04/11/2006 11:00PM

Tells no be-all but they matter

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People communicate things all the time without saying a word. Or they give out information with their words that they had no intention of communicating. In poker vernacular, these types of unintentional, often ambiguous communications are known as tells.

Tells come in all shapes and sizes but the ones most people refer to are physical and verbal tells. They are one of the most misunderstood concepts in poker. Overrated by some, and underrated by others, tells and having an understanding of them - whether you make reading them a large part of your game or not - is one way that the average poker player can try to amp up his game to the next level.

Like the strategies of poker itself, for many of the top-level pros, understanding tells is more about going on instinct than it is on recognizing a simple, linear pattern where tell A indicates hand B. Top European pro Padraig Parkinson described it to me like this:

"A tell isn't always something where I see a person do something specific, and suddenly I know what hand he has. Maybe I recognize something on a subconscious level that reminds me of a situation from a day before, or even years before, and it means the same thing now as it did then. And maybe if you spent hours watching the tape of the hand you could figure out exactly what that thing was, but it's more of a feeling than it is a specific tell."

But, that said, before you can groove your poker instincts to the point where you can pick up tells in this sophisticated way, it's important to recognize familiar examples of common tells - especially for the beginning player. The bible of poker tells is the famous "Caro's Book of Poker Tells" by Mike Caro. One of the main ideas in the book is that in poker usually strong means weak and weak means strong. The guy aggressively thrusting his chips in the middle and staring you down more likely to bluffing, and the guy tentatively muttering, "I guess I'll play this hand," probably has the nuts.

The book has become such a force that it's not uncommon to see examples of players self-consciously doing false tells by acting in the opposite manner of what a Caro disciple might expect. They might suddenly take interest in a hand with which they're actually bluffing or maybe fire a forceful bet at the pot with a genuinely good hand hoping that you've read Caro and will call them all the way down.

This is what I'm talking about when I talk about those who overrate tells. Overrate isn't even the right word really, oversimplify is probably better. It's important to understand tell theory, but as with many things in poker, a blind adherence to one-way logic is going to hurt your game a lot more than it's going to help it.

At the same time, I'm not diminishing the idea of tells in general or the Caro book in particular. On the contrary, there's no better place to get acquainted with the basics than the "Caro's Book of Poker Tells." And without an understanding of how tells work at Level One - or at least of how a lot of your opponents think they work at Level One - you'll be at a serious disadvantage. To me, people who think that tells don't matter just because they're often difficult to understand aren't seeing the poker table for the felt - in poker, anything that helps you answer the fundamental question of what cards your opponent is holding is essential.

It's also important to know that tells alone, especially just physical tells, are not going to be enough to make you a winning player. You need to know the fundamentals of how to play and the ability to read your opponents' straightforward actions. Physical tells are often going to be less important than the other tells you can get by following your opponents' betting patterns and using logic and game theory to deduce what cards they have. But even if physical tells only provide you with a few extra percentage points in edge, aren't they worth trying to understand? That extra edge could easily be the difference between winning and losing. And maybe it could be the difference between being someone who grinds it out and being someone who soars into the upper echelon of poker players.

Peter Thomas Fornatale is co-author of "Six Secrets of Successful Bettors" (DRF Press).