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Telling on Tales

In Beyond Tells: Power Poker Psychology, I mentioned what I call “Meta-Tells.” I said:

“Did you ever hear of a “tell” telling on itself? That’s the next level of reading tells. Most experienced players never view a tell at face value. Tells don’t happen in a vacuum. The content of any given tell must be viewed in the context of the process going on at the table.”

I have learned that most early discussions of tells focused on the content or behavior of the player and generalized the behavior for all other players. Paying attention to the process that is happening at the table is required to fully understand tells. For example, placing chips gently or forcefully, is really meaningless if not taken in the context of the process going on at the time of the tell. Looking at what is happening is only looking at the content of a tell. Process takes into account the how and by whom of actions. The same action (placing chips) can mean different things at different times, when done by different players. This comes from the awareness of knowing how your opponents think. Knowing about playing styles and personality differences will not require you to be a psychic. Rather, it will guide you to distinguish the difference in how very structured and loose players think.

If this sounds confusing, it’s only one of the major awarenesses needed to improve your game. It’s fine-tuning your ability to read other players’ tells. Those players who know how to tell players apart will always have an edge—not only in poker but in the rest of their lives as well. Most people will take an action, like placing a bet in slowly and carefully, as saying that the player has a good hand. Of course, serious players will be well informed and know how to mislead other players.

This leads to the second level of awareness, which is knowing what your opponents think you are thinking. This skill comes from paying attention your own usual body language (tells). If you have established a tight profile, you have led opponents to think that you are thinking conservatively. A loose move would be the opposite of what others are thinking that you are thinking. Similarly, if you know that most of the players have decided that you are a loose-aggressive player and you flop something like trips (three of a kind), you may ordinarily play that hand aggressively. Most players will tell you not to slow-play such a hand. Yet, if you suddenly become less aggressive, what will most players do? That’s right. Your change-up is giving them a “false tell” about yourself. You’re saying, “I just want you to think that I don’t have much of a hand because I’m pretending to have a better hand.” Even though it says that I have a good hand, I am counting on you to interpret that as a sign that I’m bluffing. So, this move is designed to get more calls, because players see a change in playing style. You are pretending to be bluffing. Conversely, if there is a pair on board and you get aggressive, players are more apt to think you’re just trying to buy one. So, in this instance, by playing the way you ordinarily would, you have told others that you don’t have much—you lied, even though it’s not a lie in poker.

Serious players also study the differences in personality. Determining what personality type others judged you will allow you to be aware of what your opponent thinks that you think they are thinking. This level of awareness is the hardest to master. Yet, the ability to lead others to believe that they have succeeded in fooling you or that they have better cards than you do can be added jewels in your crown. That’s where knowing the difference between personalities and playing styles must be considered—not only for others, but for you as well.

A “tell” in and of itself is nothing without knowing who is doing it. Similarly, an aggressive player who will ordinarily bet aggressively will be telling you he or she is on a bluff when they place the bet in softly. That’s new behavior for such a player. However, as mentioned earlier, beware of the fox dressed in sheep’s clothing. If you’ve determined that others think you’re very conservative, then a bet from you will get more folds, even when you have garbage.

In the final analysis, as outlined in my recent book, Beyond Bluffs: Master the Mysteries of Poker, success in reading tells will come with your knowledge on these three levels about yourself and your opponents:
1. Know how your opponents think.
2. Know what your opponents think you are thinking.
3. Determine what your opponent thinks that you think they are thinking.

Add these levels of awareness to your playing tool shed and you’ll open many more doors in life as well as in poker.
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