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Home / The UK’s biggest ‘tells’, revealed

We are faced with a number of ‘big’ moments throughout our lifetime and to cope with these, we showcase physiological and behavioural signs.

We’ve polled the nation to find out what these moments are, the signs we exhibit, when we are faced with them and what we can do to channel them under pressure, just as you would around a poker table!

Here’s what we found out…

We also managed to speak to Jo Hemmings, a Behavioural Psychologist about these findings and she said…

When you feel nervous or anxious, your brain activates the body’s stress response, also known as the fight-or-flight response. The reason that people exhibit these tells is because it is a way that they can cope with their emotions, providing a temporary relief from feelings of tension. 

It’s understandable that people want to look for ways to combat these habits and manage their behaviour under pressure. The problem is that a lot of these tells are on auto-response, so we have little control over what happens, and others are habits that can be difficult to break because we have adopted to them over time and when associated with stressful situations or excitable scenarios.”

Learning to manage your ‘tells’ is one of the core skills needed to play poker with only 36% believing they have a good poker face and 4 in 10 admitting to experiencing these tells and as a regular poker player, British PokerStars Team Pro, Ben Spragg comments:

“Poker players will deliberately act in a certain way to try and deceive their opponents however this may also lead to them giving away information to others. It is therefore important to learn to control your own tells, behaviour patterns and playing styles to not give the game away. Developing self-awareness is hard, but as soon as we can recognise what we are doing, we can then begin to see ourselves through our components eyes and as a result change the way we present ourselves for the benefit of the game.”

Here are his top tips to control your ‘tells’ at the poker table…

  • Pay close attention at the table because as soon as the cards are dealt you will start to receive information that will be crucial to deciphering what your opponent is holding!
  • Before the cards are even in the air, take a look at how your opponent stacks their chips, a messy, disorganised scatter of a pile could indicate inexperience or a player more likely to be loose with their chips! Conversely, a super neat stack with all the edge spots lined up is often an indicator of an overly tight player!
  • Hand movements, breathing and facial cues can all give away key poker tells. Observe frantic and fidgety movements. Someone who is overly animated is likely to be expressing some nerves, perhaps they know internally they are about to play a big pot!
  • Heavy breathing and general nervousness is often mistaken for a player who is bluffing, but oftentimes the opposite is true! Whilst this read is player dependent, a lot of players breathe heavily, have an increased pulse and nervous disposition when they are about to invest a lot of chips, this is most commonly true when they have a big hand. Heavy breathing usually indicates strength, not weakness.
  • Developing your own poker face often comes with experience, but as you are starting out the best advice I can offer is to try and maintain the same demeanour at all times. A common misconception might be to always keep the same posture and movements when playing pots, however, this is very mentally taxing and can play tricks on you if you are second guessing whether you are acting the same way in each pot. Relaxation and clear headedness is a better approach, focusing on counting the size of the pot and your next decision is a good way to keep the emotional attachment to a hand out of your head and will perhaps help disguise any anxiety or excitement you might be showing.
  • Talking during a hand is usually an important tell. The majority of players will only talk during a hand if they are very relaxed or confident, therefore speech usually indicates strength. The best workaround therefore is not to answer questions about your holding during a hand! Typically doing so will give unnecessary information to a prying opponent. Don’t consider it rude to simply not respond! It’s all a part of hiding that poker face.
  • Inexperienced players may also think to introduce some false tells to their game to hide their poker face! The most obvious example of this are sighing and tutting to try and indicate weakness, or reaching for chips before your opponent has bet as if to say “I’m ready to call, just try me!” These are two of the most obvious fake tells to a professional! Normally the person huffing and puffing as they call, actually has the nuts, and the player trying to indicate they’re ready to play is about to throw their cards into the muck!
  • Overall, the secret to picking up on and hiding your own tells is all about observing and concealing information. In the famous words of Ronan Keating: “You say it best, when you say nothing at all.” So try not to make any grand gestures, any grand declarations, and keep those cards close to your chest!

About the research

All figures, unless otherwise stated, are from Censuswide. The total sample size was 2008 General UK Respondents who know they exhibit a certain ‘tell’, aged 18+. Research was conducted from 25th August to 31st August 2023.

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