(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.)
A player who is waiting for an opponent to act, and who looks toward or stares at the player whose turn it is, is more likely to have a weak hand.
The video clip below contains an example of this behavior from a tournament.
This is a pretty common way that this behavior shows up: a player with a weak hand checks and looks toward his opponent. A similar situation occurs when new board cards come out and the in-position player stares at the first-to-act player.
What are the reasons for this pattern?
Staring at an opponent or looking at an opponent can be a way to communicate, “I’m watching you,” or “I’m interested in this hand.” This is the main reason why players with weak hands are more likely to stare at or look at opponents. They want (consciously or not) to intimidate an opponent and discourage them from betting. It is often a defensive behavior.
Also, players with weaker hands do actually have a legitimate reason to study their opponents. They want to look for possible clues or tells. Players with strong hands, though, have less actual reason to study an opponent. This is another reason players with weak hands tend to look more at their opponents.
When a player with a strong hand is waiting for an opponent to act, they don’t want to “get in the way” of an opponent’s action. They want their opponent to bet and don’t want to discourage action. For this reason, waiting-for-action players with strong hands tend to act more inconspicuously; they are more quiet, more still, and tend to avoid eye contact.
Two more examples
Here are a couple hands from Pokerstars’ The Big Game to further illustrate this concept.
In the first clip, the amateur player Ken Hrankowski has on a scary board. He gives his opponent Joe Hachem a good amount of eye contact, both as he calls on the turn and before Hachem bets the river. He has a motivation to watch Hachem and “keep an eye on him.” (He calls the river and Hachem has jack-ten for two pair.)
In the second clip, we see Hrankowski with quad jacks. First, notice how he doesn’t watch the action at all as it’s checked around on the flop. After he calls Hachem’s bet on the turn, before the river comes, you can see he doesn’t look at Hachem at all. For a few seconds on the river, you can also see the amateur player waiting submissively and looking down, with only a quick glance at Hachem.
There will of course be variation with this behavior; the hands I’ve used here are not presented as rock-solid evidence. But I think they give good insight into the factors affecting waiting-for-action eye contact.
Keep in mind…
Keep in mind that we’re talking about waiting-for-action players. We’re not talking about players who are betting or who have already bet. These are very different categories and not the same situation at all, so you shouldn’t apply the general pattern to bettors.
Also keep in mind that the more aggressive the eye contact is, the more likely it is to represent weakness. For example, a player who stares continually at an opponent is more likely to have a weak hand than is one who just glances at an opponent a few times.
The practical use for spotting this behavior is that if you are on the fence about whether or not to bluff, this behavior will encourage you to bluff.
The main caveat is that this pattern, like most behavioral patterns, is not super-reliable. It’s just generally reliable and it will vary for specific players. You ideally want to have a sense of how a player usually acts and whether this pattern is likely to mean something for that player. Some players are well balanced and act the same way in every hand; others may have this as a reliable tell.
Also remember that even if this tell is accurate for a player, there is no guarantee that an opponent will fold. Even if you read someone accurately for weakness and decide to bluff, your opponent may still call or raise you. Again, this behavior would just be one of many pieces of information (and a minor one) to take into account when considering a bluff.
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 a couple hands from the show PokerStars’ The Big Game. 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.