A tell in poker is a subtle but detectable change in a player's behavior or demeanor that gives clues to that player's assessment of his hand. A player gains an advantage if he observes and understands the meaning of another player's tell, particularly if the tell is unconscious and reliable. Sometimes a player may fake a tell, hoping to induce his opponents to make poor judgments in response to the false tell.
A tell may be common to a class of players or unique to a single player. Some possible tells include leaning forward or back, placing chips with more or less force, fidgeting, doing chip tricks, or making any changes in one's breathing, tone of voice, facial expressions, direction of gaze or in one's actions with the cards, chips, cigarettes or drinks.
An underlying rule to many tells is: Weak means strong, strong means weak. Basically, what this means is that players who hold weak poker hands attempt to convince other players at the table that they are strong: staring down an opponent, throwing chips down forcefully into the pot in an effort to discourage others from calling. On the other hand, players who hold strong hands tend to try to disguise their hand as being weak. They attempt to fly under the radar by being a passive player at the table: not making direct eye contact, softly tossing the chips in, friendly and talkative. They're deliberately trying not to come across as intimidating, so as to entice a call.
Examples of other well known tells include:
- Shaking hands, flush face or racing pulse may be the result of adrenaline caused by a player's excitement about a strong hand.
- A player with a strong hand may subconsciously keep his hand over his cards - this is attributed to a natural tendency to "protect" that which one considers valuable.
- A forceful, aggressive or loud demeanor, or any other display of confidence, may mean the player is attempting to disguise a weak hand.
- A quick glance at their chip stack after a card has fallen, or a quick glance at your chip stack before looking away.
- (Specific to Hold'em) It is much easier to remember specific values (i.e. 7, 10) rather than values and their suit (7s, 10d). Players will typically remember if both cards are of the same suit, so if you see a player double check his/her hole cards after seeing a suited flop fall, they're usually checking to see if they have one card of that particular suit. (You then know they're on a drawing hand)
A player's tell gives information only about that player's assessment of his own cards, and hence is reliable only when that player has accurately assessed his own hand. An unskillful player may reliably give information in a tell, but that information may be an unreliable guide to the player's hand if the player cannot assess the strength of a hand in a particular game. Similarly, especially online, players can accidentally make mistakes, like a player fumbling chips in a casino because he loses his balance or making a certain betting amount online by simply clicking the wrong button. Thus tells are guideposts, not guarantees.
In popular culture
David Mamet's 1987 movie House of Games includes as an essential part of the plot a discussion and visual reference to the tell.
The movie Rounders contains an even more subtle use of strategy: at one point, Mike discovers that his opponent changes the way he eats a cookie after betting an especially strong hand, and after using that knowledge once, Mike reveals to the opponent that he has discovered this tell. Mike's tactic works: although his revelation eliminates the usefulness of the tell itself, it upsets his opponent so much that it disrupts his subsequent play (q.v. tilt).
A popular reference to poker tells also appeared in the episode "Casino Night" of the US TV-series The Office: Dwight believes that Jim coughs every time he has a strong hand, but Jim really coughs only to make Dwight fold, because Jim knows that Dwight believes that coughing is Jim's tell.
In the M*A*S*H sixth-season episode "The Merchant of Korea," Hawkeye and B.J. lure Winchester, a beginner at poker, into a game with the intention of taking advantage of his inexperience. Winchester instead has an amazing lucky streak, until the other players realize that his incessant whistling (of a passage from Verdi's "La Traviata") grows louder when he is holding a weak hand and bluffing. Using this knowledge, the other players proceed to win back all of their money, and more.
In the episode "All In" of House, MD, House analyzes Cuddy's poker gameplay over the phone based on a reports of her tells given to him by Wilson.
One plot turn in the 2006 James Bond film Casino Royale hinges on Bond's belief that terrorist financer Le Chiffre must hide an eye twitch when he bluffs. However, until later on, Le Chiffre learns that Bond knows his tell and uses it against Bond to call an all-in bet.
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