A poker night out with the boys

March 29, 2011, Chris  

I don’t play a lot of poker. But I do play in a monthly home game that has a great mix of characters, from retailers and construction workers to a doctor and some retired FBI agent who shall remain nameless. Let’s just say he’s the sucker.

We play just about every version of poker there is, including Bunk Beds, Screw Your Neighbor, Follow the Queen and the L Game. Hold’em? Not so much. I’m just content to be socializing with my friends. The stakes are miniscule, which means money is mindlessly thrown into the pot and the game isn’t taken seriously.

Their mannerisms dictate strength, but how can they all be strong? I usually have a rag hand, but they almost make me contribute to the pot. I often think of my friend Greg Raymer, who says you should fold close to 70 percent of your hands. Not at this game.

When I get my chance as dealer to call limit hold’em I hear a few grumbles, but they oblige. And that’s when they start to take the game a little more seriously. Maybe it’s because they’ve seen it on TV or they feel it’s a step above the rest. Either way, hold’em is respected, but that doesn’t mean they’re going to fold.

They look at their cards and react in ways they aren’t aware. I hear Juan, who’s on my left, exhale. He has nothing. Good Frank (and there’s a reason why we differentiate from Bad Frank) looks around, sits quietly and touches his eyelid. Greg sits higher than usual … or maybe he’s moving away from the table; I can’t tell just yet. Chris, to the left of Greg, is briefly plucks at his upper lip before raising. By the time it gets to me and my pocket kings, everyone is committed to the pot.

The flop brings a 3-A-K. I’ve flopped a set and am a little nervous they’re going to think I somehow favored my hand as dealer. My focus remains on my opponents, as I’m trying to gauge immediate postflop reactions, and on myself as my “Happy Feet” typically kick into gear when I have a good hand.

Everyone makes adjustments after seeing the flop. They squirm in their chairs, touch their face or transmit other notable behaviors. They couldn’t care less that I’m looking at them and thinking about odds and their chances to win.

Once more everyone commits a bet to the pot, but given it’s limit, we can raise no more than 50 cents. I comment that we need to spice things up so I raise. As I hoped, this is followed by howls that I’m obviously bluffing. Everyone calls, however, but only after they look at their cards to check what they have.

I think Bad Frank and Greg also have good hands and maybe one of them has a set, too. Good Frank, who is always in a great mood, inches forward and asks me if I have a good hand. I respond, “It’s as good as the beer I’m having.” KB, who brought the beer, nods and says, “Thanks.”

The turn is a 7. I hear mostly sighs, though Mitch begins to shift in his chair. Everyone puts in another bet and for the first time I see Chris is pursing his lips. Given my profession, I announce, “Chris is going to fold,” but he doesn’t. I’m ignored, but I know the truth about his hand.

The river is a king and it takes all the effort I have to conceal my emotions. Good Frank is still in the pot. Greg bets and that gets Chris to fold. He acknowledges my previous comment about pursed lips by saying, “purse this Navarro.” I ignore the insult, because I know pursed lips means we disagree or don’t like something. Bad Frank, of course, calls because that’s what he does, even if he has to buy in several times during the night. I raise and everyone remaining in the hand calls.

Bad Frank has threes full, while Mitch has a pair of aces. Greg mucks and says he was “close.” I flip over my monster hand and drag a pot worth almost $6.

It was a night of fun and laughter. The winner (nope, not me) wins $14 and we all leave KB’s house and wait until next month. It costs more to drive there than to play, but this game is about the camaraderie, not the money.

The game also provides an education and I wouldn’t be doing my job if I wasn’t learning at a poker table. No matter what the stakes, we reveal our emotions in real time. I witnessed the pacifying gestures on the face, the leaning forward, the neck touching … and we were only playing for dimes.

All these observations have to include context. In our case, the context is for the sake of harmony — people at this game commit to the pot no matter what. In the same way if you’re in a high-stakes game and you have someone with lots of money to burn, that provides context — they have money they can lose at will and that pot commitment is not beholden to actual card strength.

After so many years, I relearn something every time I play with these guys. They simply don’t care to invest the time to observe, decode and interpret nonverbal behavior. That’s fine if you want to limit your abilities to play poker, but if you’re taking the game a little more seriously, you can’t fall into this category. And that’s it, enough excitement for one night. Next month it’s at Bad Frank’s house. I can’t wait.

— Ex-FBI counterintelligence officer Joe Navarro of Tampa specialized in behavioral analysis for 25 years. He has penned numerous nonverbal books, including his new Kindle book called 200 Poker Tells, which you can find on Amazon.com. Email Joe at editor@anteupmagazine.com and he’ll answer your questions.