Poker-Faced Pros: How to Read People in Poker

April 23, 2020

In poker, psychology and facial tells can be just as crucial to winning as the cards dealt. Poker writer and broadcaster Shelley Rubenstein picks the brains of a former FBI agent who now coaches professional players.

When James Bond, one of the world’s smartest secret agents, lost millions of dollars in a high-stakes poker game in the 2006 movie Casino Royale, it was all because he failed to recognise his opponent’s clumsy face-touching as a glaringly obvious double bluff.

It’s proof of just how crucial physical tells and psychology are when playing poker. Discussing the hand afterwards, Bond acknowledged his impatience and the way he allowed his ego to obstruct clear thinking – crucial lessons that all professional players should bear in mind.

When players gather around the baize, there are myriad emotions running amok. It can be a challenge to stay calm when tilted, dealing with the incessant chat, mind games and annoying habits of others. Aside from controlling one’s own reactions, the ability to decipher opponents’ every tic, gesture and erratic breathing pattern hugely increases one’s winning chances.

This is where former FBI agent Joe Navarro (and author of The Dictionary of Body Language) comes in. He served with the US intelligence service for 25 years, becoming an expert in reading non-verbal communications while working at the bureau’s Behavioural Analysis Program. Once retired, he went on to coach professional players for one of the world’s leading poker tournament series, the World Series of Poker. One player he particularly helped was Phil Hellmuth, a record-breaking winner of no less than 15 titles in that particular series.

“Phil was making lots of rookie mistakes, such as biting his lips and shifting his jaw,” Navarro remembers of his client, aka The Poker Brat. Navarro advised Hellmuth to bring his hands in front of his face while he played, interlacing his fingers so his chin would perch atop this thumbs and his mouth would remain covered. He calls it the Navarro Perch.

“Do you like to engage or do you like to win?”

At first Hellmuth was reluctant, insisting he “liked to engage” while competing. “Do you like to engage or do you like to win?” Navarro countered. To persuade his clientto follow his advice, he explained to Hellmuth just how much human beings focus on facial movements. “Our eyes will orient on any movement, so if a person holds completely still, they virtually disappear,” Navarro explained.

To prove his theory, Navarro instructed a poker player to spend an entire game without moving his body or interacting with other players, aside from what he was obliged to do to make his bets. “After an hour, he left the table and then we asked the other players about him,” Navarro says. “No one could describe him; they couldn’t even recall what he was wearing.”

In fact, the only thing they could remember were the bets he made. It’s proof, Navarro says, “that if you hold very still, you become invisible.”

This is just one of the tips Navarro offers to professional players. Below you’ll discover the most important physical and facial tells he explains to his clients.

Top 11 most common poker tells

Learn to read people in poker like a pro by understanding these 11 common tells.

1. FACIAL PINCHING OR PRODDING

Most people assume fingers to the face mean a person is being pensive. But facial prodding, and even more so pinching, means they feel they have a marginal or weak hand.

2 VENTILATING BEHAVIOUR

When players pull on their collars or tug their clothes, they’re struggling, they’re insecure, and they feel weak.

3 NOSE WRINKLE

Also known as the bunny nose, this is probably the easiest tell to spot. 75 per cent of the time, players will fold their hand if they’re crinkling their noses.

4 NECK TOUCHING

Touching the front of the neck specifically is a sign of apprehension or concern.

5 NOSE ELEVATION

Players with strong hands tend to elevate their noses.

6 JAW SHIFTING

When players look at their cards and their jaw starts to shift right or left, this indicates a weak or marginal hand.

7 MAKING A CAGE WITH HANDS

When players arch their hands in a cage around their cards, this is a sign they have a very strong hand.

8 STEEPLING HANDS

This is a display of confidence and broadcasts a feeling of strength to other players.

9 EXTENDED THUMBS

While holding the cards, confident players tend to outstretch their thumbs; scared players tuck them in or hide them behind their hands.

10 SITTING LOW

When a player leans lower and lower in the seat, this is a survival strategy, showing weakness.

11 BOUNCING LEGS

You may not spot a player’s legs beneath the table, but you can see the vibrations throughout the body and clothing. Happy feet suggest a strong hand.

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