(This article is part of a series. Each article discusses a specific poker behavior and features a short sample clip from Zachary Elwood’s Reading Poker Tells Video series.)
The act of shuffling hole cards during a hand will generally weaken a player’s range of hands.
Below is a sample clip from the Reading Poker Tells Video series that contains a couple examples of players shuffling cards.
What are the reasons for this pattern?
Shuffling cards is often something players do when they’re not focused on the situation. A lack of mental focus will often mean a player’s hand isn’t strong. Players who are more focused tend to be more still.
Often, especially in preflop situations and in multi-way pots, players shuffle their hole cards when they’re waiting to fold. This “killing time” aspect of the behavior is pretty representative of a lot of cases of during-hand shuffling of cards.
This pattern is very reliable for players who are the non-aggressors in the hand (i.e., the checkers or callers) or who are waiting for action (i.e., waiting for another opponent to act). Why is this?
Let’s think about waiting-to-act players with very strong hands. These players, besides being mentally focused, also have an instinct to not draw attention to themselves. These two factors make stillness (or slow, thoughtful movements) more likely.
Waiting-to-act players with weak hands, who know they’ll be folding (or, at most, calling a small bet), aren’t focused on the situation. They also have no real incentive (so they think) to disguise that they’re not interested in the hand. Shuffling cards is a way to pass the time until they fold.
This is why so many instances of players with weak hands shuffling cards happen in multi-way pots, especially preflop (which is just a very multi-way situation). Players in multi-way pots are less likely to “fight” for pots; they play more straightforwardly and there is less bluffing. Players in multi-way pots are also less cautious about their behavior and often give clues to their lack of focus, their disappointment, or their intention to fold.
Note that this pattern is only weakly reliable when associated with a bet — that is, for players who shuffle their cards before or after a bet or raise. The pattern still will generally be true, but only slightly. This is because players who bet with strong hands are capable of doing all sorts of weird things just due to being relaxed. This makes it much harder to interpret this behavior when it accompanies a bet.
When shuffling cards does accompany a bet or raise with a weak hand, it often has an agitated quality and comes as a response to some sort of interaction. For example, maybe the opponent facing the bet asks a question or starts to stack chips as if ready to call, and the bettor starts shuffling his cards agitatedly. This may be a clue that the bettor may be unnerved or uncomfortable.
But, again, bettors with strong hands are also capable of doing unusual things. The main way the behavior would affect your decision would be if you are very much on-the-fence about a decision or if you’ve noticed it to be very reliable for a specific player.
The main caveats with this pattern are:
- Some players shuffle their cards a lot in many situations, with both strong and weak hands. For these players, you should study them a little bit to see if there might be a pattern of some sort. But if it’s difficult to work out, you should probably just ignore the behavior.
- The pattern is only weakly reliable for bettors.
- As with all tells, you’d be less likely to act on this behavior the more experienced an opponent is (because such a player is more capable of switching the behavior up).
The practical application of noticing this behavior, if you believe it’s meaningful, is to encourage you to continue in a hand, whether that’s to call, bet, or raise when you otherwise might not have.
A few examples of how this information might come in handy:
- Preflop, you see a player behind you who is shuffling his cards. This might encourage you to raise or to call, knowing that you are more likely to have position and less likely to face another raise.
- A player limps under the gun, and a middle-position player raises. You are thinking about calling in the big blind, but are afraid the UTG player might have limped a strong hand and may be three-betting. But as the action comes to you, you see the UTG player shuffling his cards and this encourages you to call, knowing a raise is now unlikely.
- On the flop, in a four-way pot, the preflop raiser continuation bets and you see a player behind you shuffling cards. If you are undecided about whether to fold, call, or raise this c-bet, this slight bit of information might help you make up your mind, knowing you have one less player likely to be a factor.
The video below contains a few hands from various sources (these videos are not from my poker tells course):
In the first hand in the video from High Stakes Poker (season 1, episode 4), we see Shawn Sheikhan shuffle his cards before checking first-to-act with on a flop.
This is a very reliable tell for most players. If Sheikhan had flopped an interesting or strong hand in this spot, we’d be likely to see him be more focused and still, even if he decided to check. (Note that this is a multi-way pot, which helps explain Sheikhan’s lack of focus and also makes the pattern more likely to be reliable.)
In the second hand in the clip from Poker After Dark (season 6, episode 69), it’s an unraised blind-vs-blind hand. We see Tom Dwan check back the flop with ace-high very quickly. Then, on the turn, Gabe Kaplan bets and Dwan calls right away with his pair of sevens. We then see Dwan shuffle his cards for a while.
Dwan’s shuffling of cards is likely to indicate he’s not really focused on the hand. It’s probable Dwan would be more focused and thoughtful with all of his medium-strength and strong hands, and even his strong draws. The quickness of Dwan’s flop check and turn call also make weaker hands more likely. Dwan was an aggressive player in these episodes; not only is he more likely to bet or raise with his draws and weakest hands, he also has more incentive to bet his strong hands, because he’s more likely to get action. This makes his quick actions and lack of focus very likely to indicate a weak made hand.
The last hand in the video is from the 2005 World Series of Poker Main Event as shown on ESPN (episode 2). In that hand, a player limps early then we see him make a large three-bet all in with . When Daniel Negreanu questions him, the player shuffles his cards in an agitated way for a few seconds. This player does have a weak hand here, but I want to emphasize that this behavior is not very reliable when seen from players who have bet or raised. I have many examples of players with strong hands who shuffle their cards before or after betting or raising, so remember that.
(Incidentally, more interesting than the shuffling of cards is the fact that this player makes a strong-hand statement. He says “It’s the World Series,” implying he wouldn’t be shoving with a weak hand at such a big event. While strong-hand statements aren’t that reliable in general when heard from bettors, in this situation, it’s unlikely the guy would discourage action if he had or .)
Reading Poker Tells Video Series: This has been an article featuring info and a video sample Zachary Elwood’s poker tells series (as well as clips from High Stakes Poker, Poker After Dark, and the World Series of Poker). You can sign up for a free 3-part email course on the front page of this site: www.readingpokertells.video. Signing up for the email course also gets you a 15% discount off of any of the video series packages.