Dealer Tells in Blackjack

When playing Poker, players often talk of being able to “read” their opponents. They can know what cards are held or the relative strength of a hand by noticing body language, unconscious gestures, movements, or facial expressions. Collectively, these mannerisms that reveal information about a hand are called “tells.” Players are completely unaware that they are giving away supposedly secret knowledge when they make them.

When it comes to Blackjack, knowing what card a dealer has in the hole would give anyone a tremendous advantage in playing hands. For this reason, many of the best Blackjack players cultivate the art of observation, looking for hints that give away what is supposedly hidden from view.

Basic Tells

Dealers are, of course, trained to keep a straight face and protect the hole card from prying eyes, but they are human and can’t help actions that their subconscious controls. A raised brow, a slight tilt of the head, changes in breathing pattern, a relaxing or tensing of the shoulders, a glance away and to the left—such behavior seems random and typically goes unnoticed. But when it becomes a pattern, opportunity may arise.

This is especially true when playing at a table where the dealer must bend the corner of the hole card in order to check its value. Typically, he or she will cup the left hand over the cards while peeking with the thumb and forefinger of the right. Occasionally, this gives the player at “third base” a look at down card, too. But even if it doesn’t, there are some actions to look for.

Because of the way the Ace, Jack and 4 are marked on the corners of the cards, it may be necessary for the dealer to bend the cards slightly higher to see the symbols than is needed for the other cards. If the dealer has an Ace up, peeks and bends the higher, look for an Ace or a 4 in the hole. If the dealer has a 10 or a picture card up and does this, look for Jack or a 4 down.

In much the same way, if a dealer has a 10 or a picture card up and has to peek twice, confirming whatever was seen the first time, chances are the down card is a 4. The reason: the top of the Ace and the number 4 are pointed and look very similar.

By contrast, Kings, Queens, and 10s have printing close to the corner of the card and are easy to peek at. The corner doesn’t need to be lifted as high. When the dealer has a 10 or a face card showing and peeks more quickly than usual, chances are it is one of these ten-valued hands and it will take twenty-one to win—possibly a good time to surrender.

More Advanced Tells

How long the dealer looks at the hole card is probably the most important characteristic to observe. The player needs to keep mental notes of what cards are turned up and look for patterns that can be identified as tells. Quick peeking often means cards higher than 6, and longer looks translate into small “stiff” cards, 2~6. This is not true, but keeping track will soon reveal if it is for a particular dealer.

There is nothing quite as satisfying as knowing, really knowing for certain, that the dealer has a “stiff” hand—a 2~6 down and an Ace or a ten-valued card up. One very common tell is when the dealer peeks and then move the cards a little farther to his/her left than where he/she usually places the cards. This frequently means a low card in the hole and the dealer is making room to draw one or more cards. By the same token, leaving the cards in place or moving them to the dealer’s right may mean no draw is required.

Picking up on subconscious mannerisms is not easy, but almost any player can tell when a dealer is “for the players,” joking around and looking for tips, and when the dealer is against them, never smiling or chatting and always hurrying players. Friendly dealers may smile, open their eyes a bit wider, or be more talkative when a potential “bust card” shows up in the hole. Unfriendly ones may exhibit the same behavior when the hole card makes a pat hand.

Reading dealer tells is all a matter of observation and interpretation, plus keeping a secret. Dealers who discover that their tells have been revealed are quick to hide them consciously. Should this occur, he remedy is simple: move to another table.

Is it worth the time and effort to discover dealer tells, if the only time they can be used is when a peek at the hole card is required? Absolutely, yes it is, and here’s why: on average a peek is required for five out of every 13 hands. Anything that occurs 38.5% of the time at a Blackjack table is worth the investment of time and attention. It can turn average hands into big winners.