In poker tells, the eyes have it

April 25, 2013, Chris  

The eyes exquisitely reveal, in real time, our true sentiments: joy, pain, happiness, loneliness, concern, disdain, dislike or disapproval. They’re formidable communicators of feelings, including comfort and discomfort, helping us decipher others. Often looked at for signs of deception, the eyes reveal far more important information.

Few things reflect our emotions as well or as rapidly as the eyes. Babies, just several days old, respond to the eyes of the mother and can tell the difference between a squint and wide-open eyes. Babies can tell the difference between a happy and contented mother and one who is stressed, just from looking at the eyes.

The eyes serve as conduits of information we have relied on for thousands of years. We rely on them because of their accuracy. The man who is asked to help someone move will cover his eyes with his fingers rubbing them as he answers, “Yes, I will help you,” when no doubt this will be an inconvenience. This blocking behavior authentically reveals how he feels even though he will assist.

Eye-blocking behaviors such as shielding the eyes, lowering the lids for a prolonged period, delays in opening of the eyes are so hard-wired in us that children who are born blind, when they hear something they don’t like will cover their eyes. Obviously this behavior is hard-wired, part of our paleo-circuits and represents an adaptation to stress or other negative stimuli that has served us well over millennia.

In poker, you may see someone rub their lids the second they see the community cards, meaning they have a weak hand. We have used these behaviors for so long that we forget to cover them up when we play, revealing our true sentiments.

Eye-blocking is just one of the more obvious things we do. When we’re troubled, frustrated or struggling with something emotionally, our lids may close hard and remain closed or they may flutter rapidly as an expression of our sentiment. Poker players, when forced to raise, often demonstrate a quick eyelid flutter, indicating ever so briefly their disdain, thus revealing their weakness.

Research also shows when we’re nervous or troubled our blink rate increases, a phenomenon often seen with liars and people under stress, such as poker players who are marginal or weak. I wouldn’t call anyone a liar or bluffer just because their blink rate increases, but it’s something to note while playing to see when it occurs and when it disappears. It’s interesting to note that Richard Nixon, when asked tough questions, would increase his blink rate about 12 blinks per minute to 68; a sure indicator of stress.

When interpreting eye behavior, many misconceptions exist. Little or no eye contact is erroneously perceived as a classic sign of deception or bluffing. There’s no science to support this fallacy. Researchers have found liars tend to engage in greater eye contact because they know we’re looking there for signs of deception, quite the opposite of what most people believe.

In contrast, players engage in a lot of intense eye-staring to convince opponents they’re strong. My recommendation is to avoid the hard stare, eventually you’re going to run into someone who will make you uncomfortable when you’re weak and your strategy will be revealed.

Eyes will move side to side, look up and to the right, look down or hold still as we process information. Ask someone to multiply 56 times 89 in their head and watch their eyes. The cognitive load placed on them by the task will cause all sorts of eye movements or even eye closure. At the poker table, eyes can reveal the player is thinking about a move or processing her risk, but that’s all we can venture to say from that behavior. The person is processing, not necessarily bluffing.

I look at the eyes to tell me when someone is comfortable and relaxed. I also look at the eyes to tell me when someone is suddenly troubled. When there are issues, immediately one sees the orbits narrow. Squinting or the narrowing of the eye orbits accurately indicates discomfort, stress, anger or issues, but they also can indicate merely we’re focusing on something. So once more we rely on getting a baseline of behaviors before and during the game so we can determine for this particular player what does this behavior mean in context.

— 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.