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Mike Caro

Online Poker Tells

Everyone has heard of poker tells, the subtle signs or hints unveiling the true strength of a poker player's cards. One depiction of physical tells is due to the movie Rounders where Teddy "KGB" (the villain portrayed by John Malkovich) had an infamous "Oreo" tell. Another famous example is in the movie Casino Royale where this time "Le Chiffre", the villain played by Mads Mikkelsen, fakes his physical tell which is an eye twitch when he bluffs.

Preeminent in the poker literature, the reference book on physical tells is Caro's Book of Poker Tells. Much less has been published on online poker tells, and this article is the synopsis of our observations, mostly gained from playing online poker at Full Tilt Poker.

In online poker there are as many sources of information that could lead to tells as there are in live casinos. One important source is the speed at which a player acts. The dedicated expression "insta-" indicates instantaneous action, such as "he insta-called", meaning he called a bet without any delay.

For detail oriented online poker players, there are various insta plays, the light-insta play, the insta play and the slow insta play. Light-insta play means the speed of the action is light speed. It could be because the villain had his finger on the mouse, ready to click, or it could be that he pre-selected an automatic button such as "call any bet".

What we call insta play is the standard insta play which takes place in a few tens of a second. And the so-called slow insta play is nearly an instant play but it may take one or two seconds.

On the other side of the time scale is "tanking", which means taking time to think, possibly using part or all of one's time reserve. Between these two extremes is hesitating, which takes a number of seconds, say between 2 and 12 seconds. On the Internet, time to act is the major poker tell.

Online Poker Tells Tips

At the first level of thinking, the faster a player acts or reacts, the more certain and obvious he is and the less likely he is bluffing. At low stakes poker such as $0.25/$0.50 no-limit texas holdem ring games, the majority of players are straightforward. So if you see a villain who three barrels, and insta-bets each time, usually it means that he has a very strong hand.

As always in poker, people bluff and they may bet very fast in order to falsely represent strength, but in the vast majority of cases at low or mid stakes, insta-betting or insta-raising indicates a strong hand. This is coming from easy to read opponents who are so excited about finally getting a good hand that they cannot hide their enthusiasm.

This observation is less significant at the micro-stakes where people have nearly no concern for money. Also at the shark-infested waters that are high-stakes games, people will be more prone to manipulating their online poker tells, i.e. fake them.

This insta-bet tell is particularly accurate if your opponent plays in a standard, somehow predictable manner. In the next example, the game is a NL50 Texas Holdem online poker ring game and the villain is a standard loose passive regular 25/6/1.6. The hero in the button with JJ limps and then calls a $3 raise from villain in the big blind.

The flop is A♠7 J, villain insta-bets $3 and hero calls. The turn is 6♠ and villain insta-bets $9. It should be clear by now that he has pocket aces. Hero was stubborn and reluctant to let his set go, and it cost him his entire stack to find out by the river that villain had AA. But all the signs were there and in particular the light-insta-bet at the turn.

These insta-bet may take different forms and are sometimes delayed. For example in a NL100 Texas Hold'em poker game, hero has AK from UTG+1 and raises to $3, got min-3-bet to $5 by MP1, the CO calls and hero calls. The flop comes 96A♠ and everyone checks. The turn is 2, hero bets $5, MP1 calls, CO raises 3 times, hero calls as he gets about 4:1 pot odds, MP1 folds. The river is A, hero checks and villain light-insta-bet allin.

Villain is somehow unknown with statistics 26/9/10 on 64 hands, with a propensity for post flop aggression. This bet turns out to be a transparent move indicating a huge hand. Note that the light-insta-bet allin at the river is very rarely a bluff, which normally involves some hesitation. Hero wrongly calls as he cannot fold his top set top kicker, but villain shows 9♠9 for a slow played flopped set complemented by a full house by the river.

Other Online Poker Tells

In the same vein, a very strong online tell is the insta-call. Unless you are against a calling station who calls with all sorts of weak holding, the insta-call from a reasonably solid and not too loose player indicates a good or very good hand. The light-insta-call is one of the strongest online poker tell. Often if you raised pre-flop and your opponent flops a very big hand such as a set, he will first let you do the betting and call. He will only start being aggressive by the turn or river. His light-insta-call by the flop is often revealing of a monster as he has already planned his entire action, intending to call first and bet later.

Another commonly observed online poker tell is the delayed check which indicates a weak hand. The underlying process is that the player knows immediately that he will check, but he is afraid that insta-checking may induce a bet with ATC, so he pretends to be thinking for a few seconds before opting for a check.

Conversely the delayed bet usually indicates a strong hand. The villain wants you to believe by hesitating that it was a tough decision for him, but he knew all along that he was going to bet. Also the delay may sometimes be due to the villain deciding about his optimal bet size. If all of this sounds like something you may struggle with, then you may want to play blackjack instead which is far easier.

Finally there is another very potent online poker tell. It happens sometimes and you need to be extremely observant to detect it. This is the insta-check. When a player hits a very big hand, he light-insta-checks if first in the hand as he does not know how to delay his instantaneous reflex of checking.

For example in a $5 buy-in multi-table tournament, the hero in the high jack has K T and limps. The two blinds join him. The flop is 9♠3J and everyone checks. The turn is Q♠ giving hero the nuts straight. The blinds check, hero makes a 2/3 pot bet and get called by the small blind. The river is K and the small blind insta-checks.

Notice that the heart flush hit the river. Hero bets 180 into the 300 pot and gets insta-min-check-raised by the small blind who shows 52 for a flush!

The insta-check functions exactly as an opposite of the delayed check, trying to show weakness versus trying to show strength.


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