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Spotting Tells

by Steve Zolotow |  Published: Aug 31, 2016


Steve ZolotowWhen it comes to spotting tells, poker players and authors fall into three categories: skeptics, believers, and subconscious utilizers. The skeptics state firmly that tells are relatively unimportant and they are difficult to spot, since there are so many opponents and so much going on. Even when spotted, you have to correctly diagnose what they mean. And when you spot a tell and correctly read its meaning, it is still useless unless it leads to your achieving a better result than you would have gotten otherwise. For example, in a heads-up pot, your opponent checks on the river. You spot a tell indicating weakness and bet with Q-J high. He folds and you win the pot. If you had checked, he would have exposed J-10 high, and you would have won anyway. Spotting that tell was worthless.

The believers will state that they often spot tells and that these form an important source of information, which enables them to make correct decisions more often. The believers can describe exactly what they saw, and explain what it meant. The third category absorbs information subconsciously. It is a factor in their decisions, but they couldn’t really articulate what they picked up on or how it influenced them. I think my play combines both the conscious and subconscious use of tells. I am also sure that almost all top, live players are influenced by tells, and that many of them are much more proficient at capitalizing on them than I am.

Most of us are not very observant, and are easily distracted. In the short story, A Scandal in Bohemia by Arthur Conan Doyle, Sherlock Holmes states, “You see, but you do not observe. The distinction is clear.” This is also sometimes stated as “you look without seeing.” In this column, I will discuss ways to overcome this problem. Most skills can be improved through training, and observation is no different. How can you train your ability to observe?

I have just started reading, or really studying, a book called Visual Intelligence by Amy E. Herman. She uses works of art as a vehicle for learning how to see what is really there. I would recommend that anyone interested in improving his or her observational abilities read this book. Often it is necessary to separate what we actually see from what we think we are seeing. Our mind and emotions may create a very different perception of reality from what is really there. Try to avoid subjective observations that may be based on assumptions, opinions, feelings, or values. To give a poker example, consider the difference between these observations. My opponent checked. My opponent tapped the table. My opponent paused, rechecked his hole cards, and tapped the table. My opponent paused, rechecked his hole cards, and tapped the table twice with the middle two fingers of his left hand. My opponent paused, rechecked his hole cards, but continued to clutch them with his right hand while he tapped the table twice with the middle two fingers of his left hand. Any one of these behaviors may be a tell. Perhaps the tell arises from a specific sequence of behaviors. But if all you noticed is that your opponent checked, you would never find out. First you must learn to observe exactly what specific behaviors he displayed, and then to correlate them with the hand he later shows down. This can be very frustrating. Sometimes the hand is never shown. At other times, a sequence that seems meaningful will prove to be completely random.

Many of us fall into the habit of texting or watching videos on various smart phones. Others are glued to the games on the TVs located in virtually every poker room. Others focus on their cards or the flop. Some search the room looking for the cocktail waitress. I have no objection to any of these pursuits, but if your goal is to observe and utilize your opponents’ tells, you must discipline yourself to focus on exactly what is happening. This is tremendously hard work, but the expertise you develop in reading your opponents, will pay off big time. If you are new to trying to analyze your opponents’ behaviors in minute detail, start small and build up your ability and stamina. Try to observe everything that happens on three hands in a night. The next session try for four, and so on. Take breaks when you go on automatic pilot while playing, where you leave the table to stroll around the casino and clear your head. ♠

Steve ‘Zee’ Zolotow, aka The Bald Eagle, is a successful gamesplayer. He has been a full-time gambler for over 35 years. With two WSOP bracelets and few million in tournament cashes, he is easing into retirement. He currently devotes most of his time to poker. He can be found at some major tournaments and playing in cash games in Vegas. When escaping from poker, he hangs out in his bars on Avenue A in New York City -The Library near Houston and Doc Holliday’s on 9th St. are his favorites.