Poker, Psychology and the Science of Tells

Poker, Psychology and the Science of Tells November 16, 2013

A friend who has a PhD in psychology sent me a recent study that found that “the quality of professional poker players’ hands is perceived accurately from arm movements.” In the study, they showed 78 undergrads video clips from the World Series of Poker that included no sound but had one version where you could only see the players’ faces and one where you could see their upper torsos too. They were asked to rank how strong they think the player’s hand is on a scale of 1-7. And the study found that seeing their bodies significantly increased the chances of reading their hand correctly.

In an email exchange that followed, I told her about a book written by a former FBI profiler about reading physical tells, particularly micro-gestures (tiny, unconscious physical reactions that are difficult to control) and she noted, correctly, that the evidence shows that “profiling” is pretty much a pseudo-science. But I don’t think this is really a reason to reject the idea of reading such gestures at a poker table and this is what I wrote to her in response:

Poker is a little bit different than the usual “can you tell if someone is lying” question. First, because you get to observe someone’s behavior over a long period of time. Second, because your analysis of the information you’re getting from someone’s physical cues is only one of many pieces of information that you have to try to figure out what’s going on. One of the things I hate about poker movies is that they make it look like reading people is some sort of supernatural power, like really good poker players can just look at someone and know instantaneously whether they’re bluffing. It doesn’t work that way, of course.

There are many different types of “tells” that a player can give off, but most of them involve betting patterns rather than physical clues. If you know how to play Texas hold ’em, let’s say someone opens for a raise in late position and you’re deciding whether to call them. Do you think they have a really strong hand? The first question you’re going to ask yourself is: how aggressive is this player? Have they been sitting and folding for the last hour? Or do they open for a raise when they’re in late position 80% of the time? If they’re an aggressive player, they could be raising pre-flop with a wide range of hands, everything from rags (two crappy cards) to a pair of aces. If they’re a tight player, it’s more likely that they’ve got a premium hand. So you take that information into account.

You make the same calculation after the flop, if you call them. If they make make a sizable bet after the flop, you have to evaluate again how likely it is that they have a strong hand. But now you have the additional information of the cards on the board. If it’s a tight player and the board comes with high cards, there’s a relatively high likelihood that those cards match with their hand and they’re probably pretty strong. If they’re a more aggressive player, the chances are smaller. Let’s say a player who raises a lot before the flop does so and you call them and see a flop of Ace/King/9. You know that the range of hands he could have is very large, which means it’s less likely that he started with a really strong hand (like Ace-King or Ace-Queen). It may not be a bad idea to reraise them after the flop, representing that the flop “hit” your hand and you’re very strong. If they raised pre-flop with a medium hand, like maybe 8-9 or 9-10 suited, there’s a good chance you can push them off that pot whether you have an ace or a king or not if you reraise them after the flop.

It’s in the context of all of that kind of information that you’re getting from their betting patterns and their tendencies over the course of a few hours that a physical tell can provide just a little bit more information that can help you decide whether their hand is strong or weak. And what you’re really looking for with physical tells is a change in behavior. You take a mental snapshot of how someone behaves at the table — do they sit up close and pay attention to every hand or do they lean back in their chair? When they have a decision to make, do they take their time and carefully think things through before deciding whether to fold, call or raise, or do they do it very quickly? Do they put their chips in forcefully or do they just casually slide them in? Do they announce what they’re going to do before they actually do it or do they just put the chips in? There are a lot of these aspects of their usual behavior that allow you to detect a chance in behavior.

If someone is just kind of bantering with the players around them and leaning back in their chair and then suddenly, when they get dealt their cards, they sit up straight and stop talking and start paying close attention to what’s going on, that’s probably a sign that they just got dealt a really good hand. But it could also mean that they’ve decided to play this hand regardless of whether it’s good. You combine the physical information you’re getting with your previous analysis of how they play, how aggressive they are, what kind of hands they’ve been playing in early position or late position, etc, to give you a total picture of what’s going on. And a good player knows that all they’re really looking at are clues with a conclusion that is strictly probability — I think there’s a pretty good chance, based on all of these factors, that this person is bluffing or is not bluffing right now. In that context, I do think the examination of these conscious and unconscious physical gestures can really help you narrow down the possibilities and make an informed decision, but they’re not magic powers. It’s not “Oh, he just stroked his beard or she’s suddenly blinking a lot so I know they’re bluffing.”

And I’ll add to that here: This is all only one part of reading people, of poker psychology. I can’t remember who it was who originated this idea, but there are four levels of poker thinking that go from bad players to good players.

Level 1: What do I have? These players focus only on the cards in their hand, not thinking at all about what you may have and whether it’s better than them. You will make a hell of a lot of money playing against them.

Level 2: What do I have and what do they have? These players will think about both the strength of their hand and the strength of your hand. These are better players. They’re at least paying attention to both of those things so they are less likely to pay you off with a really big hand because they’re actually thinking about whether you’ve got them beat or not.

Level 3: What do I have, what do they have, and what do they think I have? These are much better players because now they’re thinking about how you’re thinking about the hand.

Level 4: What do I have, what do they have, what do they think I have and how can I make them think I have something different than I have? This is the highest level of poker. Now you’re thinking about how you can manipulate other players into thinking about the hand wrongly, into misreading you. And the better you are at all of those four factors, the more likely you are to win.

And again, in all of this you’re reading not just physical tells but also betting patterns, tendencies, basic personality, and situations at the table. Are they aggressive all the time? Are they thoughtful and deliberate? Are they just here for the fun of it and don’t really care about winning or losing (which makes them harder to manipulate)? Are they fed up and tired of getting pushed around (and thus likely to call a big bet with any decent hand)? Are they getting tired and shortstacked — and does this mean that they’re likely to put all their money in on any halfway good hand or that they’re going to play really tight until they get a big hand? All those things (and much more) factor in to all of the analysis at those last three levels.

You see why I love the game of poker? It’s a psychological chess game. And physical tells are just one small part of it.

Browse Our Archives

Follow Us!

What Are Your Thoughts?leave a comment
  • skepticaleye

    Sure, but if you break your Oreo in half and listen to it rather than eat it, well…

  • This sort of analysis is why I instinctively reject any supposed hard and fast lie detection test that doesn’t involve directly observing the brain. People are diverse and complex. Various behaviors have multiple explanations. On top of all that, there are the circumstances surrounding their behaviors to take into account. Lie detectors and such look to me like a seductive excuse to shirk hard detective work.

    On the different playing levels, I recently watched an anime called Akagi, featuring a prodigy Japanese Majong player, and it kind of dealt with the difference between the third and fourth level. In Majong, deducing your opponents’ hands is particularly vital since they can use your discarded tiles if it would give them a winning hand. (That’s a thing in Gin Rummy, too, isn’t it?) Akagi would sometimes play seemingly irrationally, going for less likely combinations precisely because conservative, sensible moves are predictable by skilled players. Once or twice he did that sort of thing to make his opponents dismiss him as a young amateur. Then his opponents would discard something they thought was safe, letting him win.

  • Al Dente

    I don’t play much poker but I do play high-level bridge. To prevent cheating by partners signaling to each other (by how they hold their hands or announce their bids) during the bidding a curtain is drawn diagonally across the table so partners can’t see each other and bids are written down and announced by a competition official. This also has the effect that a player can’t see one of his opponents and so can only read physical tells from one opponent.

    Bridge can be as psychological as poker, especially since many bids are purely artificial. During a tournament each partnership has to give a list of the bidding conventions they use and, if a convention is unusual, give an explanation. I was recently involved in a round of bidding which went: 1 spade, double, 3 spades, pass, 3 no trump, pass, 4 diamonds, pass, 4 no trump, pass, 5 hearts, pass, 6 spades, all pass. Any knowledgeable bridge player would immediately recognize a takeout double which was refused, a limit bid and two rounds of Blackwood (asking for number of aces and number of kings) before settling on a small slam in spades (which we made).

  • Well, the four levels thing sounds like if I keep it in mind, it should help me get the achievement I’ve been struggling for in Red Dead Redemption…By definition, they’re largely algorithm-driven, so I don’t really need to think deeply about L3, and there’s no way for me to influence L4 (they can’t perceive anything about me but my betting pattern) outside my betting pattern.

    Thanks. 🙂

  • iasasai

    Thanks for the information! I think I now understand why I absolutely can’t stand poker. That psychological gamesmanship and manipulation sounds like the exact opposite of fun, but hey, whatever works for you.

  • sc_770d159609e0f8deaa72849e3731a29d

    A friend of mine fractured his skull badly many years ago. Some of the after-effects include partial deafness, tinnitus, poor co-ordination and tics and twitches. One of the after-effects of these problems is that he is a much better poker player because people are completely unable to ‘read’ his behaviour/

  • Martin, heading for geezerhood


    I don’t get the bidding sequence you said had 2 Blackwoods:

    This would have been my interpretation…which is a bit flaky at the 3N/4D bids

    1S: Min 13HCP, Min 5 spades; P; 3S: Min 12HCP, Min 4 Spades; P;

    3N: 1st or 2nd round stoppers in unbid suits; P; 4D: Cue bid, diamond Ace/void; P;

    4N: Blackwood Ace or Keycard asking; P; 5H: 2 Keycards with no Queen Spades; P;


    Does this mean you’re using 3N as Ace/Keycard asking?

  • dfarmer1584

    @4 in re Red Dead:

    I enjoy Read Dead very much, and I LOVE Texas Hold’em, but the so-called Hold’em in Read Dead drives me to murder. I’ve seen the computer characters make moves that no sane living person on earth could make, and they win every time. For example, I get pocket AA and of course I raise the pot. The drone player re-raises my bet. Usually this is a VERY sweet situation! you WANT to get raised when you’ve got the bullets! I am of the poker school that believes you should always get in the last bet with pocket aces, so, accordingly, I re-raise again. The drone 5 bets me, and it continues- 6 bet, 7 bet. Finally, all the chips are in–and then I know that I have no chance to win the pot with the best possible starting hand in the game. It is predetermined. The flop comes with two diamonds, and you just know the river will be a diamond also. Of course the river is another diamond. The drone shows his all-in preflop, rags to riches, 42 of diamonds, giving him the rivered flush.

    The only good thing about this is that I can then put on my bandana and toss a stick of dynomite on the table! Wooo-hooo!

    (If only I could do that at the Bay101 club)

  • Konradius

    You forgot level 5:

    Level 5: what do they think I have and how can I make them think I have something different than I have?

    This is actually the worst level of player as they completely forget that the game is about the actual cards on the table and not the psychological stuff around it.

    ‘Hah, you completely thought I had another hand’

    ‘Um, I still win…’

    (in other words, don’t try to jump levels too soon)

  • alwayscurious


    LOL! I dislike poker, but I played one night with an acquaintance who was really into it. It came down to me & him at the end. I was extremely tired and decided that I had a 50% chance of winning any given hand. Therefore, I started betting without regard to my hand (not even looking at it on several occasions). My friend didn’t notice for several rounds and went nuts when I finally told him–I had cleaned him out inadvertently while he was busy analyzing my tells, behaviors, etc.

  • Pingback: Game theory | hyde and rugg()