Arts & Entertainment

Daniel Negreanu on Poker: Reading Tells Early — When It Counts

There’s a common misconception about how, and more importantly, when to read other players’ tells. 

I get a kick out of the whole stare down thing after an opponent makes a bet on the river. Even though the bettor never flinches, the staring continues because one player (mistakenly) hopes that if he stares long enough, he’ll somehow figure out if the other player is bluffing or not. 

That’s just not how you read people, and that’s not the right time to start searching for tells.

The subtle tells you pick up at the poker table will often occur well before you’re faced with your big decision. Why? Because tells happen early. To make a good read, you must pay attention to the action at the beginning of the hand, even though the table action doesn’t yet seem exciting.

It’s just very unlikely that you’ll discover a physical tell on the river that will miraculously sway your decision. It’s much more effective to look for revealing tells pre-flop, post-flop, or possibly as late as the turn card.

Here are a few pointers to help you know what to look for before the flop.

Let’s say you observe an opponent gobbling down a messy meal while seated at the table. Well, here’s a rule of thumb: Players generally get a bit more conservative when they’re preoccupied by a telephone call, a massage, food, or even when they need to hit the restroom.

So, chomping on a cheeseburger, this player looks at his hand, swivels back in his chair, puts the burger down, and finally, returns his attention to the game.  What does that tell you? It’s pretty clear to me. Unless he’s a tremendous actor, he’s got a strong hand and wants to play.

A more subtle tell can be observed by gauging the time it takes for an opponent to decide whether to play his hand. If he hesitates and appears unsure how to proceed, he’s probably telling you that he doesn’t have a monster hand. 

Yet another tell can be spotted by the way players look at their own hole cards. Instead of looking directly at their cards, they’ll squeeze them, just looking at the side of the cards. If they see three pips, for example, they’ll know they’ve got a 6, 7, or an 8. 

If you notice someone habitually squeezing their cards, try to detect what their hand is by analyzing how much of their hole card is viewed. That may seem a little complicated, but it really does work.

Keep in mind, though, we’re talking poker, and making smart reads isn’t always a walk in the park.

Some players intentionally give off false tells before the flop. An opponent might appear to drift off from the game, and then, when the action is back to him, say, “On me? Okay, let’s raise it up.” 

I once played with a guy who literally pretended to sleep between hands. When it was his turn to act, however, he’d suddenly wake up with a re-raise, and pocket aces to boot!

Here’s another suggestion. When you watch most professionals play, notice that they don’t look at their own hole cards until it’s their turn to act. Instead, they carefully watch their opponents hoping to pick up a valuable tell.

Waiting to look at your own cards will conceal tells that you may be giving off, and at the same time, will allow you to focus your attention on your opponents.

The key to spotting tells is to observe your opponents carefully and to watch them early. Your work starts when the dealer throws out the very first card.



Visit for information about Daniel Negreanu’s new book, Hold’em Wisdom for All Players.


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