The Real Science of Live Poker Tells

Let's talk a bit about tells - live poker tells.

A lot has been written about tells; much of it quite silly, much of it quite wonderful.

I'm going to pass on the silly. No sense in giving anyone a reason to flame me.

Let's just give a nod to "the good stuff," of which there are two main progenitors: Mike Caro and Joe Navarro.

Mike Caro's Book of Tells: Limited Utility

mike caro poker tells
The straw that stirs the tells.

Mike Caro's Book of Tells outlined how particular classic tells are displayed. The book was written relatively early in the poker explosion and shows its wrinkles, although much of the material is still relevant and useful to beginners.

Navarro's unique approach in Read 'em and Reap: A Career FBI Agent's Guide to Decoding Poker Tells (whew!) is newer, based on experience in the "real world." In the course of his FBI assignments Navarro worked on techniques for detecting lying, subterfuge and misdirection. Unlike Caro's findings, Navarro's are based on scientific research.

If you're curious, Google "Paul Ekman" and follow the trail that emerges. Ekman is a distinguished psychologist who did much of the early work on how human emotions are expressed.

But, and this is the real topic of this article, it is only by integrating Caro's and Navarro's approaches that we can appreciate the real science of tells.

Caro's approach was developed through his years doing battle with some of the toughest opponents in the game.

It is knowledge that came from personal experience. As a result, it's difficult for beginners and even fairly experienced players to grasp what he is talking about.

For example, the "shaking fingers" tell for a monster hand is rarely seen these days.

The last time I saw it it was useless; the guy had a tremor that popped up whenever he felt stressed - which was anytime he put more than two BBs into a pot!

Read'em and Reap: Intuition Is Everything

Navarro's content is based on data collected from experiments on the patterns of reactions through which human beings express emotions and the ways in which experienced individuals come to learn to read those patterns.

These studies showed that well-trained individuals in agencies like the FBI and the Secret Service could spot suspicious activity better than ordinary folks.

They were adept at picking up on patterns of behavior, speech and movement. Intriguingly, they typically did not consciously know what these patterns were; they only had a vague sense that "something's not right here."

In an earlier piece published on PokerListings I wrote about intuition, that ability to know things we don't consciously know we know.

What Navarro is doing is trying to get the average poker player to hone his or her intuitive skills, to pay attention to the right cues in the poker world and learn to divine which ones are reliable.

Poker Tells: Not What You Think They Are

fingers poker tells
Trembling fingers aren't always a tell.

But acquiring this skill isn't simple; it takes time. Ironically, it takes the kind of experience Mike Caro had that led him to write his book.

The first thing to accept is that most tells are not picked up consciously. It is rare for a player to look at his opponent and know from some gesture, some movement that he is bluffing.

I spotted one once. It was so bizarre I thought it was phony. This guy bet with his right hand, except when he was bluffing, when he bet with his left!

I only played with him a couple of hours so I never got to find out if it was a setup to trap someone like me or whether it was real, but in years and years of play, I haven't seen anything like it again.

There are a few well-known tells for stressful situations. One is the upward glance or the look at something irrelevant. You'll see it when a player has made a big bet and now has to wait for his opponent to decide what to do.

He'll get nervous and, unable to hold a Hellmuthian or Fergusonian pose for long, he'll look at the ceiling, the TV, switch his gaze to a waitress walking past or even look briefly at his watch.

Most importantly, this is a sign of high emotion and you can't know precisely whether your opponent is aroused because he's bluffing or because he's sitting on a monster.

It's just like the so-called "lie detector" or "polygraph." It does not detect lies, it detects arousal - which is why evidence from the test is not admissible in court.

Further Reading:

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How to Read Poker Tells in Real Life

reading poker tells
The typical tell is complex.

The typical tell is complex and psychologically interesting. It is usually picked up subconsciously, intuitively and is based on the detection of patterns of behavior, action, speech and - most importantly - of betting.

We all have consistent manners of action, particular ways in which we function in particular situations. These are the marks, the revelations that a good poker player uses.

Tells are rarely specific; they are general, broad patterns of function. The most common tell of a big hand is not some idealized way of sitting or a specific tone of voice.

It is the way a particular individual tends to sit or a tone of voice they adopt when they have a huge hand or are bluffing. One player may have a forward-leaning posture; someone else may tend to sit back casually.

To detect and read these tells correctly is not easy, and there is no magic bullet here. It requires practice and experience - in the game in general and with this particular player.

In Search of the Twitch Tell

real poker tells
Pros are looking for the twitch.

Have you ever wondered why top pros like to ask players - particularly less-experienced amateurs - what their hand is? Watch the next time a real master of this gambit like Daniel Negreanu does this.

He'll run through several possible hands he thinks his opponent might have. He's looking to see if there is any change in demeanor or "twitch" when he mentions a particular candidate hand.

This trick, for what it's worth, is one of the more useful in the quiver of the astute customs agent or CIA interrogator. Like them, Daniel isn't looking for a specific reaction, just one that is different.

The take-home message: it's that old one, "Practice, man, practice." You need to put in your hours.

The more time you spend at the game, the more you will develop a sensitivity to its complexities - even though you will be hard-pressed to tell anyone what you're learning.

And, of course, you also need to pay attention; players who focus on the game and what their opponents are doing build up their intuition faster and will learn to detect tells more accurately.

Why Read 'Em and Reap Gets Poker Tells All Wrong

Over the last couple of years Zach Elwood has made people re-think the way they view poker tells. Elwood’s book Reading Poker Tells has been the talk of the industry with the likes of Kathy Liebert, Max Steinberg and Mason Malmuth heaping praise on the book. 

While most books in the last five years have been devoted to the math side of the game, Elwood has revitalized the tells genre with his practical advice for reading opponents. In a special guest post Elwood breaks down what psychology experts like Joe Navarro get wrong about poker tells.

By Zachary Elwood

How people act when playing poker is different from how they act during other activities.

I have seen several so-called “body language experts” try to apply their general knowledge to poker. Unless these experts have played a lot of poker, they are doomed to make mistakes. Poker is a unique environment, with unique situations.

Sure, some knowledge will cross over between criminal interrogations and poker playing. There are some similarities in human behavior across pretty much every activity. But there are also many differences in these two areas.

There are many ways that a good understanding of general human behavior can fail at the poker table.

I will use examples from the poker tells book Read ‘Em And Reap (written by Joe Navarro and Marvin Karlins, presented by Phil Hellmuth) because I think that book contains some of the most common misconceptions that result from trying to apply general behavioral knowledge to poker players.

Poker is Not a Criminal Interrogation

Read em and reap poker tells
Read 'Em and Reap

Let’s start with the misconception that a criminal interrogation has much in common with a poker game.

You might think that a bluffer might be similar to a guilty criminal who is being investigated. Both are doing something they are trying to get away with; both are trying to deceive.

But here’s the main difference: a person being interrogated, whether innocent or guilty, does not mind appearing nervous, scared, or unconfident. In fact, it may be to a guilty person’s benefit to appear all of these things, to better appear innocent.

Whereas a poker player who is bluffing has an instinctual urge to not want to appear nervous, scared, or unconfident. A bluffer, or even just someone with a vulnerable hand, does not want to display behavior that may make others perceive him as vulnerable or weak.

That is the main difference, and it is a big one. Someone experienced in interrogating criminals might assume that human feelings appear similarly in poker as they do in the interrogation room. But poker is its own particular environment with its own rules.

Let’s look at a few examples from Read ‘Em and Reap where this basic misunderstanding crops up.

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Are Pressed Lips a Poker Tell?

Navarro states that lips pressed tight together indicate a person under stress, as does biting the lip. While this is generally true for most non-poker situations, in poker you are rarely going to see someone making their discomfort known in such a way, and you are especially unlikely to find a bluffer doing this.

In fact, in my book Reading Poker Tells I listed pressed-together lips as an indicator of a strong hand. Many players with strong hands instinctually try to look weak; pressing lips together is one way to do this. Biting lips is another.

These are related to other (mostly unconscious) ways that players with strong hands try to look vulnerable, like slumping in the seat, emitting Mike Caro’s so-called “poker clack” (the tsk-tsk, “too bad” sound), or shaking the head slightly.

While you might occasionally see pressed lips or lip-biting exhibited truthfully, it will usually be in situations where it doesn’t matter much, such as when a player looks down at their hole cards pre-flop and then folds, or when a player is facing a last bet where they’re just debating between calling or folding.

Is Biting Nails a Poker Tell?

poker tells navarro
Poker is not an interrogation.

Navarro points out that biting nails is indicative of stress and that it means “a weak to mediocre hand.”

Again, while this is generally true for non-poker situations, you will be unlikely to see a person involved in a serious pot, whether bluffing or just vulnerable, bite their nails.

As with the pressed lips and the biting of lips, most people are generally aware that biting your nails is indicative of stress, so why would someone with a vulnerable hand do it? (Also, it made me wonder what kind of degenerates Navarro was playing with that he was seeing this behavior regularly.)

What is Pacifying Behavior?

Navarro lists a few “pacifying behaviors” that are indicators of a person experiencing stress. These self-soothing behaviors include:

  • Rubbing the neck
  • Rubbing the forehead
  • Exhaling through puffed cheeks
  • Stroking the face
  • Pulling the earlobe
  • Whistling
  • Neck ventilation (including adjusting a neck tie)

As with the previous behaviors, it’s easy to imagine a nervous criminal being interrogated doing these things in order to calm himself but it’s very hard to find a stressed poker player, especially a bluffer, doing these things.

This is just because these behaviors are so well-known as signs of distress so poker players with even the slightest experience will instinctively avoid engaging in them when they hold weak hands.

In fact the opposite is true; players with strong hands will be more likely to engage in behaviors that are associated with nervousness or disappointment.

Poker Table Defies Behavioral Knowledge

poker tells tv
Watch and you'll see ... none of those tells.

It’s possible that in very low stakes games, and with very beginner-level poker players, the nervous and self-soothing behaviors listed above might be exhibited truthfully. But at most stakes, and with even slightly experienced players, you will be unlikely to witness those behaviors from players with weak hands.

I’m very confident that if you scour the many thousands of hours of televised poker available online you will virtually never find these behaviors from a bluffer -- or even from a player who is vulnerable in the middle of a hand.

I think Navarro’s misconceptions of general poker behavior are a good example of what happens when someone with a decent level of behavioral expertise tries to “cross over” his knowledge to the poker world.

Navarro was already the author of a general behavior book called What Every Body Is Saying before he met Phil Hellmuth and Annie Duke, teamed up with a ghostwriter, and produced Read ‘Em and Reap.

It was probably assumed that his credentials as an FBI agent and as the author of a body language book, coupled with some guidance in poker lingo from Marvin Karlins and some promotion from Phil Hellmuth’s name, would enable Navarro to produce the definitive book on poker behavior.

But the few points I’ve brought up here are good supporting arguments for the idea that the poker table is a unique environment, with its own behavioral pressure points, and it defies the application of general behavioral knowledge.

More on Poker Tells:

2013-06-14 06:56:22

Intressant, snell.

2012-03-19 06:24:44

I am a swedish psychologist specializing in training
professionals to read pokerface, focus attention and
controlling your own pokerface.
My clients are pokerplayers, politicians, personal
leaders, security personnell and so on.
The training requires 4-5 h/day during a week and the
results are an average increase of 60%.
So, it is possible to hone the subconscious.

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