Deciphering poker tells of the neck

November 20, 2012, Chris  

Those of you familiar with What Every Body Is Saying or 200 Poker Tells know when we’re under stress, our brain requires a certain amount of hand-to-body touching (hand-wringing, forehead-rubbing, temple-massaging, lip-touching, etc.). These pacifiers serve to soothe the individual when there is stress, doubt, concern or lack of confidence. We pacify all day long depending on circumstances. But under severe stress or when the stakes are high, pacifiers increase. What you may have not know is there are limits to pacifying; there are times when the stress is so high that we feel threatened or overwhelmed and for that the brain turns to the neck.

Professionally, I first started noticing neck behaviors with people who had been arrested and faced serious jail time. When questioned, there seemed to be a lot of neck-touching, neck-massaging, neck-ventilating, and Adam’s apple movement. I also noted men and women touch their necks differently. Men tended to grab their necks more robustly, or even massage their necks. Women conversely would do it more delicately, using their fingers to cover a specific area, the neck dimple just at the front of the neck where it meets the upper chest, more precisely termed the “suprasternal notch.”

Soon it was evident when people were insecure, troubled, scared, concerned, worried or nervous, they covered or touched their neck. I always appreciated the use of this telling behavior because it gave me clues as an investigator to issues or things people were hiding. In 1979, while working in Yuma, Ariz., my partner and I went to talk to the mother of a wanted fugitive that was considered armed and dangerous. When we knocked on her door, she seemed tense, but allowed us in anyway. I asked her numerous questions about her son (she knew he was wanted) and she answered all of them without hesitation.

However, when I inquired, “Is your son in the house?” for the first time during that interview, she put her hand to her suprasternal notch and said, “No, he’s not.”  I noted her behavior, and we continued with other questions about her son’s acquaintances. After a few minutes I asked, “Is it possible that while you were at work, your son could have sneaked into the house?” Once again, she put her hand up to her neck dimple and replied, “No, I’d know that.” At that point, seeing this unique behavior relative to the question, I was convinced her son was in the house or had been to the house recently.

To make a long story short, with her permission she let us search the house, and yes her son was hiding in the closet under some blankets. The words “son” and “house” together were a threat to her and she revealed that threat by touching her neck. Where else have I seen this behavior? At the poker tables, each time a player looked at the board then compared it to his hole cards. As he did so, each time, he would cover his neck dimple with his free hand. What that meant, and it panned out, he had a rag hand.

Neck-touching or stroking is one of the most significant and frequent pacifying behaviors we use in responding to stress. Some people rub or massage the back of their neck with their fingers; others stroke the sides of their neck or just under the chin above the Adam’s apple, tugging at the fleshy area of the neck. This area is rich with nerve endings that, when stroked, reduce blood pressure, lower the heart rate and calm the individual. However they do it, watch them to see when they do it. If it is on the river, then chances are they are marginal or weak.

Women pacify their neck differently. For example, when women pacify the neck, they will sometimes touch, twist or otherwise manipulate a necklace if they’re wearing one. Where men tend to be more robust in touching their necks, women are more demure, perhaps a passing touch of the fingers or directly covering their suprasternal notch with their hand or tips of fingers.

Stress also causes us to ventilate and the neck is often the preferred place for men. Men will ventilate their shirts at the neck or sometimes by pulling at the ends of their collar. Women ventilate by lifting the hair at the back of the neck with an upward movement. In both cases it means the same thing: Something is causing stress. Obviously you may see these behaviors on a hot day, but when a player ventilates after passing himself off as being strong or blustering, most likely he or she is bluffing.

During play you may also see the neck disappear when they lack confidence or they’re troubled by something. I used to see it in interviews where the shoulders would rise toward the ears, causing the neck to seemingly “disappear.” This is a good indicator of distress, anxiety, lack of confidence or concern. So if you see it at the table progressively getting worse during a hand, chances are the player is marginal or weak.

Everything helps in poker so keep your eye on the neck; it may just reveal something a poker face has concealed.

— Joe Navarro is a former FBI agent and author of What Every Body is Saying and 200 Poker Tells. Follow him on Twitter at @navarrotells.