The Importance Of Body Language In Poker And Tells To Look Out For

poker player sunglasses hoodie with chipsIn 1978, poker hall of famer Mike Caro wrote the following:

Most people cannot live how they would like. As children, they had to do homework, which they hated. As adults, they must live with people they don’t like, pretend to feel fine when miserable, act as though they have things under control, despite being insecure and anxious.”

It turns out that there is much more to body language tells than simply reading poker faces. Poker is game that is as much about psychology as it is about skill and luck. The difference between winning hands and folding cards can come down to observing tells and reading your opponents’ body language in order to interpret any subconscious or conscious shrugs, sighs and all round signals that might give away the strength of their hand.

A tell in poker is a conscious or unconscious indicator that people give away. This could be a gesture, a twitch of the eyebrow or simply the way someone looks at you. It is a critical skill to acquire in live poker as these signals can reveal some information about the strength of an opponent’s hand. A poker table is heaving with tells meaning all you need to do is read and understand them.

Unconscious Tells

erik seidel playing poker
Photos by flipchip / / CC BY-SA

We have two types of tells, an unconscious type and a deliberate type.

The unconscious tell, which is where somebody either doesn’t know that they are doing it or one that they make when they feel unobserved.

One example of this is the covering of the mouth with the hand, especially if this is done regularly. Such a tell could be an indicator that a player does not have a strong hand.

On the other hand, a deliberate tell is where somebody purposefully tries to express some information.

This could be to mislead you so you will need to figure out whether what they are saying is true or not.

Chip Stacking And Choice Of Clothes

daniel negreanu playing poker
Photos by flipchip / / CC BY-SA

What a person is wearing can help to reveal much about them.

Your opponent’s choice of clothes could be secretly telling you that they are a wild daredevil or cautious and quiet. This could be a sign of their playing style.

In much the same way, the way they stack their chips could say a lot about them.

If they carefully stack them, they are more likely to be conservative in their play refusing to make careless crazy moves.

On the flip side, if they leave the chips in an unorganised pile, then they are more likely to vary their play and take more risks.

Player Posture And Body Language

player sits back during a poker game

Many players are betrayed and let down by their body posture which can also be a way of revealing the strength of their hand. Unconsciously shifting awkwardly in their seat or hanging their shoulders or sometimes even showing less body tension can indicate a weak hand.

On the other hand, leaning forward and changing their sitting position can mean that your opponent has a strong hand.


Most people would think that nervousness would be the sign of a weaker hand. On the contrary, very often it could mean the player is holding the nuts. Pretending to be nervous is usually done quite badly by being far too exaggerated can make it easy to work out when someone is truly nervous.

Furthermore, if an opponent is acting nervous in a critical game situation, this is often an indication of a strong hand.

Breathing Pattern

How a particular player is breathing can also be a very meaningful tell as changes in breathing patterns are almost never intentional.

Obviously, the closer that you are to a player the easier it is to pick up on these changes. An attempt to avoid breathing loudly or shallow breathing is a sign of a weak hand.

Covering Their Mouths

When somebody conceals their mouth with their hand, then very often this could mean that are holding a weak hand and they are attempting to hide their emotions. This is because they do not want their expression to reveal their hand strength.

The same can be said for a player that is reluctant to glance at you or look you in the eyes as they are worried that their eyes might reveal to you that they are scared.

Glancing Quickly At The Chips And The Cards

player goes all in in pokerPossibly one of the most valuable forms of telling is when a player looks quickly at their chips before looking away as they will be likely to be considering a bet. Of course, they might even try and sneak a peek at their opponent’s chips. However, it is important that they do not feel like they are under observation. This is a reliable tell, especially for beginners and it’s a similar theory when a player checks their cards.

For example, if the flop brings three hearts and the player takes a look at their cards, it is unlikely that they have a flush. This is because with an off suit hand, beginners often take no notice of the suits with their first glance and only with a suited hand will they remember the suit.

When Opponents Act Friendly

bryn kenny playing poker
World Poker Tour / CC BY

If an opponent behaves in a friendly manner after they have made a bet, then it is probably a bluff.

They do not want a confrontation with you so your focus should remain on the hand in play. Likewise, a friendly player that suddenly turns becomes unfriendly is more likely to want you to call their bets.

Another tell is grinning. A player who is trying to look serious but then involuntarily starts smiling is most likely to be holding a monster.

Whereas a player with a natural smile is more likely to have a good hand as opposed to those who force a smile.

Protecting Or Showing The Cards

poker strategyIn much the same way as a pirate would guard their treasure many players will guard a good starting hand. They take a brief look at their cards before concealing them quickly by covering them up with their hands.

On the other hand, inexperienced players will often show their hand to a friend or their playing partners. When this happens, it will be because they are most likely to be holding a strong hand. There are multiple reasons for this.

Firstly, the person wants to show that they are a good player which they can only do with a legitimate hand, probably a made hand, that the other inexperienced player can appreciate. Secondly, those who look at their cards can betray a bluff to the opponent.

Making Rash Decisions

When somebody looks at their hand before immediately making a bet in a game against experienced players then this is a likely indicator of honest play.

This is because, before making a bluff move, many players will often take a moment to consider what they think will work. Furthermore, they will also try to avoid displaying any extraordinary action so as not to breed distrust.

Taking A Drink

When your opponent tries to bluff or has a monster hand or any other special game situation then you will often see them take a drink after they have made their move. Although this is intended to look casual, it is certainly something that you should be paying attention to.

In home games you can also tell a lot about somebody’s hands from the way they smoke their cigarettes. When someone exhales a large cloud of smoke, this is usually an indication that they have a strong hand and is not worried about you calling. When they attempt to breathe it out as discreetly as possible then this will usually indicate a bluff. However, this theory is a little vague so should be used in conjunction with other tells.

How Somebody Bets

poker player adding chips to the potThe way that somebody puts their chips into the middle of the table can often say a lot about their hand. If they have a strong hand and want to encourage calls from opponents, then they will not put on too much of a show. They will not want to frighten anybody away and so will either say nothing or casually announce the value of their chips.

This opposed to someone with a weak hand who will normally behave differently. They will come across as optimistic announce their bet in a controlling way since they are trying to chase the opponent away by seeming to be in control of the hand.

Another example of a signal in poker is exaggerating the betting of the chips. When somebody emphasises pushing the chips in the direction of an opponent or even chucking the chips in, most likely wants to intimidate them. Reliable indicators can be a stretched lower forearm and fully stretched fingers.

Conscious Tells

live poker game during tournamentSo now that we have covered how players can inadvertently give away information, what about players that deliberately do so? What does a player do when they have a strong hand? Most will try to act weak and bluff in an attempt to appear strong. So long as you are good at this then your opponents shouldn’t notice that you are acting. However, if they are good at it then they will recognise the theatrics which means you have a problem.

Luckily, there are lot of players out there that are bad actors. In the hope of avoiding any nasty surprises, there is an easy and basic method for recognising deceit when you come across it and that when your opponent tells you a story. Think about what he is doing now and also what he has done previously before asking yourself if it makes any sense.

Pretending To Be Weak

live poker tour gameFake weakness can show itself in the form of a sigh or brooding or even a dropping of the shoulders and slouching. When players pretend to be weak, they usually have a strong hand. They are hoping to trick their opponents into calling or raising through deception.

Somebody who knowingly looks away during a hand is normally dangerous. They act as though the hand doesn’t matter to them in order to incite action. Very often, this happens when the flop is dealt. A quick glance at the flop before a quick look to the side is often a sign of strength.

You can spot this tell in numerous forms with newcomers more likely to exaggerate. It’s a similar deception to when players act like they want to muck their hand when it isn’t their turn. In most cases, players make their decisions within seconds of the cards being dealt. If somebody broods for a long time before finally making a large raise, they want you to think it was a very tough decision. By recognising this, you can usually root out strong hands and monsters.

Pretending To Be Strong

poker cash game

If you are able read tells to detect faked weakness, then you can also use tells to identify faked strength. On occasions a correct tell and a brave call can deliver a nice pay day from a hand that you wouldn’t normally have considered calling.

Unlike players with strong hands that want to entice you to put your chips in the centre, players holding weaker hands will want to discourage you to. Some signs to look out for include the following.

Chip Intimidation

When somebody reaches for their chips when it isn’t their turn, this is normally an attempt intimidation. Alternatively, if a player that is always playing with their chips suddenly stops when it is your turn, this is usually a sign of strength.

Staring At Opponents

Players who stare at their opponents are not usually holding a dangerous hand. By almost saying “I’m watching you closely and I know what you’re up to” they are often showing a sign of weakness.

A Long Drawn Out Look At The Cards

If an opponent has a particularly long look at their cards, or even the board, then they are likely to have a weak hand. And if they take a long time before making a bet then they are likely to be bluffing. A strong tell is when an opponent repeatedly looks at their starting hand immediately after making a bet. This is most likely to be a bluff.

Claiming The Pot Early

People that have a strong hand will be wanting their opponents to carry on with the hand and topping up the pot. If they want to bring an end to the action hastily by offering to show their cards, or by laying claim to the pot, then they will normally have a weak hand.


man at poker table head in handsUnfortunately, tells aren’t always as blatantly clear as we want them to be. As such, you should be looking for more than just one in order to get a proper read on your opponent. If these match up, then it will definitely make your decisions much easier.

If, for instance, somebody quickly looks at their starting hand before quickly hiding it and protecting it with their hands then glimpses at their chips, raising, taking a drink, pretending to be bored, muck your cards and get away from a strong hand.

Where things can get complicated, however, is when tells contradict each other. Even here, though, there is a solution. Often, only one single aspect of a player’s actions will be made consciously. Work out which tell is an act and do with the opposite of what your opponent is trying to get you to do.