Poker Psychology – Understanding Tells and Bluffs in the Game of Skill and Strategy

Poker Psychology – Understanding Tells and Bluffs in the Game of Skill and Strategy

Poker is an emotional game, and I’ve put chips into the middle because of my emotions. The best poker players understand how to control their own emotions, how to get some control over the emotions of others, and how to read what their opponents are putting out during an intense ‘poker face’ situation. A Google search of poker psychology, or just ‘poker’ with ‘psychology’ will reveal many books and blogposts and videos.

Pay attention to your opponents, their strange behaviour, their movements and betting styles — that might give away when they are bluffing, or help you catch more fish, as poker old-timers say.

Non-verbal cues

Poker players often use non-verbal signs to mislead their opponents – even something as slight-looking as reaching for more chips, tapping fingers on the table or changing in their posture can give away how powerful an opponent’s hand (and strategy) is, as well as your own. Microexpressions and facial expressions, according to the ‘whisperer of emotions’, Paul Ekman, a pioneer in non-verbal communication, are hard to control and gigantic sources of feeling – whether you’re holding a strong or weak hand.

Related tells include pace of an opponent’s decision-making process – a quick response typically indicates strength – and voice tone, as a tentative response might indicate uncertainty. Some small movements of the face, such as eye rubs, nose touching and neck touching could also be indicators that your opponent is bluffing, but know that context is crucial.

Betting intervals

For example, in poker it is crucial to read betting intervals correctly in order to tell whether an opponent is bluffing. Most players wait an appropriate length of time (and thereby space) before making a bet, following a process of contemplating their options before deciding on the next best move.

But some players will try to bluff in obvious ways – tells include looking away right after placing a bet, or fiddling with your cards and talking smack.

Physical indicators for the bluff are tight disposition, rapid breathing or spasmodic swallowing: some players resort to licking their lips or covering their mouths to indicate they’re bluffing. Pick up these tells in someone’s voice – or how they use their hands. Pay proper attention, and your bluffing will get better. But don’t overdo it – poker is more than that!


In addition to tracking their opponents’ betting patterns, it’s important also to read their bluffs. Recreational players can get really worked up after losing and tend to do some pretty irrational bluffing – a player who raises preflop but calls all three bets may just be full of bluff.

Some are very obvious tells; others much more subtle and complex. And some appear conflictive or false or inconsistent, making their detection much harder. For most opponents, betting patterns represent the most reliable tells; but, if you wish to reduce the complexity of reading others at the poker table, categorise opponents before you engage in reading them: tight-aggressive or loose-passive? This will help you keep in mind the big picture and not get drawn in by individual table cues they display.


Poker relies on bluffing, a talent that necessitates equally a thorough understanding of the rules as of psychology. Keeping one’s temper is an element of poker; acting impulsively another. Testing how strong your opponent’s hand is, and reading their body language, will also help.

The players have to take into account their opponent count, the table dynamic and their betting behaviour before making a bet amount that scares the Opponents with a consistent pattern but doesn’t appear transparent. And also GTO concepts and hand histories have to be studied carefully to look very convincing.

Furthermore, it is important to understand that bluffing is an incredibly high-risk strategy and it is only the best role models who use it, and even they don’t always win. This is why many professional players use mindfulness and meditation training as part of their preparation to become psychologically resilient and so stay focused during a game.

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