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Looking for Tells and Advantages in the Texas Hold 'em Home Poker Game

Updated on July 30, 2014

Look for Opposite Behaviors to Reveal Tells

Tells and how to spot tells, is a critical skill in poker. It is a skill that most poker pros have developed or mastered. Identifying tells is a skill, unfortunately, that most amateurs don't pay enough attention to. In fact, a lot of home poker players pay no attention to the simplest of things, including tells, which can give other players a huge advantage. In the home poker game, identifying tells can be the difference between winning and losing.

It is fairly common that as people imbibe on their drug of choice, their ability to control themselves weakens. Such is the case with poker. I have a friend at my regular poker game who smokes a lot of marijuana. He becomes more unpredictable the more he partakes. He bluffs more. Generally, because marijuana is his drug, he becomes pretty mellow. Normally, one would assume this makes him hard to read, but it actually does not. In fact, it becomes harder for the druggie (this is how we'll refer to this particular player type) to fake his emotions and, if you're watching carefully, you can pick up on crucial tells that will win you his money.

In the case of my druggie friend in one particular example, he put down a huge bet against The Calling Machine (this is how I'll refer to the type of player who always calls and rarely raises). As The Calling Machine thought about what he was going to do (I was pretty sure he was going to call), I watched The Druggie closely. He pulled a classic tell by leaning back in his chair, sipping some water, and looking away. At that moment, I knew he had a good hand and wasn't bluffing. As most good poker players know, acting weakly usually means a player is strong and acting strong usually means a player is weak. I plan to use this against The Druggie the next time he puts me all-in. It's a classic tell that's going to result in losses in the long run. Such things might not be too big a deal in a home game, where not everyone is paying attention, but they're absolutely devastating in the professional ranks or where the aptitude of the average player is higher.

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Paying Closer Attention Yields Better Poker Results

My improvement at our home game has a lot to do with paying closer attention to the best player and working on strategies to defeat him. Since I think he's a better poker player than I am, that meant minimizing my hands against him, which meant folding to him most of the time. However, it also meant trying to keep him in hands in which I was pretty sure I had the better hand and he was trying to draw. One lesson I have continuously tried to impart among some fellow players and friends is that you simply can't call against The Best. You either fold, raise him, or set him up for a check raise. The nice thing about a check-raise in a home game featuring players of varied abilities is that it's rarely used by players that don't have a good hand (and it's rarely used by most players at all). So generally it's an easy fold. When players at the home game are bluffing, they usually put in a large initial bet in response to a check. This is another tell. Bet sizing is often the easiest tell to read. Large bets in odd situations where stealing the pot seems obvious, are usually bluffs. Small bets designed to keep people in a hand usually represent strong hands. A bluffer will bet big amounts when bluffing, but will suddenly pull back and put in small amounts when he is strong.

I've had similar success against The Expert (the type of player who knows a lot about poker, but doesn't always do well at the home game because the "rules" don't always work), who tends to play many of his hands by the book. In other words, a middle pair is often bet up pre-flop, so a call followed by a raise after the flop is usually good enough to get The Expert to fold provided there's a face card on the board. If you bluff the flop and there's no face card there, The Expert is going to call you. The Expert is also much more susceptible to being check-raised.

This all being said, your game will improve if you focus on the better players and how they play, not so much to challenge them, but to work their strategies into your own and generally not challenging them just because their success annoys you. Better to focus your energies on The Calling Station and The Worst (just a player who doesn't know anything about the game and doesn't seem to learn much as time goes on) and making most of your money that way. Once you find yourself successful there, employing trapping strategies on some of the better players is going to be your best initial strategy to take their money. And again, picking up a few tells from these players is going to yield good results.

Obviously, the kinds of cards you play in the home game are critical. Unlike tournament poker or by-the-book poker, it is usually very profitable to play weaker hands, but ones with hidden strength that can be played cheaply. It is also best to avoid certain types of hands, like A-4, for instance. Any high card-rag hand should be avoided because the liklihood of another player playing the same high card with a better kicker is so high when there are four or more people involved in every hand.

You can almost always count on somebody playing suited cards as well, no matter how low. My preferred sort of hidden strength hands are suited gappers like 7-9 or 7-10. And I will even play those cards unsuited. The nice thing about playing such cards is that if they don't hit, they're easy to fold and at the home game that can save you a lot of money. More people get whittled down chasing hands than anything else at the home game. If you're going to chase, do it infrequently, but when you have the greatest odds to do it. Suited gappers offer just such odds.

Having said this, trying to figure out what kinds of cards other people play provides another type of tell. Almost anyone at a home game will play any two cards if the blinds aren't raised, but what type of cards do each of the home game players like to raise with? It's critical to know what cards cause a player to raise. Usually a low pair will do it and that's good to know if the flop comes down with an ace and you can scare that player off his hand. Remember, a raise is often a tell of some sort and usually an easy one to read in the home game.

Poker Tell: Fishman "irritated" with the nuts

Even the Professionals Make Poker Mistakes and Have Tells

In the above video, we get to watch the classic case of a guy implying the opposite of what is actually going on. The sad thing is that Phil Hellmuth, possibly the best poker player ever and a guy who's written his own book on tells, reads the whole thing exactly right. He actually says out loud what Fishman is holding, yet he simply can't fold. Ultimately, it's very rare that an amateur will say something out loud that doesn't turn out to be false. So, whenever you hear somebody at the table say something obvious or do something obvious, the opposite of that is usually true.

And don't kick yourself if you miss a tell. Clearly, even the best can miss.

At my home game, one of the better players always, and I mean always, frowns or otherwise seems upset when he makes a big hand. So, the other day for instance, when the river came down with a "2", there were three 2's on the board. He made an audible sounds, clearly irritated with the situation. He checked and an aggressive player bet heavy. This player went all in and got called and before he could turn over his cards, I noted to several other players that he had the fourth 2. I was right, of course.

This is one of the most common behaviors at home poker, so keep an eye out for this tell. It will help you win more often.

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