Poker tells can be all thumbs sometimes

September 05, 2011, Chris  

Seven years ago I wrote for the first time about foot behaviors at the poker table and a lot of players were incredulous. Many argued they couldn’t see the so-called “happy feet” of excitement. Over time players learned tells of the feet were accurate and they could be observed in the shaking or vibrating shirt or shoulder of the player.
Today I’d like to point out another often ignored part of the body: the thumbs.

As most who have read my books or articles know, I’m a stickler for precision. I don’t just look at a face; I look at 10 areas of the face for clues and break them down with particularity, as each tells a compelling story about what a player feels, thinks or intends. The hands are the same. A good way to know what’s going on in a player’s mind is to look at thumb behaviors.

I began to study thumbs in the early ’80s when I first looked at the work of Desmond Morris with primates. Since then thumbs have intrigued me in my work as an FBI agent conducting interviews and later studying poker players. Here’s why they’re so interesting and why poker players shouldn’t ignore them.

One of the things that sets us apart from other mammals is our ability to grasp with opposing thumbs. This gives allows us to use tools and weapons. When we’re relaxed mentally our thumbs reflect that instantly.

However, when we’re stressed our thumbs, unbeknownst to us (subconsciously) become tense. A person who crosses his arms on chest may just be relaxed, sitting, enjoying a conversation, but the minute he becomes upset or angry those thumbs go to work grasping opposing arms tightly in self-restraint, accurately reflecting the sentiment at the moment.

When we’re scared, feel weak or unsure, our thumbs move toward the index finger much as a dog’s ears hug the head when it feels the same. This is a survival instinct; why leave an appendage exposed when we feel insecurities? The moment we feel confident, the thumbs relax.

As I noted in 200 Poker Tells at the poker table, thumbs are a fairly accurate barometer for some people, telling whether they feel strong, marginal or weak. When that river card comes and that thumb gets tucked underneath other fingers, the player is invariably weak. Conversely when a player is strong those fingers will spread out, the thumb in particular extending away from the index finger.

And it’s not just a matter of extending out, but of extending upward, defying gravity, as I explained in What Every Body is Saying. Gravity-defying behaviors, of which we have many, including arching our eyebrows when we see a dear friend or are dealt a great hand, communicate in real time that we feel emotionally positive about something. They are quick and accurate yet often ignored.

Watch players who fold their hands over their cards. When the community cards come out often times their face will be stone solid but the thumbs will pop up, reflecting their approval of a matching face card. Most of us can’t tell where our thumbs are at any moment, but to the careful observer they can telegraph someone has just landed good fortune.

On some people, nervous tension shows in the thumbs because they’re set so far from the fingers. In a way, fingers take refuge in the comfort of each other and oftentimes nervousness is hard to see except perhaps on the index finger or in severe cases the whole hand. But because the thumb is by itself, it has a tendency to shake when nervous.

Additionally, when a player is nervous, the ability to grasp with precision and assurance is thwarted. Often as a weak player goes to grasp the chips, he drops them or knocks them down because the thumb has been compromised by tension. This is why when we’re stressed we drop the car keys or pencils.

Our thumbs in concert with index fingers hold things differently when we don’t care for them. Hand someone a diaper and they hold it away from the body with the least amount of skin touching the diaper. This behavior, distancing coupled with slight touch, is seen at the poker table when players grasp their cards suddenly between the ends of the thumb and the ends of the middle finger. When players do this and then begin to shuttle the cards back and forth, unless the situation dramatically changes, they will most likely fold.

Here is a challenge for your next game: Keep an eye on everyone’s thumbs and look at the them as emotional flags. Note where everyone keeps their thumbs and how they react to different events at the table. When the thumbs are away from the finger or up, the player is in a good positive mood, most likely strong. If the thumbs disappear or stay low in reaction to the board, most likely the player is marginal or weak.

Everyone behaves differently and with some people thumb behaviors are frequent and accurate while others they seem to be perennially dormant.

So keep your eyes pealed on those elusive thumbs, they really do reflect what people think, feel or intend and may just give you clues you never thought were there.

— Joe Navarro is a former FBI agent specializing in nonverbal communications, his books can be found at jnforensics.com and you can follow him on Twitter at @navarrotells.