His book, Mike Caro’s Book of Tells, is a bestseller among poker players and his videos litter YouTube. On the surface they offer magical insight into your opponent’s hand and strategy, promising to give you that crucial edge in a game. However, few players have ever put poker tells to practice to any effect.
It’s true that some pros have had dedicated coaches to help them decipher subterfuge in their opponents, which they bring to the table at top tournaments. But this has rarely translated into success on the felt.
To really get to grips with poker tells requires a deep understanding of psychology and the ability to unmask your opponent’s true intentions. This is no easy task when it comes to something as complex as a game of poker.
A former FBI agent and poker player, Joe Navarro, for example, recently released his own book on poker tells: Read ’em and Reap: A Career FBI Agent’s Guide to Decoding Poker Tells. This hopes to use all the techniques gleaned from his years in law enforcement, much of it based on scientific research, to tell when a poker player is bluffing or when he is not.
How reliable these are, however, is still open to conjecture.
The problem is, once any kind of “tell” become public – it automatically becomes worthless. For example, Caro famously posited “shaking fingers” as an indication of a monster hand. But today you’ll see this incorporated into a bluff by a player holding nothing, used to throw his opponents off the scent.
The same goes for any other tell you can think off – biting of the lips, chips laid out sloppily on the table, relaxed smiles or any other facial expression a poker player can conjure. That’s because as much as a good poker player is seasoned at deciphering his opponent, he is also good at hiding his own emotions. Seasoned pros will attempt to look like rank amateurs and will use misdirection and fakery to make the idea of poker tells virtually irrelevant.
But they’re not.
There are some things that can still be gleaned from those who have practiced the art. Betting patterns, for one, are still the best giveaway of a poker player’s game. For while facial expressions and hand gestures can be hidden, betting patterns will always reveal someone’s overall strategy.
However, this is not something you can discern over an evening. Every player will have their own particular “tell” and their own patterns of behaviour. And this is something you’ll have to learn over a long period of time.
So perhaps, with all these obstacles and pitfalls when it comes to figuring out poker tells, it’d be better to concentrate on your own game rather than that of your opponent. That might be true in the majority of cases, but before you drop your psychology major and rip up your big book of poker tells, consider a recent study from Stanford University.
The study, published this April, suggests that poker players’ arm movements may betray the strength of the hands they are holding, even when their faces remain expressionless. What’s more, it appears that even non-players can detect these motion “tells” in professional card players.
Researchers at Stanford recruited non-expert volunteers to view clips of poker players in action, but only some saw whole-body shots, while others saw faces only, and still others arms only.
The findings were clear-cut. Judgments based on facial expression were worse than chance. That is, the poker players succeeded not only in hiding their thoughts about their chances, but in deceiving onlookers. By contrast, those who saw arm movements accurately judged the quality of the players’ hands. The movements were unintentional “tells” about players’ hidden thoughts and intentions.
Which means that poker tells may be an imprecise “art” at the best of times, trying to learn this part of the game may still have merit.