Poker tells of the mouth, Part I

April 23, 2012, Chris  

For years I’ve been preaching the feet are the most reliable place to pick up tells. That’s true, because as I’ve said, while the face has a “social contract” to smile when others smile, your feet have no such obligation. Nevertheless, that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t look at the face for tell. We just need to be careful as to what we see on the face and its true significance. The mouth in particular is the best place to decipher the feelings of players.

From the time we are born, it’s mouth behaviors that a baby learns to mimic from its mother. When the mother smiles, so does the baby. When she pouts, so does the baby. This early mimicry helps develop skills in communicating verbally, but more important, nonverbally. The parent likewise focuses on the mouth of the baby to see when it purses (I don’t like) or it distorts (I don’t feel well) or it opens wide (I need your attention).

Because we focus on the mouth early on, it’s surmised that the mouth is always a source of interest for us for the spoken and unspoken word. We disproportionately place greater focus on the mouth and tongue, as well as the hands and thumbs.

So what does this mean for you as a poker player? A lot. The first thing to remember is, at the poker table people are going to be looking at your hands and mouth out of proportion to the rest of your body consciously and subconsciously. We’re naturally driven to keep an eye on these areas of the body because they communicate (happiness, joy, fear) and because as primates, these are things that can hurt us, so we evolved to keep them in focus.

When we’re strong, confident and relaxed, that shows in our lips. The same display applies when we’re weak, anxious, nervous, cautious or worried. I see so many players wearing sunglasses. They’re worried about their eyes giving information away, but the mouth reveals so much more. In my books, I’ve argued that covering the mouth is more important than covering the eyes, which is why pro players I’ve worked with, such as Phil Hellmuth, cover their mouth to make themselves more difficult to read.

BASELINE OF BEHAVIORS: Determining a baseline behavior will be critical for those who wish to get a good read on mouth behaviors. Our mouths are our primary source for pacifying. When we are stressed, we touch our lips, rub them, pull on them, massage them or lick them. We do these things in real time to calm ourselves. As adults we can’t really suck our thumbs, especially at the table, so we do other things with our lips and mouth that can pacify.
The majority of actions we undertake with our mouths are meant to pacify ourselves. From biting pen caps, chewing our nails, smoking, biting straws or sipping on drinks, exhaling through pursed lips or eating a lot, our brain is soothed by these oral activities. This is why people have difficulty with weight; eating pacifies us. And at the poker table, most players don’t recognize they’re acting in this fashion. After all, we’re just chewing our third piece of gum in an hour, right?

FULL VS. DISAPPEARING LIPS: When we’re confident and content, our lips are full. They’re puffy, normal and in full view; not concealed, tight or compressed one against the other. When we’re lacking confidence, however, our lips tend to disappear. When stressed, such as viewing a rag hand and diminishing chip stack, we show discomfort through our lips as they tighten, get smaller or become compressed. To pacify ourselves, we may touch or lick our lips. Again, this is why at the poker table, when a player looks at his hole cards his lips may be full upon seeing a pair of sixes, but then his lips disappear when three overcards come on the flop. This player has gone from comfort to discomfort and his lips are sharing his story.

COMPRESSED LIPS: Lip compression is an extreme form of communicating stress. In a severe case, you’ll notice when the corners of the mouth come down the side so they look like an upside down U. When we press our lips together, it’s as if our limbic brain is telling us to shut down and not allow anything into our body because at this moment we are consumed with serious issues. Lip compression is indicative of true negative sentiment that manifests quite vividly in real time. It’s a clear sign a person is troubled. It rarely, if ever, has a positive connotation.

TRUE VS. FALSE: You may ask a player if he has the nuts and he may just answer with a smile. Well, not all smiles are the same. What I see at the tables are a lot of false smiles indicating they’re bluffing. When we’re truly happy and content, our smile is genuine and it rises up toward the eyes. When our smiles are false, the corners of the mouth are drawn toward the ears.

There’s a big difference, and you can train yourself to spot the difference. One thing that can help you learn in this situation is to test it yourself. Step in front of a mirror and fake a smile. By determining the appearance of your fake smile, you’ll be able to use those same characteristics in analyzing the honesty of your opponent’s happiness or sharpening your bluffing skills.

LIP-PURSING: Look for individuals who purse their lips. This behavior usually means they disagree with what is being said or they’re considering an alternative thought or idea. At the poker table, these same actions allow you to infer they don’t like what they’re holding or that the community cards missed them by a mile. Pursing of the lips is perhaps one of the most accurate tells and shows up in real time. For this reason, when the community cards come out, pay more attention to your opponent than to the cards. Gauge his immediate reaction. The cards will be there, but the most honest reaction will disappear quickly. You’ll be surprised how often you see lip-pursing and how accurate it is in letting others know you don’t like what just happened.

Next month I’ll go into depth about how excessive yawning, tongue displays, the tongue jut and more can reveal everything at the poker table. For now, trust your eyes. They’ll tell your opponent’s story if you’re willing to listen.

— 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.