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Poker tells: not all they're hyped up to be?

We all know that one of the most important poker skills is reading one's opponents. Any player who can read opponents fairly well, is bound to end up in the 'good player' category, sooner or later.

Aspiring to make it to that category myself some day, I did a lot of research on how one can best read his/her opponents. The majority of articles I've read about the matter, discussed poker tells. A poker tell is a small gesture or a body-language peculiarity that hides important clues to what a player may hold in the pocket or to what he/she plans on doing next.

These tells can range from the most commonplace gestures to complex sets of circumstances and apparently most players consider them of utmost importance.

In time, I grew to recognize the importance of these tells myself, but one thing kept bothering me, despite this fact. Good poker players (those who play well in real-life face-to-face situations) are generally good when they play online, as well. Now, we all know that online poker takes away 99% of the tells we'd be able to rely on in a real poker game. Still, these guys play well. How do you explain that?

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It would appear, that these poker tells we all attribute such great importance to, might not be that important after all. They might just take a back-seat to a more efficient "opponent reading" skill: the recognition of betting patterns and the ability to draw relevant conclusions based on what the 'enemy' does game-wise. This skill, in turn, can be broken down into two parts: reading the board texture, and reading the betting patterns.

Betting patterns offer a gateway to each opponent's mind, and that, together with the information provided by the texture of the board, will turn you into an efficient mind-reader. This is what world-class players focus on, and not poker tells.

Reading these patterns, you'll soon gain an insight into the targeted opponent's "poker mind" Next thing you know, you'll be considering flops, turns and rivers with his eyes, and that's when you really have him read. You don't need to be face-to-face with him for that, still, you will know what his capable or not capable of, under given circumstances.

Most of the extra-exaggerated tells you see in movies, just don't happen in real life. Do not expect this or that or the other player to get all twitchy whenever he/she holds pocket pairs, and so on. Stuff like that, is for the movies and - with some exceptions - that is where it usually stays.

Going back to real-life poker: good poker players have a way to turn the whole 'tells' thing over and make it work for them. They call it the 'stare down'. An example of such a stare-down would be the following: our player ends up with junk on the river, so he knows he'll have to fold it, being faced with an 'all in' from one of the other players. Despite this, he goes on and stares at the other guy as if he were trying to forcefully extract information from him. Then he keeps fondling his chips as if he were considering going all in himself, but all this time he's 100% sure about what he's going to do. What do you suppose he does this intricate acting exercise for?

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Obviously, he knows he's going to fold it, so he doesn't really need any more information from the other guy.

The reason they do this, is to give the opponent the hardest possible time, and to keep him on the edge of his seat, for as long as possible. It is a natural human reaction to try to avoid situations that have proven unpleasant in the past. The 'all in' guy will think twice next time about raising on our player, even though he has no real reason to be apprehensive. That psychological effect alone is worth the 2-3 minutes you need to invest into the intimidation-act.

What should you do when you're the one on the receiving end of such a 'stare-down'? Basically nothing. If you don't do anything you'll be OK. You might try sketching a few misleading gestures if you know you're facing weak opposition, but best is, not to do anything. Let them stare as long as they want to.

As a conclusion: poker tells are important, but not nearly as important as the ability to read the board texture and the betting patterns of the opponents.

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