This article is part of my series 'Poker Culture, Strategy & Commentary'.
Sure, you can learn the math, and you may understand loads poker theory. You may even have the discipline to make all the right moves at the table according to your book knowledge. But if you're relying solely on a math-based strategical paradigm, you'll be missing out on a potential fortune.
The play of many loose, bad poker players out there doesn't always make sense, and it's sometimes hard to put them on a hand. While a solid math-based strategy may suggest that you should be more inclined to keep a pot small against them and that you should often keep them honest, a good read or physical 'tell' on your opponent may suggest a better, completely opposite line of betting.
Scanning for tells at the table should be a natural act, like breathing, and you should be religiously doing it while you're playing poker. If you aren't keeping focused at the table and paying good attention to the other players at the table, i.e. watching their hands as they bet, and their faces as they react to the turning of a card, then you're missing one of the fundamental aspects of profitable play. Tells are everywhere and the first step to understanding what they mean is to notice them in the first place. So now that we've covered the importance of keeping a lookout for tells, let's move on to interpretation.
Weak when strong, strong when weak
Groundbreaking work in the world of poker authorship and reading tells was done by the legendary draw poker player, Mike Caro. He was the first man to put to paper a concise collection of tells and explain what each of them meant. His book, Caro's Book Of Tells, is a classic. The basic theory of the book suggests that bad poker players will usually act weak when they are strong and strong when they are weak. The reason for this is simple, they are afraid that the other players can see right through them. As a reaction to the basic fear of being easily readable, the bad or tilted player will all too often throw the limp curveball of acting opposite to the strength of their hand. It's surprising how reliable tells like these can be, even in fairly big games, once you've learned to look for the subtleties and variations of the 'strong when weak' concept.
So, the next time you see a frustrated player across the table slamming his chips into the pot with excessive force, you know there's a better than average chance that he/she is bluffing. And when someone softly and carefully places their bet into the middle, now you know what they are trying to do. They don't want to be responsible for scaring you out of the pot. They have a really good hand, but they want to make it seem like they aren't too sure, like they aren't too confident, and that you should probably pay them off. Stop paying off bets like these!
Fight or flight
There's another, deeper way to analyze the psychology of tells; you could think of it simply as 'fight or flight'. Phil Helmuth and Joe Navarro covered it extensively in their book entitled 'Phil Hellmuth Presents Read 'Em and Reap: A Career FBI Agent's Guide to Decoding Poker Tells'. The central notion is that our limbic brains have deeply routed responses that only highly skilled poker players can tune out. When our ancestors in the primeval jungles and savannahs encountered danger, as they must have rather regularly in the age of sabertooth tigers, they had to choose whether to flee or stand their ground risking a confrontation. There are physically evident remnants of fight or flight responses that can be observed at the poker table, and they're the most reliable tells, because they're the most deeply rooted in the brain. In other words, they're mainly subconscious and therefore totally earnest.
A flight response shows weakness. It's anything that shows a player would rather leave than stay at the table and play the hand. Backing away from the table, looking away, turning the body slightly away, and perhaps the most reliable of all, positioning the feet and legs in a 'runner's' start position, are all reliable flight responses. It may be hard to see your opponents legs and feet, but it's possible if they are sitting beside you. Now that you understand the fundamental concept behind flight tells, I'm sure you'll catch many variations of them in your poker game.
A fight response represents strength. Dilating pupils, an inward motion with the turn of a card, a glance down at his or her chips before looking straight ahead etc. . . these are all examples of reliable tells that indicate that the player has a good hand and is ready to stand their ground. There may be times when you also have a good hand and will still be compelled to bet in the face of such obvious strength. But one thing is for sure, if you don't have a hand, it's time to demonstrate the ultimate flight response tell yourself, and fold.