentional and unintentional. Unintended strength is, well, strength.

So here’s my quick process for starting to look for tells at the live table. 

  1. First, trust your ranges, math, and strategies first and foremost. Only turn to tells in the toughest of spots. I use it as a tiebreaker rather than a decision maker. 
  2. To the best of your ability, determine intention. Is what you just witnessed intentional or unintentional? 
  3. Look for the discrepancy. Some action or speech or pattern of behavior that doesn’t quite seem to make sense with all the rest of the action. 

In the end, we’re looking for subtext. We’re looking for the menacing offer beneath the innocent one. 

RecPoker is a vibrant and encouraging poker learning community. We are committed to learning the game, but our priority is building healthy relationships where we can not only grow in the game, but grow in our enjoyment of life. The membership website at rec.poker is awesome, but it’s just a tool to help us build that community. You can join for FREE, giving you access to the groups, forums, and other member benefits. If you want to enjoy the premium content, or become part of the RECing Crew, those options are available and you can get $10 off your first payment using the code RECPOKER.

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