Poker hand

Poker and Football Tells: Improve Your Situational Awareness on the Field

Poker is a game of human interaction, and experienced players have learned to interpret physical and verbal behaviors to determine the strength or weakness of their opponent’s hand. These unconscious behaviors at the poker table called “tells,” may provide essential clues that reveal a future action or provide the purpose behind a previous action.

Similarly, football officials can improve situational awareness by paying attention to tells on the gridiron. By noting often subtle and involuntary player behavior, officials can enhance their anticipation of a pending play or gain insight into a player’s intent following a play.

Principles Common to Poker and Football Tells

Before exploring specific examples, it’s important to consider a handful of immutable principles common to both poker and football tells:

There are no absolutes
Some poker tells are false and unreliable. Likewise, football players may exhibit behavior that is unreliable and contrary to what happened (more on that later).

They tell only a portion of the story
Tells provide only a portion of the overall story and should not be the singular foundation for an important decision. Furthermore, while poker players will most often have to speculate on the strength of their opponent’s hand, guessing based on a perceived tell is inappropriate for football officials.

Art and Science of Tells
The is an “art” and a “science” to poker playing and football and football officiating. Poker involves reading situations and opponents (art). It is also a game of mathematics, where players calculate the odds (science) of winning a hand based on their holdings and the probability of seeing specific cards on the flop, turn, and river.

Football officials rely on rule book knowledge (science) and the understanding of how to interpret the rules in the context of the game (art). Poker players who do not understand the math behind poker and rely entirely on “gut” feel and reading opponents will undoubtedly go broke; football officials who are unfamiliar with the rules and only “call ‘em as they see ‘em” will likewise fail.

Common in inexperience players
Tells are more common with inexperienced players than with accomplished players. Trembling hands are usually a reliable sign of a strong hand, and novice poker players often have a difficult time controlling their excitement.

Expert poker players are careful to regulate their body language and table talk to hide the strength or weakness of their hand. Likewise, younger football players (at each level) will not have mastered the subtleties of hiding intent. Many middle school and sub-varsity high school players are singularly concerned about lining up and properly executing their assignments.

Veteran players are more accomplished at hiding the true intent of their actions. A knowledgeable coaching staff will attempt to train players to eliminate obvious tells.

Accomplished players pay attention
Accomplished poker players know they have to pay attention to the other players at all times, especially when they are not in a hand. They pay attention to every nuance from the moment the cards are dealt until the winning player scoops his or her chips. Many recreational players are easily distracted by watching television, listening to music, bantering with other players, or scrolling through Twitter or checking Facebook.

Football officials must take advantage of ample time during pre-game and before each snap to gather essential information. Veteran officials employ a pre-snap routine to collect data which will often inform them of future action. Substitution packages, formations, and pre-snap motion will all serve as tells. (This is why studying pre-game formations and plays is an essential information-gathering activity.)

Also, football officials are taught very early to see the entire play. Newer officials may be tempted to penalize an act based only on the tail-end of the action. The new High School blind side block rule requires officials to observe, from beginning to end, how the blocker contacted his opponent.

Good players study their opponents
Good poker players will study their opponents and keep detailed notes on behaviors, playing styles (tight, loose, aggressive, passive), and betting patterns. At almost every level, football officials now have access to game statistics and film. If available, football officials should study game film to note formations, favored plays, tendencies, and primary players.

Even if film is not available, high school officials can often take advantage of team or league websites to collect valuable information. The on-field pre-game session is an important research time.

  • Is the quarterback right-handed or left-handed?
  • How accurately does he throw?
  • Is the kicker right-footed or left-footed?
  • How far do the place-kicker and punter kick?

Finally, the pre-game meeting with each team’s head coach will help with preparation. Asking the head coach about unusual formations or plays that might surprise the crew and determining if the coach will run the “swinging gate” for trys are two important questions that will help officials prepare.

Tells Common to Poker and Football

Renewed Interest

Instead of waiting for their turn to act, inexperienced poker players will often immediately look at their hole cards and then offer a clear tell regarding their plan. A player who intends to fold may hold his cards away from his body, waiting for his or her turn to muck. A player who intends to play his hand will often “cap” his cards with a coin or chip, sit up in his chair, and study chip stack sizes.

Likewise, a receiver who breaks the huddle, hurries to the line “with a purpose” and intently looks at the defense may be inadvertently signaling a pass play if he had previously habitually dawdled to the line and appeared disinterested before blocking on running plays.

Acting Quickly or Deliberately

Sometimes poker players will reveal hand strength by acting more quickly than normal. In poker, quick calls usually indicate weak to medium-strength hands. Football offenses will often move at the same tempo with a customary number of seconds to call the play in the huddle and with an established pace from huddle to formation.

In short-yardage situations, if a team rushes to the line with atypical swiftness, they are most likely planning on snapping the ball without a sound or on the first sound. It’s essential to confirm all players are in the correct formation and set for one second before the snap (NFHS 7-2-6).

Teams that are not accustomed to running a hurry-up offensive may also not have all players in position and set before the snap.

Abnormal Behavior

An important key in recognizing tells is to note “normal” behavior patterns and then to observe deviations. For tells to be dependable, they have to exist as part of a larger pattern of behaviors that have proven to be reliable.

Actions that are out of context and do not follow previous behavior will often be a tell. Normally talkative poker players who suddenly fall silent frequently have a good hand. The same is true for players that usually don’t talk but all of a sudden start to chatter.

Offensive linemen will typically follow the same pre-snap routine (approach the line, get in a two- or three-point stance, call out assignments, and wait for the snap). Some offensive lines will consistently slap their thigh pads before settling into their stance.

The Landry Shift

One notable example of an unusual but consistent pre-snap routine is the famed “Landry Shift.” In the ‘70s and ‘80s, Dallas Cowboys linemen would come to the line in a two-point stance and then stand straight up and go down to a three-point stance. (When they stood up, that’s when the backs shifted. The offensive line’s movement served to disguise the running back’s realignment.)

On a single short-yardage play, after employing a “normal” shift for multiple snaps, offensive lines may attempt to cause the defense to foul by replicating the Landry Shift. Any deviation from the offensive line’s habitual behavior that simulates a snap is a glaring tell and should be penalized (NFHS 7-1-7a,b). (Understandably, coaches and fans may not understand this distinction.)

Similarly, referees must be attentive for uncharacteristic head bobs and hand chucks by the quarterback on short-yardage plays.

Physical Tells

Many physical poker tells signal intent. A player who views his hole cards and then immediately looks at or handles his chips usually has a playable hand. The same is true if he looks at his chips immediately after the dealer flops the first three community cards. It means the flop has helped his hand and he’s willing to put more money in the pot.

As a rule, players who look squarely into their opponent’s eyes are conveying strength. A relaxed player who suddenly sits up in her chair and becomes very attentive probably has a playable hand. Players with strong hands may lean forward (closer to the action). Players with weak hands may pull their hands and arms toward the body (toward safety) or rub their arms, neck, hair, or face to pacify themselves.

Football linemen may inadvertently signal intent by closing their splits for passing plays and widening their splits for running plays; slightly twisting feet or shoulders before pass blocking or pulling; setting fingers solidly on the ground to prepare to drive block or lightly touching the ground before pass blocking or pulling; or looking immediately at their blocking assignment when they approach the line.

My experience with physical tells as a high school football player

As a tenth-grade JV football player in Massachusetts, my practice role was to be a crash dummy for the varsity squad. I was not very big, so I couldn’t provide a physical challenge for the larger varsity players. However, I had a coach’s mind, so I was constantly observing the players to try to gain an edge.

One of our best players, a tight end, gave off a physical tell that I quickly discovered. For a run play, he would come to the line and immediately get in a three-point stance. However, for a pass play, he would lick his fingers before assuming his three-point stance. After he repeated this unconscious habit a few times, I started calling out “run!” or “pass!” before the snap.

The tight end coaches wanted to know how I knew the play type and I explained what I had observed. The coaches got a good laugh and I’m grateful the tight end did not pummel me for calling out his physical tell.

Clear signals of intent

Many poker experts acknowledge when players talk specifically about their hands, they are more likely to be telling the truth than to be lying. Although some players will attempt to be verbally deceptive, most players are more comfortable saying what is true than what is not.

The same is true on the football field as in some cases, players will demonstrate intent. In some cases, teams will not attempt to disguise intent when they shift the most capable linemen to a specific side before running in that direction.

Another example of undisguised intent is when a defender hits or shoves a quarterback after a pass or a pitch with no attempt to execute a textbook wrap-up tackle. This action is one of the most obvious and reliable gridiron tells. If the defender thought the quarterback still had the ball, he would not risk the quarterback escaping by merely shoving the quarterback or slamming him to the ground.

Defensive players may be coached to hit a quarterback whenever possible after the pitch on an option play. If a referee sees an attempt to contact the quarterback without attempting a tackle, a penalty flag may be warranted.

The same applies to a defender who contacts a runner along the sideline and then throws him to the ground in a dismissive or careless manner. If the defender thought the runner was still inbounds, he would be more careful to execute a proper tackle.

Bad Actors

Poker players with strong hands may attempt to act weak. However, many unskilled players will be overtly theatrical with their actions and words. Disclaimers such as “I don’t want to do this, but I guess I have to see a flop,” may be an indication of a monster hand.

Dramatic sighing, exaggerated shrugging, or an embellished gloomy face very often indicate strong holdings. Kickers are sometimes guilty of similar overacting. Kickers who pause before falling down or who dramatically twist and flail while falling are almost certainly trying to buy a roughing call.

Resigned to their Fate

Most poker players conceptually understand tells, but many still cannot avoid plainly exhibiting distress when they know they are losing in a hand. A defensive lineman may complain about holding, but his defeated body language is telling a different story (that the offensive lineman is simply dominating him).

Some defensive players put up little resistance when held and do not attempt to demonstrate restriction. This compliant behavior is often easy to discern as they appear to be “dancing” with the blocker. The covering official can explain this lack of effort to the head coach to describe why he did not penalize the blocker for holding.

Desire to Act

If a poker player who normally is quiet and easy-going suddenly becomes impatient with the pace of a specific hand, it often indicates a strong holding. Questions like “whose turn is it?” or showing uncharacteristic eagerness for others to act may indicate the player is in a hurry to fire the guns with his pocket Aces or Kings.

A kick receiver may indicate that he has inadvertently touched the kick when he looks toward the covering official to see if the touching was noticed. Or he may indicate touching if he panics and rushes to recover the grounded kick. cards could say a lot.


Poker players and football officials cannot use presumed empirical evidence to make flawless decisions as poker and football players often employ deception. Some poker tells (an amateur’s shaking hands) are much more reliable than others (a player avoiding eye contact).

In some cases, the covering official may be shielded from a good look at the play and a football player’s body language may not accurately convey the truth. A receiver may jump up excitedly and display the ball to show everyone that it was a good catch, even when he knows he trapped the pass. However, in the opposite situation, if a receiver acts dejected with a discernible lack of enthusiasm, his demeanor can be trusted to rule a trap rather than a catch.

Likewise, a ball carrier may indicate with body language that he is down when no covering official can see his knee touch the ground when he slips. In this situation, he will stop trying to advance the ball and give himself up. The official can dependably kill the play when the ball carrier displays this behavior.

The official cannot rely on body language in the opposite situation when the ball carrier knows he is down, but continues to aggressively run.