Poker is a game of subtleties. While the luck of the draw obviously has some bearing, much of it actually has to do with deceiving opponents, figuring out people’s tendencies and reading their tells. And as you probably guessed, a lot of that has to do with understanding their body language.
Body language, for the most part, is the best indicator of what kind of cards your opponents have and what strategy they have in mind. This is especially true for advanced players, who have learned to manage their betting patterns and strategic tells. In these cases, reading and figuring out their body language can frequently make the difference between making a good or bad play. Read it right and you can make the correct decision. Read it wrong and you’re setting yourself up for a big loss.
Of course, body language is completely out of the equation during online poker. If you play primarily on a computer, you can probably skip this story — it won’t really matter in your results. If you do intend to play live poker, though, being well-versed in body language will get you tremendous results.
- Size your competition. When you first sit down (before cards are dealt), look at your competitors and get a quick read, making note of who looks aggressive, who looks passive and which ones don’t seem to care what’s going on. These are first impressions and could change during the course of the game, but they’re good for establishing a baseline with each player. Aggressive players tend to act loud and boisterous naturally. Passive ones are more laid back and relaxed. Those who seem to be in a drinking and partying mode are the ones just throwing money away.
- Fake disinterest. Less experienced players will fake disinterest or disappointment when dealt a good hand. Any time this happens, their lying body language is almost always too obvious to mask. If you know you’re going up against an inexperienced opponent, this is the likely quickest tell to grasp. Aggressive but inexperienced players will likely be cursing loudly and overacting, too, so be aware of that. If you’re going up against season pros, though, they’re usually very disinterested during starts of games, so give it no meaning.
- Too aggressive. When players get too aggressive in their body language, it’s always good to bet that they’re bluffing. While it’s not 100% guaranteed, extra-aggressive stances, like staring down other players, slamming cards or throwing chips, are a dead giveaway that they’re trying to cover up a bad hand.
- Check breathing. Rapid breathing means a player is excited, which usually equates to having a good hand. This is especially true when you notice their breathing change suddenly after they check their cards.
- Check speech. Did someone just start a conversation totally unrelated to the game at hand? While we usually equate that with disinterest, it’s misplaced: he or she sat down at a poker game, so we all know where the interest lies. Chances are, they have a strong hand and are trying to distract from it.
- Eyes on the chips. When a player looks at their cards then glances involuntarily at the chips, that usually denotes a good hand. Subconsciously, they peeked at the chips so they can get an idea of how much they will win, which only happens when they get good card combinations.
- Talks to themselves. Some players do talk to themselves. If someone who doesn’t suddenly mutters something during a flop, that usually indicates they got a strong hand from the dealt cards.
- Repeatedly peeking at cards. When a player repeatedly checks his cards after new cards are dealt on the board, they’re likely making sure they have strong drawn hands. You can sometimes deduct what kind of hand they have from this, so be very alert during these times, as you’ll need to make calculations on your feet (or on your ass, most likely).
- Sitting upright. When a player changes posture to sit upright, it’s usually a big tell that they’ve got a good hand and are ready to play. Doing this allows them to get a clearer view of the table and the other competitors. If you don’t have a good hand, you may want to pass as soon as you recognize this.
- Talks to you too much. Players who talk to you too much are trying to mine you for tells — it’s that simple. Hopefully, you have developed a strategy for deadpanning them or you’re screwed. Alternatively, you can also have a premade aggressive spiel to just insult people needlessly — that usually works well for these types.
- Calling or betting too quick. This usually means a player has a good drawn hand, as opposed to a good dealt hand. You can make a decision from here based on how strong your cards are.
- Calling or betting too long. When a player is sure they have you beat via a very strong hand, they will almost always bleed the process of betting, wasting time to better draw you in. If your hand isn’t too sweet, you might want to pass on this.
Controlling Your Tells
You can read other players all you want, but if you don’t control your own body language, there’s a good chance the other players will just read you like a newspaper. So, how exactly do you cover up your own tells?
- Wear sunglasses. Covering the eyes is a great step to keep people from seeing your eye movement. This is especially useful if your eyes often give you away.
- Calm yourself. The more calm you are, the less you’ll succumb to sudden excitement or sudden disappointment. That means, you’ll have less visible emotion to read.
- Sit upright. Try to sit one way throughout the game. If you sit upright regardless of your hand, it will become a lot harder to tell what you’ve got from posture alone.
- Always pause before acting. Regardless of what hand you’ve got, count to five (or ten or fifteen) before taking any action. This keeps you from rushing into actions, which can be a tell in itself.
- Avoid conversation. Unless you can use your conversation skills aggressively, just shut up and say as little as necessary. Good players can literally get a goldmine from the things people say around the table, so the less you share, the better.
- Act selectively. Minimize acting at first and focus on keeping your actions under control. Acting is a tough road to follow in poker and very few people are able to pull it off really well on a consistent basis.