Emotions, Tells, and Body Language
By Johnny Hughes
Son, I've made a life out of reading people's faces, knowing what their cards were by the way they held their eyes. "The Gambler" by Don Schlitz
During twenty years of college teaching, one of the most popular topics was body language using poker and tells as an illustration. A gesture is intentional and reinforces communication. A tell is unintentional and reveals emotions a poker player would prefer to conceal.
In two way communication which would be two people talking face to face alone, non-verbal communication makes up 90% and verbal makes up 10%. When non verbal cues and verbal cues disagree, believe the uncontrollable and far more emotional non verbal. It is how much you bet and how you bet it and how you act after you bet it.
A player with the nuts or a big hand will speak calmly and very little, act overly nonchalant, look to his left to see what others are going to do, check his chips, and shake his or her rear end to get up a little bit to the table or to be a little taller.
A tell can be the forehead wrinkling, the eyes looking through the board or away or to the left or making or not making eye contact, a blush, sigh, yawn, gasp, faster breath rate (a tie waving like a flag), the vein on the neck,touching the nose, covering the mouth, stopping weaving and playing with the chips, smoking, drinking, stopping eating.
The most profitable tell that I use is knowing when the two or three players to my left are coming to life. I save money by tightening up my calls or I can smooth call with two aces trapping based on physical moves. Playing at Bellagio, I had two very good women players behind me who were talking all the time until one got a raising hand. It got quiet, someone's rear end danced around in a chair, and I needed a hand as big as a foot to play from bad position.
At the World Series, I played a great deal in the extremely popular low blinds, no limit hold em. With four tables going, a long list, and fast turnover, it was hard to get a quick read on people's play.
Before I sit down, I look for liquor glasses, attire, how the chips are stacked, how big a stack, chip tricks, fatique, anger--tilt, call and raise frequency, seating posture, sunglasses, hats, and readable clothes.
I look for concealed cigarettes as this was the first year of non-smoking in Binion's poker room It is great to yell out, "I really need a cigarette." Do this when they change dealers and count the rack and those in a hurry feel like their horse is parked in a red ant bed. I don't smoke.
The biggest tell immediately useful is the relationship to neatness of chip stacks and tightness of play. Those downtown Vegas rocks with a pyramid of chips like a fortress and sitting back with their arms folded are tighter than Phil Hellmuth's hat band.
Internet players are the easiest to read as they light up like a Christmas tree and jump all around when they are ready to play. They are like the poker playing dog wagging it's tail. I ask people if they play on the net and where they are from and how long they have been playing. It is best to be friendly. How is poker in Alabama or wherever gets a lot of information.
Many players including the young English players are very tight playing the top ten or twenty hands which means they are easier to put on a hand. In that lovely no limit hold em with small blinds and relatively small raises, you can come in lighter and start basing your semi-bluffs and trick plays almost entirely on tells and body language.
If someone is not used to chips and has a lot of them, I'm coming in behind them on some hippie cards. I am not going to judge people based on age, ethnicity, national origin, or gender, but I will be watching the way they move their hands, and their acting.
How should you act? Mostly, you should act like you are thinking hard about some problem whether you are or are not. That is the way tournament bridge and poker players act. If you do pause and study the board and players, it will improve your play. If you have an obvious fold, do so without stalling.
The most common mistake and tell is acting the opposite of where you are at. When someone curses mildly or shakes their head behind you, watch out. Are you easy to read? You need confidence in your poker face, especially if you do a lot of betting on all draws. I never play without a hat which lets me scan chip stacks and study the board without anyone seeing my eyes.
I wear medium tint sunglasses and the other players can see my eyes. I want them too. Poker is like going to the golf course or to play tennis and picking your opponent. I want in the pots with what body language and tells inform me are the weakest players.
In real life, making eye Contact Johnnyans credibility and self-confidence. In poker, you are always on a guess but if there is no other clue, lack of eye contact can mean a bluff, as can silence. Ask them if they have a big hand. Ask what did they bet. Start a conversation.
I always watch the other players eyes during the flop rather than watching the board. I do this whether I am in or out. The mouth tightens or there is a quick shrug or the disbelief of a raised eyebrow. They planned on hitting and did not. Now, are they making a new plan?
If they are studying me, I am ready to put on an act if need be. The primary time this comes up is at the end when I have the nuts and have made a big bet or moved in. I will keep quiet and wait but if it appears they are about to fold, I will go for the Academy Award. "Let me have this one. You can get the next one." "That flush card hit me." This is the truth. They have noticed the scare card and cannot believe you are telling your hand.
Body language comes in to the very flow of the game and reinforces the importance of position. In limit hold 'em, you get signaled that the blinds don't want a raise.
In no limit, the weak players and some of the tight players signal when they did not match the turn and you can pepper them with Doyle Brunson bets and raises. If you know they do not wish you to bet, you do not have to put them on an exact hand.
Emotions in poker are not one hand at a time. Some people have a permanent negative mood and an archivists collection of bad beat stories. The emotions at the table that are most useful to read are anger, fear, confidence, and joy.
Anger changes the blood chemistry and blood pressure and comes rapidly but does not leave rapidly. If I get angry, I walk down to the Plaza and see the Japanese band doing Country music.
A player who made a mistake, got what he thought was a bad beat, or recently had one of those nonsense World Famous five dollar Binion's arguments is not going to want you stealing his blinds. He is ready to play but you will need to show an angry player a hand. They literally get mad enough to call. Angry people do not win. I do not think that you should antagonize or trash talk but there are innocent ways of asking a dumb question. The world's oldest way to use anger is to bluff them out, show them, and then get in behind them with straight draws or small pairs looking to trip because angry people make it worth drawing to a wider range of hands.
Fear, like anger, changes the blood stream. Fearful people nursing a short stack or fearful people in the big blind are rather pathetic and half the table know it. If I know you are a casino employee playing the rent, I will show zero mercy. Play at the level of your least fear a long time before you move up. Sometimes a no limit game suddenly changes texture to the degree that fear protects me and sends me to rest. If there is a big joyful fish or or two, I will plan my playing time based on their chip count. If some real gars join the game with five times my chips, well there is a lot to do in Vegas and another game just one and three quarters of an inch away.
If other players have negative emotions of fear or anger..reinforce it. If it is fear, play where they will fear you more. If it is anger, reinforce the anger with some small shown bluffs but be ready for a mad man with a big hand.
Joy is the best emotion to play against if you are striving to be a joyful person. I love a sucker (whoops..recreational player) on a rush. I am their new best friend and want to talk about their old home town. Sometimes these people as well as wealthy people whom I have befriended will almost play as if they don't care which one of us wins and will draw at the hind leg of a jack. They are dangerous and you need Ace King and let them pay your kicker which they will.
The composure of the younger players at the World Series, especially the international players was depressing for an old hustler like me. Nearly everyone was friendly and nearly everyone seemed comfortable playing no limit. Because of T.V., a number of players absolutely love to say, "All in." If it is a tell, they are drawing. People who turn trips bet a number whereas those who turn a straight flush draw get dramatic because they would like to win the pot right there.
Emotions, especially anger, are contagious. The stress of the tournament with the lights, crowds, waiting, noise, chatter, and smells makes anger more prevalent. Stay out of any table arguements. Don't join someone on tilt because angry people make a live game. Our rationality or brain gets stressed and tired and gives emotions more power in decision making.
Watch out for temporary anger which tells you that you really want to beat someone and you want to beat them right now. Unfortunately, and everyone knows it is not fair, it takes just as big a hand to beat a low life creep as it would to beat Mother Teresa. Try to read the ongoing emotional state of the players you are most likely to get matched up with. Do they fear you? Are they angry with you? I want them to think I am a double lucky sucker just waiting to get trimmed.
My chips are stacked unevenly and I asked a couple of dumb questions. I'll raise it up with eight and seven and announce before action this is the best hand in hold em. Then I show it. Then I quit showing hands.
I dutifully switched gears every round of so in Vegas but I did not think anyone noticed. Remember that no one is paying as much attention to you as you think. Why the rock who has shown no visible signs of life for an hour gets two aces paid off must remain one of those mysteries.
We all know that our own ongoing emotional state of poker self-confidence is the driving wheel of success or failure. We work on our own zone like best place for poker but must also judge others on their temporary emotions and their longer range emotions as they impact their play.
This originally appeared on PokerPages.com