Little-known poker tells of the mouth

November 10, 2011, Chris  

The lips reveal a lot of information about what’s going on in the mind. Compression of the lips, disappearing lips, biting of the lips and rubbing of the lips with the tongue are all behaviors that signal a person is under stress or is relieving stress. These are fairly obvious to most people and if you travel at all these are behaviors you see people perform when they’re at the airport as they look at the flight board. You also see them with poker players who are worried or weak as they make betting decisions.

What may not be familiar are the tells of the mouth that are not so overt, not so visible, not so well-known. These are behaviors that take place inside the mouth and many people seem to just ignore them. I can already hear the question: “Well, if they are inside the mouth then how can I see them, Mr. Ex- FBI?” Once more let me explain.

The human body has many ways of demonstrating when we are stressed and when there’s a need to relieve stress. I have documented more than 200 of these behaviors in my books and I’m sure there are more, it’s just I like watching Animal Planet and National Geographic so I tend to get distracted.

What’s not often observed or detected are the behaviors that go on inside the mouth that also reveal stress or the need to pacify that stress because a player is marginal or weak. So here are some to look for:

TONGUE AGAINST THE CHECK: A lot of people relieve stress by repeatedly stroking their tongue against their cheek. This is often seen when a player is deliberating or pondering his next move and is marginal or weak or being forced to act against his or her will because they are short-stacked. What’s interesting about this behavior is how often it’s ignored by players and how the person who does this is almost never aware of having performed the behavior.

TONGUE BRUSH: With this tell, think of a windshield wiper, but in this case the tongue brushes the front teeth back and forth usually with the mouth closed. I first saw this behavior in the office of a store manager when I was a police officer. The arrestee did this behavior when I asked him if he had ever been arrested before for shoplifting, which he had multiple times. This is a behavior that relieves stress and helps to keep the mouth moist.

CHEEK INFLATION: This one is easy to see from the outside, but its effects are very much on the inside. Cheek inflation often takes place when we are bored. But also when we’re stressed or have just experienced a stressful situation such as almost hitting the car in front of us or we almost go caught bluffing. When you see this behavior think something is not right.

Just for fun close your mouth and inflate your check for a few seconds and see how you feel. Most people I have tested say this changes how they feel and the reason is that pressure is put on the nerves of the mouth and that stimulates the brain, which is why we sometimes do this when we are bored (men do it more than women). It’s one of those behaviors that serves us well but we rarely pay attention to it until our spouses ask, “Why are you doing that?” I was at the Seminole Hard Rock Casino in Tampa watching players not long ago and there was a player there who did this cheek inflation almost every hand; he just was not having much luck with cards, which he usually mucked on the flop.

CHEEK SUCKING OR BITING: Yes it’s weird, kind of like Michael Jordan going up for a layup with his tongue hanging out of his mouth (also a pacifier), but it works for some. Players who do this, again usually when they are under stress, are marginal or weak, have probably been doing this since they were children and certainly were doing it when taking tests at school.

Look for them to suck in their cheeks, which makes their lips pucker and we know that puckered lips are associated with dislike or disagreement. Or they will suck in their cheeks and bite down on them repeatedly. As I said it is odd, not everyone does it, but for those who do this, obviously this is a behavior that works to help them deal with stress and their need to pacify or relieve that stress.

YAWNING: Most people don’t understand yawning or they only associate yawning with boredom or sleepiness. I thought that, too, also until I saw my first arrestee yawn and I thought, “Who could be sleepy when you are under arrest?” And then when you see it multiple times with other arrestees you realize, wait, they are doing it to relieve stress.
Stress causes our mouths to become dry so when we yawn the act of yawning puts pressure on the salivary glands, which are forced to release saliva. Recent research also shows when we yawn air is forced rapidly into the mouth quickly, which cools the blood in this vascular region of the body much as a radiator cools an engine.

So there are five tells of the mouth you probably never thought about. Keep those eyes peeled.

— Joe Navarro is a former FBI special agent and the author of 200 Poker Tells and Read ‘em and Reap, both available on Amazon. For additional information go to his web site www.joenavarro.net or follow him on twitter: @navarrotells.