Poker is a mental game in more ways than one. On the one hand, there’s an analytic dimension that calls for high-level problem-solving and strategic decision-making. On the other, there’s a psychological dimension that revolves around the relationship between money, power and truth. This has a direct bearing on the science of poker tells.
A strong-handed player has an easy relationship with money (the pot,) power (their hand) and truth (not having to bluff.) Weak-handed players, on the other hand, have to practice deceit in order to steal the pot. The resulting psychological pressure can cause them to give the game away through tells. These behavioral quirks are more operative at live poker tables than in online poker, but some of them are valid across the board. Let’s take a look at the physical, verbal and betting-related poker tells that can indicate weak hands.
Being on the Defensive
A player holding a strong hand in poker wants to build the pot, so he doesn’t want to give an opponent a reason not to bet. Conversely, a player with a weak hand will act – usually unconsciously – in a manner intended to put you off betting. As a result, if you’re reaching for your chips to bet and a player waiting to act immediately starts reaching for theirs, it’s a signal that their hand is probably weak.
Of course, it doesn’t have to be as obvious as reaching for chips. It can be a subtle, unusual movement. A player who toys with their chips before checking could be signaling their interest in the pot – a likely indicator of hand weakness. A player who puts their hands on the poker table protectively near their chips is also showing discomfort. Staring intensely or sitting awkwardly after a check also may reveal a defensive attitude.
Hesitations and pauses when betting are usually an indication of the strength of poker hands. After all, a significant bet is a weighty decision. It’s the player who bets without skipping a beat who’s most likely to be bluffing or holding a weak hand. That’s because they don’t want to draw their opponents’ attention to their behavior. They want to represent confidence, and betting normally is one way to do that. A keen observer, however, will be able to detect when a normal betting action is just a little too smooth. Bluffers can seem unnaturally self-composed, and what is trying to conceal weakness if not a bluff, even at a subconscious level?
Checking It Twice
What does it mean when an opponent checks their hole cards, then checks again? It can indicate weakness or strength, depending on the situation. A player who calls a raise before the flop, sees the flop, double-checks their hole cards, then checks is probably telegraphing hand weakness. This kind of attention-getting gesture is typical of weak-handed players who are waiting to act or who have already decided to check. It shows that their mind isn’t on the game. A player who flops a monster hand in poker will usually be super focused and won’t behave in any ostentatious way.
Fast on the Call
One of the most reliable indicators of a hand that’s weak or medium-strength – and one that also works in online poker – is when a player immediately calls a bet. Quick calling means they’ve immediately decided not to raise. A strong-handed player who’s focused on maximizing value and playing their hand as best they can will take time to weigh up their choice. Even if their decision is to call, it’ll take them a few seconds to reach it.
The quick call tell is most useful before and on the flop. On the turn, the pot has usually increased to a size that calls for careful decisions, so it’s unlikely that any player who’s still in the pot will call quickly, however weak their hand may be.
One exception is when players call a 3-bet or 4-bet unusually quickly. This often means the player has pocket queens or jacks. These hands aren’t weak enough to fold, but they aren’t strong enough to re-raise with, either. Bear in mind that “unusually quickly” varies from one player to the next, so it’s necessary to observe your opponents closely before making a judgment call of this nature.
Sometimes opponents will literally tell you that their holding is weak. One way is by making what is known as strong-hand statements. Strong-hand statements are much harder to interpret than weak-hand statements. Bluffers and weak-handed players would like to represent strength, so they’ll try to use reverse psychology and say things like, “I’m going to crush you.”
It can also be a tell when a player is unusually quiet. Strong-handed players are often relaxed to the point that they make goading statements like “I dare you to call me.” A player prone to goading when they’re relaxed could be signaling weakness if they fall silent. Similarly, it’s worth noting when opponents who behave rudely when they’re confident act all meek. The point is that weak-handed players don’t want to risk angering strong opponents, so they don’t act or speak rudely.
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