Why tells work

Updated: January 26, 2006, 4:03 PM ET
By BLUFF | Mike Caro

1. "Poker tells are overrated."
2. "It's very difficult to observe tells."
3. "You don't see any tells at the bigger limits."

All those pieces of commonly uttered, homespun wisdom are wrong. Totally wrong. Horribly wrong. I first discussed tells long before "Caro's Book of Tells" -- "The Body Language of Poker" was written in the mid-1980s. In fact, a passage I contributed to Doyle Brunson's "Super System: A Course in Power Poker" in 1978 explains it best.

Actors
It's not enough to know how a person acts when he's bluffing. When you understand why he acts that way, you'll be able to read him, even in unfamiliar situations.

Thoreau said, "The mass of men lead lives of quiet desperation." Most people are prevented from living life as they want. In childhood, they're required to do chores they hate. They grow up having to conform at school. As adults they must shake hands they don't want to shake, socialize with people they dislike, pretend they're feeling "fine" when they're feeling miserable, and "act" in control of situations where, in truth, they feel frightened and unsure. These people -- the majority of folks you meet every day -- are actors. They present themselves to you as people different than they really are.

Deep within themselves they know they are not the same person they pretend to be. On an unconscious level, they think, "Hey, I'm so phony that if I don't act to disguise my (poker) hand, people will see right through me!"

And that's why the majority of these pitiful people are going to give you their money by always acting weak when they're strong and strong when they're weak.

Can't afford to tell the truth

When people play poker, they find themselves in an unfamiliar environment. In real life they lie sometimes. They mislead sometimes. In poker they have to mislead or lie all the time. They simply cannot afford to tell the truth in a dependable way. Otherwise, they might as well spread their cards face-up on the table.

Ah, I hear you thinking, "Some players tell the truth about their hands, sometimes." And you're right. That's why I said, "in a dependable way." When an opponent declares truthfully, "Don't call me, I have a flush," he's hoping you don't believe him or that you, at least, have doubts. He's hoping you will call, so he can say, "I told you so."

In poker, your hand is your secret. Now, you can take this next part as gospel: If an opponent, trying to win your money, voluntarily does anything that he thinks you're observing, it's an attempt to confuse you. When poker players put on an act -- subtle or obvious -- they're trying to convince you that the nature of their hand is something alien to the truth.

And so were born my theories of tells. Central to my teaching is something called Caro's Great Law of Tells: "Players are either acting or they aren't. If they are acting, then decide what they want you to do and disappoint them."

Easier said than done, you're thinking. Not really. You can usually determine that an opponent truly is acting if you see any mannerisms that are unnecessary.

Weak when strong

Right now, you need to know something of extra-special importance: Your opponents will strongly tend to act weak when they hold strong hands and act strong when they hold weak ones.

Put those two concepts together and it should be obvious to you that if you see a bettor shrug conspicuously, he holds a strong hand. His shrug is meant to deceive you by making you think he's in doubt about making the wager or that he is possibly bluffing. Don't be fooled. A player who was truly weak or bluffing wouldn't go out of his way to share his doubt. That would invite a call. Any invitation to call should be declined, unless you, too, hold a powerful hand.

This tell isn't just from novice players, either. Even pros do this, but the important thing is, the more sophisticated the player, the less exaggerated the tell. It's still there, just reduced in scope. Against experienced players, peer deeper. Listen harder. Their tells come in whispers, not shouts.

Now, we're going to often talk about tells in this column, and they come in lots of varieties. There are involuntary tells, in addition to the acted ones. For instance, I'll explain why a suddenly shaking hand is never a bluff, even though many experienced poker players become suspicious and mistakenly call when they see that happen.

Tells are real

For now, I want you to know that tells are real. They can account for a large share of your profit. We'll discover them in all types of players, from beginners to world-class pros. And all you need to do for now is disappoint any opponent who tries to influence you. You do that by usually folding when he acts weak and usually calling when he acts strong.

I'll leave you with one more example of a player pretending to be weak. Ever heard a sad sigh at the poker table? What did you say? All the time? Me, too. And when we hear it, we know better than to call, right?

Remember, poker tells surround you and they're pure profit. They work because opponents aren't accustomed to lying or misleading all the time, but in poker, they must. And usually they do it quite poorly.

Hot tips from the "Mad Genius"

Getting extra calls in poker

Your opponents have a calling reflex. That means they're predisposed to call, rather than fold. They came to the table hoping to play hands, hoping to call. Your job, when you hold a big hand, is to provide a reason.

Often, they'll call anything that moves. So if you want that call and see an opponent about to fold, do anything! Knock over your chips. Wiggle in your seat. Whatever gets their attention might make them suspicious. There's nothing to lose, because you're about to lose that call, anyway. It won't always work, but sometimes it will. And that's free money.

Don't bluff after a frequent bluffer checks.

When a player with a strong history of bluffing checks to you, the chances that he has a reasonable calling hand is statistically high. Conversely, players who usually check their weakest hands, rather than bluff, provide profitable opportunities for you to bluff. That's because they often check weak hands with the same prospects as yours: hands that may beat you half the time in a showdown. So against those non-bluffers, you have something to gain by doing the bluffing yourself after they check: You secure the whole pot.

But against a frequent bluffer, that opportunity isn't usually available, and as a consequence, bluffing is seldom the right move following their check.

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