Key at the poker table is to read others thoroughly

March 26, 2012, Chris  

Being a poker author and teacher has been amazing. In my wildest dreams, I never imagined my books becoming as popular as they have, nor finding amateurs as well as professionals so interested in my material, and an interesting phenomenon has been taking place. Though I’ll be honest and say I suspected this would happen, I just didn’t have a way to validate it until now.

When my book was first released, one of the first readers left a comment on Amazon that the book would make it more difficult for players because bluffers would have an advantage. Here I was, trying to improve the games of players around the world by sharing with them knowledge about human behavior, but as usual, someone found an alternative use for this information. The reader had a point; those who really take my teachings,from my book or seminars to heart will become better players who not only will be able to read tells more accurately, but they’ll also be able to bluff better.

So what happens when a player knows how the human body reacts to situations and can transmit that information to others? Well, I suspected and hypothesized that players who become adept at reading nonverbals (tells) will be able to reverse engineer that information and use it to bluff effectively. We knew this because of my work in the FBI and knowing the key to undercover work is to know the nonverbals of criminals. If you can act it, they will believe it and that’s what undercover agents do.

Think about this for a second in terms of a criminal interrogation. It’s the same as poker. If I know their nonverbals and they know their nonverbals just as well, wouldn’t they do everything possible to throw me off in the opposite direction? They’d throw nonverbals my way that portrayed innocence rather than guilt and confidence rather than weakness. Thankfully I didn’t run into a ton of suspects who did extensive research on this type of information, but it really evens out the ballgame in an unexpected direction.

The question then becomes, how do we know if someone is bluffing if they are really good at their nonverbals? They know what they’re doing to a greater extent than what you think they’re doing. Oh, that steeple, sure, that was intentional. Or how about a lip purse, that might work here. Pretty sick, huh?

This goes beyond false tells; it’s the mastery of an unexpected skill that can persuade another, unexpectedly of course, to go into the complete opposite direction. The weak project strength and the strong project weakness with a subtlety that’s difficult to decipher.

How can we stay a step ahead? Let’s start with the simple route to decipher our opponents: information. One of my favorite tactics is to ask opponents what are some good books on tells. If they mention Mike Caro, well then you know what he teaches and what to look for. If they mention me, then you know that pacifying behaviors and steepling are big factors. This may seem too obvious, but I find players never hesitate to give an opinion about the books they have read or favor.

Even better, that type of question makes you look like you don’t know that much and it gives you insight into what your opponent knows. Gen. George Patton read the books that Erwin Rommel had written and knew the tactics that the “Desert Fox” would use. Patton could foresee Rommel’s strategies and counter them. You can utilize the same offensive if you know what your opponent at the table knows.

Intelligence about your opponent in poker is part of the game. By knowing what literature your opponent favors may tell you much. This is no different than getting into the head of a suspect by investigating his past. Background information will always help.

However, let’s assume you don’t know what opponents know. What should you do then? One way to determine this is to go with something Annie Duke once told me: See if they are “overacting.” They’re trying to send you in the wrong direction and you need to see through it. Most people who bluff tend to overact their position; they show weakness when strong, but they do so excessively. As we used to say in the FBI with liars, they’re “trying to convince rather than convey.” When they go “Hollywood,” as Duke likes to call it, they’re trying to convince you. Honest behaviors tend to convey, in other words, they aren’t over the top.

I’ve noticed repeatedly that postflop, players will steeple (fingertips together arched like a church steeple) quickly (confidence) and then recover with some sort of show of concern with the face (you know, the face of oh man, that was a terrible flop for me). That quick steeple is more accurate and should take precedence. Trust the first response.
The bottom line is this: know your opponent and what they know.

Look for the most immediate behaviors that convey information and don’t get caught up with planned or delayed reactions. With this in mind, you’re ready to hit the tables and have the advantage again.

— 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.