Learning to spot and identify the common online poker tells is an important piece of the puzzle when it comes to gathering information on our opponents. Along with any reads that we get via betting patterns, the various tells allow us to paint a full picture of how an opponent plays. Just keep in mind that online poker tells differ from live tells in that we are not able to actually see our opponents. Therefore, we must look for other types of clues that allow us to deduce how people play. Some are obvious and others are a bit more subtle. A few even allow you to profile your opponents and adjust before any hands are even played.
Ultimately, as the games get tougher and tougher, it’s critical that we take advantage of any edge we can find. If we ignore what the other players are doing, it will be impossible to maximize our win-rate. The great thing is that learning online tells isn’t just for those that play in HUD-free or anonymous games. Even if the poker site you play on allows you to use a HUD, you will still benefit immensely from learning how to pick up on these tells.
To that end, I have compiled a list of online poker tells that, in my experience, have proven to be the most reliable and give the most actionable information. As a bonus, learning them will help you hide or avoid giving away this type of information as well.
Let’s get started by covering a few timing tells.
1. The Check Then Insta-Call
The check then insta-call is almost always a marginal hand that is planning to call one or two streets and then will likely give up if they don’t improve. It makes sense if you think about it. If a person has a strong draw or a made hand, wouldn’t they think about it for a bit before calling?
If an opponent thinks an inordinate amount of time before making a call, it is known as “tanking.” If a player calls after taking a long time, it could be a sign that he was considering all of his options before making a decision. While there is a wide range of possibilities that he could hold, you can be fairly certain his range will not often include a lot of really marginal hands or air. Players on a pure float will call fairly quickly or only take a few seconds since most floats are premeditated and don’t come on a whim.
This tell has been fairly reliable for me over the years and works both live and online. It typically means that an opponent really wants to see another card for cheap. As with all the other timing tells, this one really helps me narrow down ranges and optimize my betting lines.
4. The Tank Then Big Raise
Anytime someone thinks (or pretends to think) a very long time before acting and then raises, unless it is a deep thinking really good player, you can count on your opponent having a nut hand.
5. Tanking on Every Decision
As with any timing tell, make sure that you are paying attention to other information as well that could sometimes offset the information. For example, if a player is taking a long time on every single decision, you can throw any tell that includes timing out of the window. The player could be playing a ton of tables (the most common reason) or perhaps he is eating a ham sandwich.
6. Timing Down Then Insta Checking Next Street
If an opponent instantly checks right after you act, whether on the current street or the next, this is possibly due to a lost internet connection. While some poker sites show when a player is sitting out, some don’t. It’s up to you whether you wait for him to come back or bet and take the current pot down.
So far, we have covered a few of the common timing tells. Now let’s look at betting tells.
7. The Massive Overbet
An overbet is defined as any bet that is larger than the current size of the pot. When it happens during a poker game it can be rather puzzling and often seems to come out of nowhere. However, unless you have some kind of specific read on your opponent I find it’s best to err on the side of caution when faced with an oversized bet.
In my experience, a bet that is more than pot-sized is almost never a bluff. Typically, large overbets occur on the river and for one of two reasons. First, your opponent may have played his nut hand passively on prior streets and is now making a “make-up” bet. He hates that you didn’t put any money in the pot yet and is trying to make up for it. Secondly, a player might make a big bet with a strong hand while hoping it will be perceived as trying to buy the pot so that you will call.
The psychology behind overbetting makes sense if you think about it. If a player is bluffing and wants you to fold, it is human nature to only bet the minimum they think is necessary to get you to fold. Often, this falls in the 75% to pot-sized betting range. Most players will hesitate to chance losing so much money with complete air. Few have the guts to try such a bluff and even many weaker players understand that giant bets are polarizing. In other words, a large bet either means you have the nuts or nothing. In fact, bigger bet sizings sometimes get called more often than smaller ones in spots where a bettor’s range is heavily skewed toward bluffs.
8. Typed In Bets
Today, many players either use table management software to automate their bets or use hotkeys built into the poker site, when available. Either way, you will often see predictable bet sizings that fall in the common ranges. Half-pot, two-thirds, three-quarters, and pot-sized bets are typical. However, sometimes you will see players make oddball bets that were obviously well thought out and likely typed into the bet box. Something like 6.78, 8.88, or 9.99 bet into a $10 pot would be good examples.
More times than not, these odd bet sizings are value bets. Most players are not going to take the time to delay and type in a special bet when bluffing. Instead, they will quickly bang a hotkey and then hold their breath while you contemplate your decision. So the next time someone bets 69.69 into a $75 pot, you can skew their range more toward the top end.
9. Donk Bets
A donk bet is when an out of position player leads into the person who was the aggressor on the prior street. This most often occurs on the flop and is one of the most annoying things in poker. Even so, if we understand how poker players think we can use this information to our advantage. To decipher what a donk bet means, you must first have a read on your opponent.
If he is an unskilled player, the lead is almost always really weak. Just raise all your air and expect to take it down often enough to show a profit. If a donk bet comes from a tight reg, it is often a value bet with a strong but vulnerable hand that does not want to give you a free card. This is a good spot to float with equity and either get paid when you improve or run a bluff on cards that complete obvious draws. If a strong and aggressive regular leads into you, there is a good chance that it is a nut hand trying to rep weakness. The reason they do this is that it works. I wish I had a dime for every time I’ve donk bet a set and been auto-raised by my opponent.
Now let’s talk about the most annoying type of donk bet; the min donk bet. Not much is more tilting that having an opponent bet the minimum into you. Against most players, a min donk bet is usually a hand they are not willing to fold but want to see more cards or try to get to showdown cheaply. I usually just treat a min donk bet as a check and use the information they have given to help me better narrow their range. Easy peasy.
10. Limp-Calling In Early Position
Okay, this is not really a betting tell but more of a calling tell. Even so, this one is one of the most universally reliable online poker tells. When you see a player open limp in one of the first few positions and then just call a raise, it is fairly safe to go ahead and label them a bad player or fish.
One of the fundamentals of poker is to play in position with the initiative as much as possible. Going for the limp-call before the flop violates both of these principles and is guaranteed to be a losing or -EV play. Anyone who has read any poker strategy knows better. Therefore, anyone doing this is almost certainly a novice, recreational player, or fish.
Now let’s cover some tells that happen in the chat window.
Other Common Online Poker Tells
11. Complaining About How Others Play
Poker is full of know-it-alls, and it seems like everyone thinks they are the best player in the world. Some take it to the extreme and berate their opponents in chat. If anyone does something that falls outside of what they deem to be “correct” strategy, they let them know about it and fast. This is especially true if they lose the pot to that person.
Fortunately, we can use this information against these egomaniacs. Usually, they will be level two players and play a rigid TAG style of poker or even a Harringbot, which is a name affectionately given to players who adhere to the strategies taught in the Harrington On Hold’em Series. All you have to do is observe what they are doing and counter them with level 3 or 4 thinking.
12. Ranting over a Bad Beat
This is one of my favorite tells and probably the most lucrative. It’s similar to the last tell except that it involves taking complaining to the next level and is an indication that a player may be on tilt. If you observe a player venting on chat about a terrible beat they took, you will want to take advantage of their “tilt talk” as quickly as possible.
Look to play a lot of pots with this player, within reason. Implied odds will be through the roof since they are “trying to get their money back.” And, once you beat them in a pot, make sure you needle them ever so gently to ensure they go on tilt and donk some more money off to the table. Good times.
13. A Blabbermouth Suddenly Goes Quiet
If an overly talkative player on your table who normally chats while involved in hands suddenly goes pin-drop quiet, look out. He almost certainly has a monster hand. It’s best to get out of the way or only get involved with reasonable implied odds.
Last but not least, let’s cover a couple of tells that give us information before we even play a hand with that person.
14. Buying in for Unusual Amounts
Most reasonably good players buy-in for an even amount and usually for 100 big blinds. If you see a player who sits down with $39.85, or some other odd number, you can be fairly certain that this is their entire bankroll that they are looking to gamble with and try to run up. Whenever I see this, I immediately label them as a fish and try to get involved in pots with them as often as possible. Top pair should be the nuts against these players.
If an opponent buys in for 20, 30, or 40 big blinds, they are usually either a weak player who want to play higher with less money or professional short stackers. You will find out which fairly quickly. Fish will have a VPIP of 40%+ and limp often. The latter will do the opposite.
15. Avatar Tells
If the poker site you play on allows players to upload their own avatar, often you can glean some information based on their choices. Here are a few common ones:
- Baby Head
Anytime you see an avatar that is obviously a player’s child, or any family member for that matter, it’s a good indication that they are a recreational player. Don’t expect a deep level of thinking from this person.
- Picture of the Player
This is a great tell, especially if it shows him playing poker in the picture. The player probably takes his game seriously, although it doesn’t necessarily mean he’s any good. Even so, he probably isn’t a total fish. Often, this type of player will tend to have an inflated ego and may be somewhat of a “play machine,” or someone who likes to make fancy plays at the table. If he loses a big pot because of it, he may also openly complain about his bad beat or the “bad play” of others in the chat box.
- Picture of a Pet
This one is another indication that someone is a recreational player. Funny as it may sound, his playing style might match the nature of the dog pictured. Don’t expect a person with a bulldog avatar to be passive.
- Sports Team
An avatar with a sports team is an indication that the player might be competitive in nature and even into sports betting. You can expect him to often be aggressive, active in blind stealing & defense, and not afraid to put chips in the pot. There’s nothing better than playing with an opponent who is not afraid to gamble.
- “Famous” Poker Pro Picture
There’s a good chance that this is your typical poker fan. Expect him or her to play like one of the live donks you played with that time at a casino, often having a high VPIP.
- Anything Aggressive Looking
Most often this type of avatar will manifest as an animal that’s a predator, a jet, a car, or even some kind of cartoon supervillain. This typically indicates a really aggressive player who may sometimes be a halfway decent player.
What About Other Avatar Types?
Sometimes a poker site will have “stock” avatars or something similar to choose from. If this is the case on your home poker site, you can make your own assumptions about an opponent’s playing style based on what you have read above. This type of information is especially useful in a readless environment.
What assumptions would you make about the players who use the above Full Tilt Poker avatars? I would equate that cute little panda to someone who posts a picture of their pet. They are here for fun and probably don’t take the game that seriously. On the other hand, take a look at that mean looking shark. Do you think a passive soccer mom is using that image? As for that last guy who looks like your prototypical card-carrying jerk, ego might just rule the day for him. He probably takes himself and his poker game way too seriously but often doesn’t have the skill to back it up.
Okay, I may be reading a bit too much into these things. Even so, even if our assumptions about these avatars are only correct 51% of the time, it is still +EV to try to squeeze out every little bit of information we can. As you gather information, good note taking is the key to honing in on what different tells mean for different players.
Of course, an opponent’s actions are the most valuable way to get reads on them. Sometimes, as part of their attempt to counter you, really good players might even try to use reverse tells against you.
What Is a Reverse Tell?
A reverse tell is when a player intentionally gives information about his hand to his opponents in order to trick them into believing the opposite of what is actually true. For example, he will deliberately exhibit a well-known tell that indicates weakness when he actually holds a really strong hand. This is done in the hopes that his opponent might try to bet or raise in order to value bet thinly or bluff. This actually works really well sometimes but should only be attempted when you are sure that your opponent is a thinking player that might actually be capable of noticing a tell.
How to Avoid Giving Away Information Through Online Tells
Whether you are playing live or online, unless you are attempting to give off a particular reverse tell, it’s best to attempt to never give away any type of information. Here are a few tips that will help you achieve that goal:
- Try to Take Exactly the Same Amount of Time on All Post-Flop Actions
When I play, I like to choose an exact time on my timebank to perform any post-flop action. Just make sure that the time you choose gives you ample time to make the vast majority of your decisions but not a second longer. Delaying just to delay is just an obnoxious thing to do *cough* Will Kassouf *cough*.
- Don’t Use Any Type of Avatar
I have never really seen a point in choosing an Avatar. Putting time into thinking about such things just feels like a huge waste of time. If you really just have to use one, pick something that builds an image that is favorable for you. Personally, I recommend opting for the baby head avatar since being viewed as a fish is beneficial in many ways. Otherwise, I’d say you should choose whatever you think will tilt your opponents the most.
- Refrain From Chatting
Every once in awhile I think it’s okay to needle an opponent who has been playing like a jackass. Having him go on crazy monkey tilt is way too profitable to pass up. However, for the most part, it’s best to just never chat at all and focus on playing and gathering your own intel instead.
- Use Static Bet Sizing Versus Thinking Players
This includes opening the same amount pre-flop and also c-betting a static percentage post-flop.
The object of poker is to win as much money as possible. Therefore, we should take advantage of any informational edge that we can gain on our opponents. Learning all of the common online poker tells is a great step toward becoming a complete player and optimizing our decision-making process. I hope this article will improve your win-rate and help you become a more complete player.