A look at territorial poker displays

October 07, 2014, Joe Navarro  

I’ve written about keeping a careful eye on opponents’ body and face. Researchers have found the body communicates more accurately how we feel. Why? Early on, our parents taught us to lie with our faces. You remember the admonition, “Don’t make that face,” don’t you? They taught us to bluff (lie) so we don’t hurt others’ feelings.

With that in mind, there are three behaviors I’ve studied that often telegraph when a player is strong even when their faces are pretending to be weak.

The first is called Arms Akimbo. This is performed by placing the hands on hips, thumbs back, elbows out. A player, after he makes the call, will push his chair back, which appears to be distancing, and makes this “dominance display.”
When you see this display that makes us look larger and claims much territory, chances are the person is strong. Sometimes because of space limitations you see it done with only one arm while the other arm is playing with chips.
The second behavior is called Hooding. This is where the player leans back after calling or raising and interlaces his fingers behind his head, palms resting against the head, with the elbows out.

Again, this is a territorial display that should be interpreted as strength; especially if they hold that position for a while. If they do this preflop and hold it postflop, chances are the player is strong. It’s been demonstrated this behavior is difficult to maintain if you’re marginal or weak.

The third behavior, which I’ve confirmed several times, is known as Territorial Reluctance.

Note where the players are at all times. Postflop (usually) the player calls or raises but in doing so when they return their hands they come to the edge of the table or rail and then attempt to claim a little bit more territory than usual.
This happens quickly so you have to keep a close eye. Players then realize they’re showing they’re strong, which they most likely are, so the hands come back as before on top of the hole cards or interlaced in front of them, making them less territorial. This subconscious reluctance to claim or display more territory is a valid tell that says, “Oops, I shouldn’t have done that; what I really want to do is hide in the open as before.”

These three behaviors should remind us the rest of the body communicates much about what’s going on inside the head, so we have to monitor everything a player does from the moment they sit. If there’s one thing I’ve tried to imbue others through these articles is it’s not just about reading the face. After all, there may be a poker face, but there’s no poker body.

— Joe Navarro is a former FBI Special Agent and is the author of What Every BODY is Saying and 200 Poker Tells. He writes about poker tells exclusively for Ante Up Magazine.