Can tells be read and can they be helpful?



Reading body language and non-verbal cues is not only complicated but often the reader is wrong. To do this accurately without knowing the person is a herculean task. I would suggest that without training and knowing the player, it’s guesswork.

I often wonder if this is the best way for poker players to spend their time. I mostly think not.
When I was in graduate school, I attended a small seminar given by one of the world’s experts in body language and non-verbal behavior.

At dinner, I asked him to give me a 25-word key to this field. He said, “When you’re doing family therapy and you announce your analysis of what the family has to do to change and you notice the father rubbing his nose, it’s 100 percent certain the father is disqualifying (rejecting) the intervention.” The doctor then took a long sip of his cabernet and said, “Unless his nose itches!”

From that day, I remain skeptical of “readers” of body language and non-verbals who don’t have years of training and experience. I certainly am skeptical of absolutes regarding tells.

Can one really accurately read someone’s table behavior without a baseline? Baselines are how people act and react in a consistent manner. So one doesn’t know how the person acts regularly and then reads the person and bases decisions on that read, which is merely a guess.

Is the person twitching because they have a monster or are bluffing? Do they have a good hand, do they have a twitch or are they pretending? Good luck with that. Do you really want to make your decision with so little information?

Ah, but patterns can be determined at the table. You don’t need long-term history, knowledge or baselines.
Betting patterns might tell us more than any other read and any other pattern, because they can be observed in session.

If you notice someone always checks the river, you may be in a good place to bluff them, assuming your bluff meets the criteria of telling a credible story.

Checking the flop, check-raising the turn and betting the river might mean a monster, especially for a normally tight player. An abnormally big preflop raise by someone who never does that may mean a good pair and fear of losing it.

Your patterns are important, too. That’s why it is important to keep your bets and action consistent. Stay aware of table behavior, watch how people bet, see if they have a pattern and keep your head in the game.

— Dr. Stephen Bloomfield is a licensed psychologist and avid poker player. Email him at

Ante Up Magazine

Ante Up Magazine