For the first article in my series on tells, I thought it was appropriate to start with the first tell I ever spotted. I didn’t know much about reading my opponents, and to be honest, I was terrible at reading body language and facial expressions. So it was a slow process that I had to work on when I started playing more live poker. I knew from martial arts classes that watching an opponent’s eyes was usually the best way to discern their intentions quickly, so I was watching the eye movements of my opponents to see if I could spot anything.
The game was $8/16 limit holdem and I was in the one seat, looking directly across the table at a young and fairly inexperienced player in his early twenties. While I didn’t know much about tells yet, I was a reasonably good limit holdem player after reading up on the game and making part of my living playing the game online, so I knew how to gauge a player’s skill level by the way they played their hands. This guy was just seeing flops and waiting to get lucky.
First tell spotted
I watched him play a hand where his eyes flashed down to his chips and back on the flop and then he bet out and I started to wonder if this was an indicator of the strength of his hand. He didn’t bet unless he really had something, so even though the hand didn’t go to showdown I knew that he had a hand. A few minutes later I saw the same tell again when he made a flush on the river. This hand was shown down, so I knew he had hit the hand on the river and was fairly certain I had just spotted my first tell.
I continued to watch this player and within an hour I was certain that I had found an accurate tell and I was ever so pleased with myself. I was becoming a live poker player, someone who could read their opponents and crush them because I knew what they held at all times. I was incredibly far from the ideal of the poker wizard that I wanted to become, but I had finally taken the first step and spotted a tell.
Using the information correctly
After a few hours I was finally in a spot to use my new bit of knowledge. I raised the cutoff seat and Mr. Eye Flash called to defend his big blind. I had a pair of eights and the flop was 5-4-2 rainbow. He checked, I bet my overpair, and he called. The turn was an ace, and his eyes darted to his chips, back to the flop, and then he checked. After his check he looked at me, and I thought he looked eager for me to bet so that he could check raise me. This coupled with the eyes was more than enough for me to check behind.
The river was a jack, no response from his eyes, and he bet out. I folded, showing my pair of eights and hoping that this would cause him to show his hand so I could confirm my tell. He showed Ace-Deuce for two pair, and I nodded my head and said “nice hand.”
This was great news. I had spotted a tell, confirmed it, and saved $16 in the process! I was so proud of myself. It was weeks before I spotted another tell, but the eye flash tell was the first feather in my cap and my confidence got a big boost. The eye flash tell has made me a lot of money over the years, and even ten years later when games are much tougher, I still see it often enough to make it worth watching for.
Watch out for fake tells
Now that you know about the tell, and how I first spotted it, let’s talk about how you find it and determine whether it is a legitimate indicator. This tell is very common among new players and very weak or inexperienced players, but it is also very well-known among strong players, and easily faked. Telling the difference between the two usually involves knowing the player or at least knowing enough about them from their appearance to decide how much they know about the game.
In future articles, we will talk more about reading your opponent from their appearance, but the guy in the 3bet hoodie who knows half the table and has a monster stack might be faking it. The kid who just started talking excitedly about the newest episode of the WSoP Main Event broadcast and asking if anyone has ever been to Vegas is probably not faking it.
Hat and sunglasses not a fashion statement
A real eye flash is not a conscious act. It happens instantly after seeing the flop and the person doing it is not self conscious in any way. They don’t know they are being watched. This is a good reason to make sure they don’t know they are being watched, which is why I wear a baseball hat and Blue Shark Optics at any major tournament that I play. People behave differently when they know they are being watched and tells become less reliable.
An eye flash is a check for chips, a subconscious desire to bet those chips, a genuine excitement. It doesn’t happen when a player makes third pair on the turn. It happens when they flop a real hand, something they are excited about, and it is even more reliable on the turn and river when there are draws on board.
Keep your eyes open and trust your instincts
Remember that this tell is sometimes faked, and that it only reveals a desire to bet, not always a huge hand. That fish who just sat down may be excited about his K-9 on a J-9-4 board because he thinks he has made a pretty good hand. As with all tells, as long as you keep your cool and don’t reveal that you are interested in them, they will be repeated over and over and you can often get a read on what they mean for a particular player.
If you are watching carefully, this can even help with the pros who fake it. If they consistently fake this tell when they want a free card or they are about to bluff, you can use that knowledge against them. Whether you are playing with a bunch of your donkey friends in a basement somewhere, or against the best in the world, you will make more money by keeping your eyes open, paying attention to the table, and trusting your gut.