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Poker Tells/Behavior, hosted by: Zachary Elwood Discussions about poker tells, behavior, and psychology, with a focus on live poker.

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Old 07-18-2017, 01:09 PM   #1
Shai Hulud
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How frequently should I be able to spot tells?

I've read Reading Poker Tells and Verbal Poker Tells and I think I understand everything in theory. However, I rarely see any of the behavior described in the books. There are some tells I see quite often: bet-sizing tells and timing tells. Also pre-flop I often spot players telegraphing their intention to fold. But as far as physical or verbal tells, the vast majority of the time I have no clue, particularly post-flop. I watch players carefully as the flop, turn, and river are dealt, trying to gauge a reaction. I almost always can't see anything noticeable. There's the occasional old man who suddenly looks really cheery, or the complete amateur whose hands start shaking, but for me this is quite rare.

Spotting things like breathing rates, pulse, blinking rates, verbal patterns, defensively playing with one's chips, etc., I hardly ever see anything like this I'm able to correlate in a meaningful way with hand strength.

The vast majority of the time when I am watching a player as the flop is dealt, I can't tell anything from the reaction. I figure this is because unless someone flops the nuts, or air in a big pot, he's either not going to much care the he missed, or if he hit, will have conflicting feelings about his hand. Maybe he has a weak top pair and is worried about being dominated. Maybe he flopped a decent draw. Maybe he flopped a set but is legitimately worried about the straight and flush possibilities. I just can't tell.

So I'm wondering if I suck at spotting tell like this or if they're naturally rare. How often should I be spotting tells? I'd say in typical games I spot a physical or verbal tell just a couple times a session, and it's rarely useful. Am I doing something wrong?
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Old 07-18-2017, 01:51 PM   #2
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Re: How frequently should I be able to spot tells?

I have read Navarro, Caro, etc. I have made a point of trying to baseline and study players. I am lucky if I get a tell that influences my action more than once a session.

Some of them are very easy and casual. For example, I open raise from the button pre, only the BB calls. As soon as the flop comes out, he shifts his weight slightly back or crosses his arms. I will usually c-bet automatically at this point. It is less common that someone makes a big move, and that I get a soul read on him after staring him down
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Old 07-19-2017, 02:17 PM   #3
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Re: How frequently should I be able to spot tells?

Remember when it comes to tells that you are looking for 'differences' in how a player reacts from one spot to another. Directly looking for a specific tell may not provide us any information at all. Each player is different in that way and some may not provide us with any viable information.

One of the easiest tells comes from a player looking down at their chip stack when a card comes out or action is now on them. Both tend to indicate a willingness to bet .. which generally means they have a strong hand or their metal 'plan' is coming together. If you are not seeing this then you are playing with a pretty tough bunch of players. GL
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Old 07-19-2017, 02:32 PM   #4
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Re: How frequently should I be able to spot tells?

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Remember when it comes to tells that you are looking for 'differences' in how a player reacts from one spot to another. Directly looking for a specific tell may not provide us any information at all. Each player is different in that way and some may not provide us with any viable information.
Right. We have to correlate a tell, aside from the most obvious ones, and it's quite rare I can correlate any physical behavior. For example, sometimes I see a guy blinking what seems an unusual amount at a flop, but in some cases the guy had a strong hand and in others a weak hand.

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One of the easiest tells comes from a player looking down at their chip stack when a card comes out or action is now on them. Both tend to indicate a willingness to bet .. which generally means they have a strong hand or their metal 'plan' is coming together. If you are not seeing this then you are playing with a pretty tough bunch of players. GL
I usually don't see people looking at their chips before action is on them. Or maybe I just haven't noticed. I do see them looking at their chips when action is on them...but what good is it to know if a player looking at his chip stack when action is on him intends to bet? We'll know that five seconds later when he bets...right?
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Old 07-21-2017, 12:45 PM   #5
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Re: How frequently should I be able to spot tells?

Start by spending the first couple circuits in observation. You're not looking for tells, you're just getting to know people. Clothes, demeanor, the type of hands they play and how they play them.

When you start reading, focus small. Look at a player or two across from you for just a couple of the most common tells - weak means strong, strong means weak, and the "chip glance", and look for chip holding and timing tells from the two players to your left. Don't spend much time at first studying the 3-4 seats to your right as you have position on them and their bets will give you most of the info you need. Practice this whether you're in or out of a hand. If you get 1-2 solid reads per trip around the table you're doing well.
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Old 07-23-2017, 03:27 AM   #6
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Re: How frequently should I be able to spot tells?

1 to 2 reads per orbit? That is crazy. No way I can catch that many tells

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Old 07-23-2017, 10:03 PM   #7
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Re: How frequently should I be able to spot tells?

I agree with the Old Man of the Desert. If you are picking up 1+ reads per orbit, either you have played with the same people a million years, have other worldly powers of observation and correlation, or are playing with the twitchiest, most undisciplined players known to man.

I can observe traits and see a trait, maybe once per orbit, but this is rarely prescriptive enough to be an actionable tell. A guy shifts his weight when he looks at his cards, do I think that means he is considering making a move with a drawing hand, or do I think his leg was cramping? A man leans back and covers his torso with his arms, do I think it means he is vulnerable and defensive, or stressed because he has aces and is trying to figure out how to play them?

Developing the ability to accurately read a person's body language to the point where it can guide your action reliably is a lot more difficult than it sounds, and it doesn't really sound easy.
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Old 08-11-2017, 10:30 AM   #8
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Re: How frequently should I be able to spot tells?

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Remember when it comes to tells that you are looking for 'differences' in how a player reacts from one spot to another. Directly looking for a specific tell may not provide us any information at all. Each player is different in that way and some may not provide us with any viable information.
Yeah, its all about pattern recognition. It can take a few hours with tight unknowns.

I play the same room consistently and rely on betting patterns more than body language against regs. A swallow, neck scratch, lean back, clock dump, are too often reverse tells.
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Old 08-19-2017, 04:40 AM   #9
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Re: How frequently should I be able to spot tells?

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Remember when it comes to tells that you are looking for 'differences' in how a player reacts from one spot to another. Directly looking for a specific tell may not provide us any information at all. Each player is different in that way and some may not provide us with any viable information.

One of the easiest tells comes from a player looking down at their chip stack when a card comes out or action is now on them. Both tend to indicate a willingness to bet .. which generally means they have a strong hand or their metal 'plan' is coming together. If you are not seeing this then you are playing with a pretty tough bunch of players. GL
This is what I was going to say if someone else didn't. Jonathan Little seems to be very good at spotting tells that I have never heard of and wouldn't be looking for, but I don't hear him talking a lot about the standard tells like sitting up straighter when a good card (for villain) hits the flop. It's all about doing something differently.

EXAMPLE: Little saw someone put his chips in the pot in a vertical row when the card improved his hand. When it was a horizontal row the card did not help his hand. Once Little saw that he won the next three hands against villain and knocked him out of the tournament.
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Old 08-21-2017, 07:44 AM   #10
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Re: How frequently should I be able to spot tells?

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This is what I was going to say if someone else didn't. Jonathan Little seems to be very good at spotting tells that I have never heard of and wouldn't be looking for, but I don't hear him talking a lot about the standard tells like sitting up straighter when a good card (for villain) hits the flop. It's all about doing something differently.
I reversed 'telled' a guy who thought he had a similar line on me. He thought that if I put my chips out there in neat stacks that I 'already' had a hand or very strong draw. Whereas if I just put my chips out and let them fall down then I was weak. What he didn't know is that it basically was related to the number of chips I was putting out ... 8+ chips get stacked, less get 'laid' out.

He let it slip that he 'had me figured out' when he was right with Ace high. I replayed the hand in my head and set up the experiment in a later hand. He again called with Ace high on a draw heavy board after I 'splayed' out my River bet on a blank .. with top set. Nice payoff for something that wasn't even related to my game but perceived as a tell anyway. GL
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Old 08-21-2017, 01:59 PM   #11
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Re: How frequently should I be able to spot tells?

So in order to watch for these common tells like players looking at their chips I have to be watching them. My problem with this is they tend to stare back or just ignore it but almost always I know they know I'm looking. I suck at making quick glances and I suck even more at spotting such things with my peripheral vision.

Should I just give in and get some prescription sunglasses? I haven't done so yet because it conveys a competitive atmosphere and makes me look like a "pro" but I don't know how else to watch for tells without giving myself away.

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Old 08-22-2017, 10:09 AM   #12
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Re: How frequently should I be able to spot tells?

I wouldn't go the sunglasses route .. Those folks are at the top of my 'bust um' list when I sit down at a table.

You have to gauge your ability to absorb information .. and it sounds like you have. I rely on my peripheral vision a lot 'now' that I've been through a lot of hands. I don't need to see full view of things since I catch the nod of the head or the movement of a hand in order for them to see their chips better. They really shouldn't see you looking at them since they generally are looking at the board and then immediately look at their chips .. you should be able to look away before they 'catch' you.

Even if they are aware that you are paying attention, most players cant' help themselves from their normal behavior. They may tighten their range, but usually they can't help what their body does .. or they look really uncomfortable trying to prevent themselves from doing what they naturally want to do ... which is, of course, a tell of it's own! GL
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Old 09-12-2017, 08:32 PM   #13
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Re: How frequently should I be able to spot tells?

This is a great question and I'm sorry it took me so long to see it!

Long story short: it is pretty infrequently in my opinion that even the best live players will be getting a reliable read. When I play, it's maybe 2-5 times in a typical 8-hour session that someone's behavior might influence me to change a decision. Notice I phrase that carefully; although I might notice a lot more tells than that, some of those tells will be with a) players I'm not in the hand with, or b) won't change the decision I was already going to make.

I don't think that I'm the best reader of tells (just a very interested student and above average communicator) so of course it's possible that someone like Phil Ivey is getting confident reads significantly more frequently. But based on talking to some experienced players over the years, I don't think it would be that much more frequent than what I've described, but you never know.

Another caveat: when I say I get a handful of decision-changing reads per session, some of these will be fairly minor early-hand decision-makers. For example, if I think an opponent tends to move around a lot more and act more agitated when raising a weaker hand pre-flop, then I will sometimes be 3-betting him light based on this pattern, even if I think it's only a slightly reliable tell. It's enough to sway me to make a different decision, but it's just a very small part of the overall hand. So in other words; big-bet tells are even more rare than these kinds of early-hand, minor clues that can be used.

I will say that playing in like a very bad $1-2 game or $2-5 cash or very low buy-in tournament can yield a lot more reliable tells. Some players are big talkers, and that can obv be a source of a lot of information.

I think this infrequency is very important to realize and I've tried my best to communicate this in my books. I actually went back into my first book and put in a couple more mentions of this in a later revision, just because I was often getting the perception that people thought I was implying that reads were or should be frequent, and that was definitely something I didn't want to do. One mistake I might have made in the first book was starting with the sentence that said something like "I have learned to read opponents way better than I thought possible when I first started playing poker seriously," which may have implied I was getting frequent reads, when I was more just stating I was impressed with how well I did compared to my skills when I started out. And maybe people miss the disclaimers I put in the books if they're skimming; that's another factor.

Hope that helps. Yeah, reading people is hard and I don't pretend it isn't. There's a lot of noise and with most somewhat decent players, reads will be tough to make. I actually think it is fairly easy to be unreadable, provided you know the common ways information (verbal and physical) can leak, which is one of the main ways I think my books/videos are valuable; it's not so much the reading others that's important, it's the prevention of being read by more experienced players.
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Old 09-13-2017, 12:22 AM   #14
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Re: How frequently should I be able to spot tells?

Nice post, z

I especially like:
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I actually think it is fairly easy to be unreadable, provided you know the common ways information (verbal and physical) can leak, which is one of the main ways I think my books/videos are valuable
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Old 09-13-2017, 12:25 AM   #15
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Re: How frequently should I be able to spot tells?

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This is a great question and I'm sorry it took me so long to see it!

Long story short: it is pretty infrequently in my opinion that even the best live players will be getting a reliable read. When I play, it's maybe 2-5 times in a typical 8-hour session that someone's behavior might influence me to change a decision. Notice I phrase that carefully; although I might notice a lot more tells than that, some of those tells will be with a) players I'm not in the hand with, or b) won't change the decision I was already going to make.

I don't think that I'm the best reader of tells (just a very interested student and above average communicator) so of course it's possible that someone like Phil Ivey is getting confident reads significantly more frequently. But based on talking to some experienced players over the years, I don't think it would be that much more frequent than what I've described, but you never know.

Another caveat: when I say I get a handful of decision-changing reads per session, some of these will be fairly minor early-hand decision-makers. For example, if I think an opponent tends to move around a lot more and act more agitated when raising a weaker hand pre-flop, then I will sometimes be 3-betting him light based on this pattern, even if I think it's only a slightly reliable tell. It's enough to sway me to make a different decision, but it's just a very small part of the overall hand. So in other words; big-bet tells are even more rare than these kinds of early-hand, minor clues that can be used.

I will say that playing in like a very bad $1-2 game or $2-5 cash or very low buy-in tournament can yield a lot more reliable tells. Some players are big talkers, and that can obv be a source of a lot of information.

I think this infrequency is very important to realize and I've tried my best to communicate this in my books. I actually went back into my first book and put in a couple more mentions of this in a later revision, just because I was often getting the perception that people thought I was implying that reads were or should be frequent, and that was definitely something I didn't want to do. One mistake I might have made in the first book was starting with the sentence that said something like "I have learned to read opponents way better than I thought possible when I first started playing poker seriously," which may have implied I was getting frequent reads, when I was more just stating I was impressed with how well I did compared to my skills when I started out. And maybe people miss the disclaimers I put in the books if they're skimming; that's another factor.

Hope that helps. Yeah, reading people is hard and I don't pretend it isn't. There's a lot of noise and with most somewhat decent players, reads will be tough to make. I actually think it is fairly easy to be unreadable, provided you know the common ways information (verbal and physical) can leak, which is one of the main ways I think my books/videos are valuable; it's not so much the reading others that's important, it's the prevention of being read by more experienced players.
The bolded part actually refers to a different kind of tell, that you might be facing a good player that you don't want to mess with.

Tells are usually based on a player acting or reacting in a way that is noticeable. But suppose that a player never talks during a hand, always puts his chips in the pot with the same motion, always checks with the same motion and always takes about the same amount of time to make a decision.

That player is working on his game and doesn't want to give you any information. There's your tell--he's serious about poker and if you have a choice, pick on someone else at the table.
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Old 09-13-2017, 05:45 AM   #16
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Re: How frequently should I be able to spot tells?

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The bolded part actually refers to a different kind of tell, that you might be facing a good player that you don't want to mess with.

Tells are usually based on a player acting or reacting in a way that is noticeable. But suppose that a player never talks during a hand, always puts his chips in the pot with the same motion, always checks with the same motion and always takes about the same amount of time to make a decision.

That player is working on his game and doesn't want to give you any information. There's your tell--he's serious about poker and if you have a choice, pick on someone else at the table.
Do you think there is much value in acting in this manner? Deliberately giving out zero information? As you say it does give away one crucial bit of information--that you are serious.

I have tried playing this way, taking the same amount of time for every decision, always looking at the same place, always betting with the same motion and speed, and so forth. I think I am pretty good at being unreadable, but lately I've been acting more flexibly and naturally while still trying to remain relatively unreadable. I think in low stakes games it's important to act friendly and not look too unusual.

------------

Thanks Zach, I feel a little better about my ability to spot tells but looks like I have a ways to go. I'm getting a couple good tells per session max...just gotta keep working on it.

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Old 09-13-2017, 08:35 AM   #17
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Re: How frequently should I be able to spot tells?

Keep working on it if you feel you are getting any benefits from it. I readily admit that I use live tells 'a lot', but I may be tying my use of tells into just 'basic' situation based poker decision making. Is betting the Turn in position when it checks around for the second time actually using tells? I may be stretching the use of tells into these types of poker situations.

Notice Zach's indication of the low volume of using a tell 'to change' a decision as opposed to just reinforcing one. He also mentions that it's probably more prevalent at the lower stakes .. which is where I reside most of the time. There is always play with words ... Your cards may stink and you should check, but the use of tells may reinforce that this is a 'better' spot to bluff than normal or it may confirm that checking is the 'only' option in this hand!

To get more into the 'readable' comments .. Yes, the lack of information is actually 'information' about a player. I constantly struggle with trying to remain consistent in my game while also attempting to remain unpredictable (unreadable) ... How do you do that? I think that integrating the most common tells into your own game as false tells (in the right situation) should be a benefit to most players. I think the most successful way to do this for me is with bet speed, sizing and presentation ... and I think this carries up to the higher stakes as well. In order to do this you really need to be thinking ahead in each hand and have a couple of different action options that you are considering .. and then act fluently when it's your turn.

I play in a reg heavy environment. I have lots of history/information to work with when it comes to decision making that may not be available against a random at a 'new' room.

Play in a manner that's best for your personality as this will allow you to be more comfortable in your physical actions. As I indicated above, I think you can benefit greatly in a game when you actually give off tells. I think an opponent's subconscious will catalog this even if the player themselves may not really care or put an effort into paying attention. And this can help you get them to make some decisions one way or the other to your benefit.

Love this stuff !! GL
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Old 09-13-2017, 03:07 PM   #18
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Re: How frequently should I be able to spot tells?

Regarding the whole 'staying unreadable' thing. When I say that it's easy to stay unreadable, I don't mean necessarily that someone is completely stoic and not moving and silent. I just mean that they're balanced in their behavior, which can still mean they do/say a lot of things, but there are no solid patterns to latch onto.

When writing Verbal Poker Tells, I studied a lot of players who talked during hands and one player that stood out to me as having no identifiable verbal patterns, despite talking a lot, was Phil Laak. I saw a good amount of patterns from other players (including Negreanu, although that was mainly a factor of him probably purposefully being imbalanced to deceive/manipulate less-skilled opponents) but with Laak, even though he talked a whole lot, I could find no reliable pattern to his statements, or when he decided to talk.

I just mention that to say: I think you can still be quite relaxed-seeming during hands and still be unreadable. A lot of people have told me Verbal Poker Tells was most valuable because it allowed them to talk during hands and not feel like they were giving away information. This allowed them to a) seem more relaxed, which is good for the game, and b) potentially gather information from opponents with their talk.
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Old 09-13-2017, 03:13 PM   #19
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Re: How frequently should I be able to spot tells?

My ability to spot tells really improved once I stopped looking for specific things and just relaxed and observed. If and when something stands out, you'll be more ready for it than if you focus on specific things or looking for common tells.

Example: I noticed a player reached for red chips first, then quickly switched to green chips. His red stack only had 8 or 9 chips in it, while his green stack had about the same number of chips (5x the value). What I took from it is that he was weak because his natural inclination was to grab the smaller chips. A strong hand would be thinking "How much can I bet" not "how little can I bet."

Your mind will naturally notice things that are out of the ordinary if you relax rather than trying to hyperfocus in order to spot something. Think of it like trying to see something in the distance versus situational awareness. If you are peering through binoculars, you field of view is limited to that very specific thing.

Since you've already done the homework of what different tells indicate, you can just relax now and observe. Once you see something, your background/knowledge will let you make the right decision.

Final story: a friend of mine made a big bet on the river and he was perfectly calm on the outside but his pulse was clearly visible in his neck and it was very fast. If I was more experienced at the time, I would have read strength based off of player type and board texture. I incorrectly read nervousness and called. But now I know what that means in the context of that specific player. Every read must include context.
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Old 09-17-2017, 10:35 AM   #20
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Re: How frequently should I be able to spot tells?

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My ability to spot tells really improved once I stopped looking for specific things and just relaxed and observed. If and when something stands out, you'll be more ready for it than if you focus on specific things or looking for common tells.

Example: I noticed a player reached for red chips first, then quickly switched to green chips. His red stack only had 8 or 9 chips in it, while his green stack had about the same number of chips (5x the value). What I took from it is that he was weak because his natural inclination was to grab the smaller chips. A strong hand would be thinking "How much can I bet" not "how little can I bet."

Your mind will naturally notice things that are out of the ordinary if you relax rather than trying to hyperfocus in order to spot something. Think of it like trying to see something in the distance versus situational awareness. If you are peering through binoculars, you field of view is limited to that very specific thing.

Since you've already done the homework of what different tells indicate, you can just relax now and observe. Once you see something, your background/knowledge will let you make the right decision.

Final story: a friend of mine made a big bet on the river and he was perfectly calm on the outside but his pulse was clearly visible in his neck and it was very fast. If I was more experienced at the time, I would have read strength based off of player type and board texture. I incorrectly read nervousness and called. But now I know what that means in the context of that specific player. Every read must include context.
Your last story underlines a key point. Often tells just indicate arousal (not sexual arousal) or stress. This could be out of fear or defensiveness, or it could be because they flopped the stone cold nuts and are stressed about how to get the maximum value. A lot of limbic responses are triggered whenever you choose to engage in a big hand, whether you are weak or strong. The elevated pulse is the bodies way of preparing for action, doesn't necessarily mean weak or strong. The next time it happens, he could easily be on a big bluff.
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Old 09-17-2017, 05:02 PM   #21
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Re: How frequently should I be able to spot tells?

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Your last story underlines a key point. Often tells just indicate arousal (not sexual arousal) or stress. This could be out of fear or defensiveness, or it could be because they flopped the stone cold nuts and are stressed about how to get the maximum value. A lot of limbic responses are triggered whenever you choose to engage in a big hand, whether you are weak or strong. The elevated pulse is the bodies way of preparing for action, doesn't necessarily mean weak or strong. The next time it happens, he could easily be on a big bluff.
Yep my heartrate seems proportional to the size of the pot not the strength of my hand. If I make a huge river bluff or jam with the nuts I think I look the same. My hands used to shake in all big pots and people would comment on it, but I don't show much reaction to anything anymore. My pulse still changes a bit but we're talking slight increase so I doubt it's noticeable.
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Old Yesterday, 09:04 AM   #22
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Re: How frequently should I be able to spot tells?

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The elevated pulse is the bodies way of preparing for action, doesn't necessarily mean weak or strong. The next time it happens, he could easily be on a big bluff.
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Originally Posted by Shai Hulud View Post
Yep my heartrate seems proportional to the size of the pot not the strength of my hand. If I make a huge river bluff or jam with the nuts I think I look the same. My hands used to shake in all big pots and people would comment on it, but I don't show much reaction to anything anymore.
For a person who is 'overly' drawn to live tells, I've never really relied on or even really looked for the pulse tell. To tell the difference between nerves and/or excitement is a tough task I think. Remember the first time you had AA? Remember the first time you shoved with a draw? The more poker a player plays the more likely they have been involved with 'high stress' spots.

As you evaluate a player's pulse tell I think you also have to evaluate their 'viewpoint' of the spot. Are they nervous because it 'is' a lot of money or a critical tournament spot? Are they nervous because of the thrill of trying to get away with a bluff or that the opponent may call and then suck-out?

As with any other tell, you need a baseline and then you need to spot a deviation from the baseline. With the relative lack of 'big spots' at a table per player per session (typically) it may be difficult to have enough information, as Zack tries to preach as almost Rule #1, to 'change' a decision based on this tell 'alone'. Of course merging other behaviors with a pulse tell can help us along the way. GL
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Old Yesterday, 10:21 PM   #23
dmccoy87
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Re: How frequently should I be able to spot tells?

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Originally Posted by SpewingIsMyMove View Post
Your last story underlines a key point. Often tells just indicate arousal (not sexual arousal) or stress. This could be out of fear or defensiveness, or it could be because they flopped the stone cold nuts and are stressed about how to get the maximum value. A lot of limbic responses are triggered whenever you choose to engage in a big hand, whether you are weak or strong. The elevated pulse is the bodies way of preparing for action, doesn't necessarily mean weak or strong. The next time it happens, he could easily be on a big bluff.
Exactly correct. In the context of the hand, a flush draw completed. I noticed the pulse after his bet (did not see anything one way or the other before the bet). In the context of the board texture and the player type (pretty tight player) it was clearly a monster hand, not a big bluff. Context matters when picking up information.

I also believed (as a beginner) that shaking hands indicate nervousness and therefore, weakness. In reality, this is more often a signal of strength. Experience and context.

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