Poker tells of the mouth, Part II

May 22, 2012, Chris  

Last month, I noted how paying attention to the mouth could make a difference in your decision-making process at the tables. To read that article, click on the quick link that says Joe Navarro on the home page. This month, I continue with Part 2 of my look at the tells of the mouth.

LIP TOUCHING: When we’re in a stressful situation, one might notice quivering lips or a profuse sweating in that area. We might pull on our lips or touch them to pacify ourselves. Sometimes we see players playing with their philtrum (yes, you can share this one with the kids), that little area with ridges between the upper lip and the nose. Men, mostly, play with this and do so when they’re pensive or weak.

EXCESSIVE YAWNING: When we’re tense or under stress, such as when looking at a rag hand and seeing our bankroll getting smaller by the minute, our mouths will become dry. Some people will naturally drink water at the table. Others, however, do something peculiar. I first noticed this when I was a young FBI agent about 30 years ago. During interviews or arrests, the suspect would yawn. I looked further into this and found a possible cause that applies to poker.

I’ve seen players go all-in and then yawn as though feigning disinterest or being nonchalant. Why would someone yawn repeatedly when under stress? Interestingly, because when we force a yawn, pressure is put on our salivary glands, especially the ones near the jaw, causing them to release saliva in copious amounts and thus wet our increasingly parched mouths. We’re nervous and our body is reacting to pacify. So, the next time you see someone go all-in and then yawn, ask yourself, “Is this guy trying to undo stress by relieving a very dry mouth or was he up too late partying the night before?” Likewise, if this is something you do when under stress, as I tell students, “Knock it off!”

Yawning, incidentally, forces a rush of air into our mouths to cool the blood as it goes to the brain. Because our mouths are vascular they act as radiators to cool the blood that enters the cranial vault, which may explain why when it is hot we tend to yawn more.

TONGUE DISPLAYS: Numerous tongue signals can provide us with valuable insights into a person’s thoughts or moods. Remember, when we’re stressed, our mouths and lips dry. As a result, players under stress will lick their lips to moisten them during times of discomfort. During those moments, we tend to rub our tongues back and forth across our lips, to pacify and calm ourselves. We may stick out the tongue (usually to the side) as we focus carefully on a task (for example, when basketball great Michael Jordan went up for a layup) or we may poke out our tongue to antagonize someone we dislike or to show disgust, as children do.

When an individual displays other mouth cues associated with stress, such as lip-biting, mouth-touching, lip-licking or object-biting, it further bolsters a careful observer’s belief that the person is insecure. Additionally, if people touch and/or lick their lips while pondering their options, particularly when they take an unusual amount of time, these are signs of insecurity and should clue you in on how to optimally play a hand.

Watch for players who chew gum excessively or chew on their tongues while playing. It is a sign the person is struggling with something and needs to pacify by moving his mouth and tongue. Players forget how visible this is and how professionals will take note of changes in chewing behaviors. Conversely, I’ve seen players get a monster hand and, to pacify excitement, will begin to chew more quickly. Either way, excessive chewing is a pacifier, it just depends on the player’s reaction to stress or excitement. As usual, put everything into context and try to establish normal behavior on the player.

Then there are the talkers, those who calm themselves during stressful moments by talking. From quiet times to an increase of talking and engaging of others, players are doing what they can to avoid focusing on the stressful stimulus. Again this is a behavior of the mouth. Talking can be pacifying, which is why some do it for hours on the phone. It’s not so much what is said but rather the act of speech itself can pacify us, which is why (and this is a secret) some of you talk to yourself when alone.

THE TONGUE JUT: Tongue-jutting behavior is a gesture used by people who think they have gotten away with something or are “caught” doing something. I’ve seen this behavior in flea markets in the United States and in Russia, among street vendors in Lower Manhattan, at poker tables in Las Vegas, and in business meetings. In each case, the person made the gesture, tongue between the teeth without touching the lips, at the conclusion of some sort of a deal or as a final nonverbal statement.

At the poker table, watch people showing a tongue jut when they get you to commit to the pot and they have the nuts. It shows up all of the time. I have seen players who make big laydowns perform the same action.

Are you ready to trust your eyes? Focus on the mouths of opponents when you’re in action, but be aware your mouth is being looked at for tells. Calm the quivering lips, lip-licking, chewing and tongue-jutting. Just be aware of what you’re giving away and try covering your mouth as you deliberate on your cards and before taking any action. You may find that this is one area where your lips can sink a ship.

— 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.