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Top 5 Reliable Poker Tells

By Connor Whiteley
October 08, 2021

Live reads are a widely debated area of poker. Some will say that live reads are the most important part of playing poker. Others will tell you it’s a waste of time to play based on anything other than percentages. Both camps would be wrong. The usefulness of poker tells depends on the game you are playing. Do you find yourself sitting in Bobby’s Room playing the biggest game in Vegas? If so, probably don’t read too far into how Eli Elezra is drinking his coffee. If you’re sitting down at a $1/$2 table, maybe take a closer look at the college kid’s hand shaking violently as he reaches for raising chips. So many factors go into live reads, but before we get into the most reliable ones, let’s talk about what live reads are not.

Hollywood tells amazing stories, and they are just that…stories! Everyone knows “based on a true story” can mean anything from 5-95% accurate, so we shouldn’t rely on what Hollywood tells us about live reads. The big screen has shown us some decent card games, but most of the time the play is quite different from what you see in your local cardroom. Teddy KGB taking a bite out of his cookie in Rounders means he is strong, but don’t expect your home game nemesis to broadcast his hand strength like that. One of my favorite movie magic live reads come from the pinnacle of poker movies featuring everyone’s favorite super spy, James Bond. The villain in Casino Royale has a habit of bleeding from his eye when he is bluffing, but if you see someone crying blood at the casino, don’t call the bet… call security. These are fun examples of plot enhancers, not reliable sources for live reads.

Poker Expressions

If you do want some reliable information, stick to the professionals. Joe Navarro, Zach Elwood, and Mike Caro are all names that you should know. These men quite literally wrote the books on poker tells. Pulling from their expertise in body language and psychology, these men laid the foundation for the list below. Most of my tells come from their work. Now these tells aren’t always going to mean a player is strong or weak on this one hand — and of course if you’re playing online at places like Refuelcasino, physical tells are irrelevant. Yet, some of them are big picture observations. These experts outlined a healthy mix of tells that signify a player’s overall strength in the game, as well as tells that give away the strength of one particular hand.

Without further ado, here are my top 5 reliable live reads:

5. Shaking Hands

It’s a sight I am all too familiar with. Your opponent cuts out a bet and, as they place it over the line, you see their hand quivering. This is an involuntary reaction the body has to adrenaline, so the player can’t help it. Shaking hands are a huge tell that the pot is going to get big. The adrenaline of knowing you’re about to play a massive pot gets the fingers twitching. When I see hands shaking, I know that I am about to face a large bet or raise.

I will say, this is an easily faked tell, which is why it is at the bottom of my list. I’ve seen plenty of players fake the shaking hand looking for a fold, so make sure you have a little more information on the player before making a big lay down to a shaking hand.

4. Chip Stacking

We’ve all seen the player whose chip stack is an absolute mess. Usually the loud tipsy guy. Players who aren’t stacking their chips evenly, or at all, are generally going to be loose. They have a wide pre-flop range and are going to get sticky with marginal hands. Wait these players out and capitalize when you make a hand.

poker tells chip stack

Image Credit: Poker Listings

On the contrary, if their stack is overly neat, then they probably play a bit too tight. Someone whose chips are not only stacked correctly, but lined up with one another in a pattern or perfectly straight, are usually very conservative. Feel free to go for the river bluff, because they aren’t going to mess up that perfect stack with a marginal hand. You can bully these players all night.

3. Chip Handling

This is another one of those overall tells, akin to tell #4. However, the two may not be linked. The way someone physically handles their chips when betting, counting, or shuffling is a huge giveaway to their level of experience. When I see a player counting out chips one or two at a time, not knowing how to shuffle stacks, or not putting their bet out over the line, I know they don’t find their way to a poker room often. Someone may have nice neat chip stacks, but if you see them counting out a $50 bet one red chip at a time, they likely don’t play much.

As with any skill, with experience comes comfort and knowledge. When I see a player mishandling chips, I tend to target them, as they will typically be a weak player. On the other hand, when I see a player flawlessly grab a perfect 20 stack, or do chip tricks that I don’t know, it’s a safe bet they have been playing the game for quite some time. Either way, pay close attention to how your opponent handles their chips and you’ll get some insight into their experience level.

2. Threatening Chips

I see this tell a LOT in the $1/$2 games. A player will be waiting to act and will display chips as if ready to bet. Sometimes it is a player not-so-subtly moving a stack of chips forward, other times it’s as obvious as a guy cutting out a specific size and staring at you while the chips hover over the line. In either case, this is almost always a defensive strategy designed to scare you away from betting. This happens most often when they are drawing, or have a weaker middle / top pair that they want to showdown cheaply. When I see this move, I almost always bet. The draws will usually call and the weaker pairs fold, but I have found that this tell is a massive giveaway. I can’t ever remember a time I’ve seen this move where the player bets after being checked to. So when you see this move, I’d go ahead and bet big, most of the time you will win the pot right there.

1. The Chip Glance

Without a doubt, this tell has been the most accurate information giveaway that I have seen in low-stakes poker. When the flop, turn, or river comes out, watch your opponent. All too often they will involuntarily look at their chips. This is a psychological sign that they want to bet. Their eyes see the flop, and their brain says “bet,” making them look at their chips. This is an incredibly powerful tell, as it is subtle and almost always involuntary. When I see my opponent sneak a peek at their chip stack, I always proceed with caution. This is amazing when you have the nuts, but anything short of that, proceed with caution.

Due to its reliability, this is one of the more well-known tells. Because of this, it’s a great tell to fake. If I notice a player is paying attention to me when a card comes out, I might glance at my stack when I miss to give the impression of strength.

Whether you are looking for indications of a player’s overall skill level or strength in a particular hand, these tells offer reliable information. While live reads are not always a perfect indicator of intention, looking for patterns in the above tells can give you plenty of insight into your opponents. In a world where we have access to so much training online, sometimes you need a good old-fashioned live read to get the job done. And remember, ignore the cookies, pay attention to the psychology.

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Connor Whiteley poker author
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Connor Whiteley

Connor Whiteley is a financial services professional and freelance writer who spends as much time as possible on the felt. Previously, Connor was a dealer in various underground Los Angeles poker games, but left the city and those games to raise his daughter with his loving wife Jennifer. Connor is constantly staying up to date […]

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