Poker is surely the game that benefits from your understanding of your opponents’ psyche the most. In blackjack, the only opponent you are competing with for money is the dealer, and he has strict rules on what to do; he cannot bluff. In poker you are competing with other players like yourself, who must bluff, so gaining any insight into how they play, when they bluff and what tells they may have is crucial. At the same time, there are prying eyes analyzing your every movement and searching for your own personal tells. This is not necessarily a bad thing.
First of all, patience is key. Your goal is the long haul, not a short burst. We’ll assume that you are in casino type play and your opponents are mostly, if not entirely, unknown to you. The first few hands will tell you a good deal of information if you know how to look for it. Play conservatively and ask yourself two basic questions during this time: “Which of these opponents are experienced and which are novices?” and “Are the tells that I’m seeing involuntary or are they only there to throw me off?”
When I was just starting to learn how to bluff, a good piece of advice I got from a poker friend of mine was, “The trick is to get them to call or fold when you want them to.” Rest assured, he, you and I are not the only ones that have heard this tidbit, so determining an opponent’s skill level is a major factor here. An inexperienced player may give off hints, anywhere from blatant to subtle, which can be used against them. But, of course, an experienced player will sometimes exhibit barely perceptible tells purposely to portray himself as a beginner. His body language will just barely say “Holy crap, look at my hand!” He may actually have little or nothing, trying to persuade others with mediocre hands to fold. Alternatively, his posture may reveal a look of “I’m never going to get a good hand,” in a devious effort to keep the others involved.
Watching people playing games that don’t benefit from hiding tells helps too. If you observe “Johnny Nickels” playing roulette with a large bet on the line and he starts humming or squinting his eyes, perhaps you have his tell, showing that he is excited. If you have the opportunity to play poker with him later you can use this to your advantage.
I have personal tells myself, and like to try to use this to my advantage as well. Much to my dismay, I can’t stop myself from screaming “Well, slap my ass and call me Snarkles Bandersnatch” every time I have a good hand, so I deliberately do this randomly during game play when I have an average or poor hand to throw my adversaries off the scent. Subtle, am I not?
Some Tells to Look for:
These actions can mean “I have a good hand.”
♠ Appearing totally uninterested, shrugging or sighing, yet staying in and paying attention
♣ Checking the chip levels repeatedly
♥ Acting nervous, jittery and breathing rapidly
These actions may say “I’m bluffing.”
♦ Appearing overconfident, smiling
♠ Locking eyes with others still in the hand, intimidating opponents
♣ Holding your breath
These actions might indicate “My hand needs some help.”
♥ Thinking hard before calling, betting or folding; making mental calculations
♦ Double checking your hole cards after new cards come out, especially on the flop