Poker's version of a glass jaw

October 06, 2011, Chris  

As most readers by now know, each part of the body communicates something about what we’re thinking, feeling, desiring, fearing or intending. The chin is certainly one of those areas of the body that communicates a lot but is often ignored by poker players, unfortunately to their detriment.

In my latest book, 200 Poker Tells, I write about the 14 or so tells associated with the cheeks and the jaw. That is a lot of territory to cover, but it’s worthwhile because for some people jaw behaviors are like polygraph needles, spewing ink when something interesting is happening inside the head.

Let’s start with “jaw displacement” and by that I mean where a player suddenly drops his jaw then moves it to the side. There is not much on this in the research literature, but over 25 years in law enforcement I certainly saw it plenty of times during intense interviews. The movement of the jaw shifts the chin from side to side as Gus Hansen is often prone to do. If you were to watch it on high speed you’d notice how odd this behavior is. We often see this with players who perceive themselves as weak, marginal or indecisive. By moving the chin from side to side (try it) you’ll notice how it stimulates the nerves of the jaw (Mandibular Nerve in particular) and when done in the extreme (side to side) it acts as a pacifying behavior with which by now you should be familiar if you’ve read my previous articles here.

Ages ago I first noticed jaw displacement with people I had recently arrested. In the middle of the day and for no apparent reason, they would yawn and then they would shift their chin to the side. This action, which obviously was subconscious, forces the mouth open putting pressure on the nerves of the jaw, again stimulating the nerves that help calm the individual. When jaw-shifting or chin-shifting is repeated often enough, this stimulates the salivary glands to release saliva (from the pressure). This explains why I saw so many arrestees yawning. You often see bluffers yawning or shifting their chin back and forth and for good reason: Under stress the mouth gets dry, yawning helps the saliva glands moisturize the mouth.

Chin location is something we often ignore except maybe when Russian troops parade by with their chin high in the air. And yet, chin location can be an accurate barometer of how a player feels about his hand. We know the chin tends to stick out or sit high when we’re confident and it withdraws automatically and subconsciously when we lack confidence or when we’re scared.

On some players it’s not noticeable. Part of this has to do with culture. There are cultures where it’s a practice to indicate to others superiority, confidence or high status by presenting a nose-high chin-high posture. They do it so often growing up and have seen it so many times that they don’t notice how often they do it. This is especially true at the poker table when they subconsciously realize they’re strong or their fortune has turned for the better.

Incidentally, one of the things you should always try to do with other players is collect useful information. By asking players where they’re from or where their family is from, you gain insight into how culture may influence some of their behaviors.

The opposite of this, of course, is when the player suddenly drops his chin (mouth closed), which begins to telegraph there are issues or concerns. And then there’s the extreme of that, when the player tucks the chin in toward the throat. It looks odd, but notice how often you see it when people are deliberating what to do next because they’re marginal or weak.

In case you’re interested, the reason tucking your chin down toward the throat is so accurate is because we evolved certain behaviors to protect our necks, the most vulnerable part of our body. When we see neck covering or touching, or in particular, when the chin moves to cover the throat, this is a reliable subconscious tell that the person is weak, marginal or concerned.

The next time you’re at the poker table keep an eye on the chin; it may just unveil what is going on inside the head.

— 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 or follow him on twitter: @navarrotells.