Most Advice on Poker Tells is so Basic it’s Incorrect
If you play poker I know you have seen or read a post or article on poker tells that is some variation of these titles:
“A collection of the top 5 tells.”
“Here’s a very well known tell that all players do.”
The premises of these articles are totally incorrect and I can explain exactly why.
One of the central arguments of Beyond Tells is that the poker community has advanced in every single way except when it comes to tells. Part of the reason that poker tells are considered not valuable is the language that is used to describe them and the simplicity of what is normally thought of as a “tell.”
At Beyond Tells we call this the “X Means Y” Fallacy. For example, “If a player bets quickly, they are weak.”
This is how most poker tells are discussed and occasionally you will get what I refer to as “the read cop out.”
For example, “If a player bets quickly, they are weak, BUT, you need to understand their baseline behavior.”
This advice is given with no discussion of how to understand baseline behavior, spot deviations in that behavior, or interpret it.
The ultimate problem is that the discussion of behavior at the table is often completely absent of behavioral context. The best way to examine this is to look at the statements made by players with a natural aptitude for reading behavior that has been refined through thousands of hours of live experience. These players will often comment on behavior and they aren’t even to be able to articulate what they are seeing.
For example, they may state: “He was biting his lip a little bit as soon as the river came so I knew he was bluffing.”
What they are really processing is more along the lines of: “Preflop he limp-called, which he never does with any hand on the top of his range. On the flop, he looked like he regretted his pot sized bet on the dry board when I snap called him. On the turn, he checked quickly and seemed surprised when I checked back as well. On the river, he check shoved, and become way more still than normal and was definitely more tense, after I waited about a minute to act he seemed to slightly bite his lip when I looked like I was going to call.”
Every single high level player who uses behavior actively at the table has no idea how they know what they know. They may not be consciously aware of the amount of information they are processing. They have the acquired gift of rapid cognition. This is a direct result of spending thousands of hours at the poker table.
The central problem is that these “tells” are passed down through the poker community and have nowhere near the same effect because of the difference in context. We are left with empty and inaccurate generalizations, without the logic, thought process, behavioral information, or context that can allow high level players to profitably incorporate behavioral reads into their game. This type of information gets distributed in books, articles, videos, and other players try it. When it doesn’t work, behavior at the table understandably gets a bad reputation as being useless.
If something can’t be systematically taught, it's going to be very difficult to actually apply.
In the video The Power of Behavior and Context found in The Behavioral Edge Workshop I visually display how “X means Y” is the wrong approach to behavior and why that fallacy often does more harm than good.
Behavior is NOT simple and if we use basic language and oversimplifications, we are going to be wrong more often than not. When it comes to human behavior, X means Y just doesn’t work. Human beings are too complex and behavior ALWAYS needs to be considered relative to the individual and the context. The second you apply generic reads to every poker table or every player, you are going to make very big mistakes.