Have you ever watched Star Trek? Well, even if you're not a fan, you're surely aware of the character of Mr Spock. He is a Vulcan, a species known for (among other things) being completely emotionless. Obviously, he's a completely fictional character, but were he real, he would be one of the deadliest poker players alive.
Why? Because he has absolutely no tells. Not even his wife could guess what he was feeling.
What are Tells?
There is no one specific thing that is a tell. Tells are unique to each person. Basically, when you are feeling a certain way, no matter how much you try to conceal your emotions, your body language tends to give you away.
Think about it. Are you in a long term relationship? After all this time together, how easy is it to get a read on what your partner is feeling? You can usually sense when they're keeping something back, or when they're feeling down, even if they don't say anything about it. This is because you have subconsciously learned their tells.
Now, the same thing applies in poker. By being observant of human behaviour, you can start to learn about the players around you. It's a particularly useful skill if you tend to play regularly with the same group of people.
Tells are the little twitches people have that give you an insight into their state of mind. The nervous way a person licks their lips. The way their eyes narrow when they see their hole cards – even if it's just for an instant. If you can spot how someone feels about the cards they've been dealt, you can use this information in how you play.
The first thing to remember about spotting tells is that no two people are alike. So, if you've worked out that a certain player always plays with her hair with her left hand when she's holding a pocket pair, it doesn't follow that if any person plays with their hair, they've got the nuts.
Tells are all about personality. Watch people. See how they react when they get cards. When they see the flop. When someone else raises. The goldmine of information comes when a hand goes to showdown, because then you have an index point for all the data you gathered earlier.
Specifically – this hand that they've shown, this is the hand that caused all that body language you observed just now. File that information away in your memory banks and go on collating data.
Of course, it's worth remembering that if you plan to only play online, then tells aren't relevant because you can't see each other anyway.
Hiding your own tells
No matter how stony faced you may thing you are, it's for certain that you have a few tells of your own which observant opponents will begin to pick up on. In fact, most of the best and most hardcore poker players in the world are far less decent strategists than they are keen observers of human behaviour.
Ok, now, if you're going to be super nerdy about this, and you really want to train hard, then what you'll need to do is videotape yourself playing. This is easier if you're hosting the game because you can set up the camera ahead of time.
It's also possible to take a camera along to a friend's game, but be aware that in all likelihood you will be mocked ceaselessly for the rest of your life.
Once you have some footage, watch it back, taking careful note of how you're reacting to things. You'll probably be surprised at how easy to read you actually are. Use this video to spot what you're doing, and then work at ways of counteracting it.
Bear in mind that if the people you play against have pegged your tells, you can use this against them, once you work out what they are. For example, if they think you pull your ear when you bluff, then pull your ear when you flop a set. They'll raise up massively, and you'll laugh all the way to the bank.