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When I first started watching for tells in live games, I watched for the timing of my opponent’s bets. After playing online for so long, it was the only thing I knew how to interpret right away, and it was a great entry into live tells because it was much easier in a live situation than online. Believe it or not, many online players are more conscious about giving away tells than live players. There was even an app that would randomly make your action take a few extra seconds to insure that your opponents couldn’t get a read on the timing of your bets.

The one thing I was sure of was that a fast bet was a much more reliable indicator than a long pause. A long pause could literally mean anything because players sometimes thought a long time over tough decisions and often waited a long time on easy decisions as an attempt at deception. I don’t know if this ever worked on anyone, but I saw enough players tank for 30 seconds on an easy decision that I’m sure they thought it was working.

Unlike a long wait in the tank, a fast action is tough to fake. A good player can act quickly in many situations, and prepare his action for all of the possibilities on the next street, but most players aren’t good, and some plays are tough to fake even for a strong player who is planning ahead.

It’s elementary when you think about it. If a player flopped top pair on a nine-high board, and a queen falls on the turn, an instant bet has to be a preplanned action. Very few players will instantly evaluate an over card in that situation and decide to bet in less than two seconds.

Two second rule

Less than two seconds is the key here. The time can differ from player to player, but a bet that takes less than two beats after the card falls was almost always planned out. In order to make a decision, most players will take at least a beat to decide what they will do, and another beat because no one wants to act the instant they make their decision. Keeping their movements still and their face expressionless takes a beat as well. They don’t just have to decide to do something, they have to plan out doing it or their actions will be very readable.

Almost always, an action that takes less than two seconds was preplanned. That planning might be “If the flush card or an over card comes, I check, otherwise I will bet.” But even that sort of plan requires a beat to read the board, and another to plan out and initiate your action. An instant bet means even less wiggle room. It means “No matter what, I will do x on the next street.”

Opponent aware of being read or not?

The interpretation can be the tough part. Once your opponent has acted quickly, you have to decide what it all means. I try to break opponents into two groups as soon as I sit down at a table. Either they are thinking about their actions, and aware that someone might be attempting to read them, or they are not.

If your opponent is not thinking about how he is perceived, then he will be easy to read. His actions indicate what he holds and how he feels about it. A fast bet means he is confident. A slower bet means he had to think about it. A fast check and call often means a draw, but it can also mean that your opponent is excited for a check-raise, or even that they are checking instantly to make you afraid of a check-raise to induce you to check. Sometimes an instant check even means that they are feeling stubborn and ready to check and call every street instantly to show you that they know you are bluffing.

When an opponent is not paying attention to covering up their emotions, you can discern what is causing their fast check. If they stare you down, they are stubbornly checking and calling with a real hand. If they are very interested in the next board card, they are probably on a draw. The simple opponent planning a check-raise will usually check and prepare to raise, and they will be interested in your bet, but not challenging or staring you down like Mr. Stubborn.

My goal with this series is not to teach you every tell I can think of and what they all mean. I’m not sure it’s even possible to catalog a significant percentage of the tells I see at the tables. Multiple books have tried that approach, and while some of them were useful, none of them have gone beyond very rudimentary physical reads that aren’t reliable enough to make you real money. All of these tells need to be seen in context and you need to be able to think for yourself and stay a step ahead of your opponents.

Tells, like players, are unique

Every tell, and every player, is unique. I want you to be able to look at every situation and make smart decisions and narrow down your opponent’s hand ranges because of their appearance, behavior, speech, and body language. Those things are too wide ranging and there are too many of them to memorize, and far too many for me to write about each one. Think about the examples I provide and apply the same approach. Learn about people and think about why they do things and what they mean. Eventually it will start to make sense and your reads will be more and more accurate.

As with all of my tells articles, I have to stress how important it is to get clean reads on your opponents. If they know you are watching them, they will be much tougher to read, and the best way I know of to keep my opponents in the dark is to wear Blue Shark Optics glasses. Check them out at and let them know that Fox sent you.



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Chris Wallace

Chris "Fox" Wallace is a professional poker, author, and poker coach from St Paul, Minnesota. While he spent most of his career playing cash games,Fox recently started playing more tournaments and won a bracelet in the $10,000 HORSE World Championship in 2014. Follow him on twitter