We learned a few poker tells lessons from 2011

December 23, 2011, Chris  

The 2011 World Series of Poker Main Event was amazing. It was the youngest final table and the prize money was astounding. Many thought participation would be small and yet more than 6,500 entered the main event, remarkable considering Black Friday in April and a world economy bordering on recession. In late May, ESPN invited me to give my two cents’ worth each week during its coverage, and for me that was a totally unexpected honor.

The main event also was a reminder that when it comes to things people are passionate about, and poker players are passionate, predictions often can be wrong. So much was written about younger players not being able to compete effectively at major events because of their Internet background and lack of tournament experience. That was quickly dispelled in July (and November).

I found it interesting how disciplined many of the players were, especially at that final table; keeping still and not giving away tells. I guess to a great extent this is why they were at the final table, because they were able to conceal their feelings or mask them in such a way as to make others believe they were strong when weak without going “Hollywood.” The discipline to remain still and not give away tells or even to banter at the table as in years past, is indeed remarkable and we should all note.

For years now, starting with Read ’Em and Reap, I’ve been a big proponent of “concealing and not revealing” tells. In print and in radio interviews, I’ve preached that even if you’re not good at picking up tells, you should at least concentrate on concealing them. After all, it’s your bankroll, why give your opponents an advantage? You may think you have no tells, but every pro I’ve spoken with says everyone has tells and they look for tells to exploit.

Plus do you really know what your tells are? If I asked you what your lips look like right now you might have a guess. Under stress you can’t tell if your lips are full, narrow or compressed, and yet others may be able to see that and benefit. And that is why we want to hide tells; even if we choose to ignore what others are transmitting with their bodies.

Hopefully by now you’re aware that the best way to hide in the open and to conceal tells is to hold still or “freeze” in your favorite “ready” or default position at the table. Scientists have long known when we don’t move people ignore us consciously and subconsciously. Since there’s nothing new to see or discern, the brain says, move on, look elsewhere or find something more interesting.

If you’re holding still while playing but there’s movement of any kind elsewhere, your brain’s “orientation reflex” says look at what is moving (it’s a survival strategy to keep us alert) and we ignore what is still, even if it’s in front of us. This has been tested in labs many times but also in real life. Many of the children who survived the Columbine High School massacre did so because they played dead (the ultimate freeze response), holding themselves still caused the shooters to orient toward anything that moved, while ignoring easy targets at their feet. The “freeze response” allows us to assess danger while being unnoticed. We dupe our opponent’s brain into ignoring us, thinking there’s nothing there, which is why Phil Hellmuth uses the “perch” position (chin on fisted hands, elbows on table) while others as we saw at the final table just hold still returning to the same position each time.

One other thing we can do to hide tells involves the eyes. No, it has nothing to do with sunglasses, but it has everything to do with how we stare. Those of you who play cash games or who have watched tournaments have probably noticed how frequently some players engage in staring matches. I know players such as Greg Raymer can do this well, but the truth is few can, and it can lead to making false assumptions. Staring is not necessarily a sign of strength, and it can back fire, making us frustrated the longer we do it with little results putting us on tilt.

If you want to avoid the chance of giving something away, avoid the staring and just concentrate on something on the table that will distract you. If others want to stare at you let them. But why enter that fray? Stare at a spot and hold still. You’ll find others will have a tough time reading your tells.

Hiding tells by remaining still and avoiding stare downs, good advice that costs nothing to practice and is easy to test.

— Joe Navarro is a former FBI special agent and is the author of 11 books, including Read ’Em and Reap, 200 Poker Tells and the international bestseller, What Every Body is Saying. You can follow him on Twitter: @navarrotells or at jnforensics.com.