How age affects poker tells

January 28, 2013, Chris  

Every once in a while I will get this question: “How does age affect the nonverbals or poker tells?” Ten years into an AARP membership (by the way, it’s a great organization) I can see how I am changing and how time has affected some of my nonverbal behavior. So let me start with some of the behaviors we see with aging, because many players are retired so understanding the changes that are occurring could be significant.

Those familiar with my book, Read ’em and Reap, are aware I don’t get into culturally derived behaviors. The book is dedicated to the study of those behaviors that are most accurate because they are controlled by the emotional part of the brain known as the limbic system and the behaviors generated there are universal.

The behaviors that stem from that region of the brain cannot be faked readily, they truly reflect what we feel, think, fear, desire and even intend. Because this part of the brain reacts to the world in real time, we call it the honest brain. This part of the brain doesn’t know how to say, “Tell them we’re not home.” It merely reacts to how we feel, our own perceptions, and in poker that’s huge. I say that because at any one time we’re comfortable or uncomfortable with our hole cards or community cards, accurately reflecting whether we’re strong, marginal or weak.

So the question is, do limbic reactions change with age or over time? Yes, however, it requires a lot of explanation that for the serious poker player may make a difference. As we get older we have less testosterone. This affects our body chemistry including the makeup of our muscles and our reaction times. This is why athletes take artificial hormones and testosterone replacement therapies are advertised on television for men older than 50.

What to young people looks like an awfully long time to change a lane in traffic or to look at hole cards, is merely a reflection of the slowing down of our bodies. But just cause we slow down and perhaps no longer have “cat-like reflexes” does not mean that our bodies don’t show how we truly feel. The reactions are there and so are the emotions, they just sometimes take time. For example, people often touch their necks when they’re troubled by something (that includes having a rag hand).

A young person may reach for that neck instantly where someone later in life may take their time achieving that same behavior. In both instances, the brain is saying please do something to pacify or soothe my concern (rub the neck, ventilate the collar, massage the back of the head, etc.); but with the elderly, it may take longer to manifest.

The elderly may show more shaking or quivering of the hands that is not associated with how they feel about their cards but rather is a reflection of their health. Low blood sugar, stress, fatigue, alcohol, drugs, coffee or any number of neurological disorders can cause the hands or the body to tremble or shake. This is often mistaken for excitement or anticipatory exhilaration. It is not. One of the easiest ways to assess for this is to determine when this behavior is observed and in what context. If we see it all the time, most likely it is physiological or neurological, not game driven, so we ignore it.

Because we loose more precise muscle movements in our hands and our precision grip becomes weaker as we age, often times mature poker players will accidentally knock over their chips or a glass or they may fumble their chips. It’s not excitement necessarily, but rather this natural progression that unfortunately afflicts many of the elderly, especially those with arthritis.

Age and life experiences affect the lines on our face. These lines develop as a result of muscle activity underneath our skin so that over time, when we smile, we have lines on the corners of our mouth which frame a smile. We also have lines on our forehead; they’re there from frowning and so forth. As we grow older, we’re at a distinct disadvantage in that these lines are not only deeply imbedded, they reflect our true emotions obviously (furrowing of forehead, knitting eyebrows, frowning, etc.) often telegraphing how we feel accurately. So one of the recommendations I make to older poker players and even young ones is, wear a visor or a hat to mask those expressive lines. You can’t monitor them or control them so you might as well hide them. Or you may want to Botox them, something professionals tell me they have been doing for years and I guess it works.

So what about young people? Well, one of the things I’ve noticed in young people, more than any other group, is they have grown up playing a lot of poker online. They have played thousands of hands (even millions) so they’re really good with betting patterns and statistics, but I find few of them are really good at reading other people. We know from research that young people now interact face-to-face less than previous generations because of the Internet, videos, texting; that naturally affects how well they read others.

More senior players often tell me it drives them crazy at how inattentive young players seemingly are at the poker table. One other thing that often happens with new poker players, usually young players, is what Alan Greenspan referred to as “irrational exuberance.” This is the phenomenon Phil Hellmuth often becomes irate over. A player is sitting there with a statistically marginal hand but because they are ignorant, they get excited about their hand giving off tells of confidence which then cause more experienced players to fold even though they had a stronger hand. Which is why I always remind players that “In poker, you are not reading reality, you are reading perceptions of reality.”

Each generation obviously will demonstrate different behaviors along the way. Some of it is social but also biological. We see this clearly at the tables with what I have come to call, testosterone displays between male players. They stare and challenge each other, sometimes even offending each other; something rarely if ever done by women. Younger players obviously, consistent with higher levels of testosterone and lower levels of maturity, engage in trash talk, and aggressive gaze strategies. I tell players avoid these behaviors when intended toward them because eventually someone will put you on tilt and emotions will always (for reasons of survival) override logic. This is why you have all the clever lines to say 30 minutes after an argument but not during an argument.
There are also differences in the nonverbals of women at the table depending on their age. Some of this is cultural, as my generation tends to be more demure and conservative in attire and gestures, while the younger generation of women tends to be more outspoken, at times even more aggressive at the tables. There’s always danger in generalizing, but the so called “Greatest Generation,” and the baby boomers in their 50s and 60s were brought up differently than the Internet generation. You certainly see that at the table.

The next time you are at the table take a look around. Whatever your age, you will notice behaviors that will inform and instruct. The tells are there, somewhere on the body, young and old, men and women. After all, there is such a thing as a poker face, but there is no such thing as a poker body.

— 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.