Fingers tell a lot about a poker player's mind-set

May 29, 2014, Joe Navarro  

Sometimes we perform behaviors that shout, “I need help… I’m having a really tough time or things are truly bad.” These behaviors go beyond the dour face or the slumped shoulders you might see throughout the day. They’re more poignant perhaps than compressed lips or a furrowed forehead; these are behaviors indicative of high psychological distress. I call them “reserved behaviors” because they usually only show up when the person is having high psychological discomfort or distress and appears to be in need of comforting.

It’s no different in poker; there are times when the decision-making is so difficult or the player, committed to the pot, is so marginal in strength that the brain brings out the heavy guns to soothe the person and one of these reserved behaviors is often missed.

STIFF INTERLACED FINGERS (TEEPEE HANDS): In life, we often see this behavior when a person has to deal with a difficult decision. They are unveiling disquieting information about themselves, when they have done something wrong or when discussing a touchy subject. In poker, most people miss this behavior, which means the player is most likely marginal, weak or at least perceives themselves as such.

The behavior is performed subconsciously, as are all reserved behaviors, by interlacing stiffened fingers held stationary or rubbed back and forth. This is to be differentiated from the usual palm-on-palm hand-rubbing, which is a mild pacifier; teepee hands go further than that in relieving stress.

The interlacing of stiffened fingers, I suspect, serves two practical purposes: The stiffening of the fingers indicates a conscious awareness or arousal that there are issues (usually the person is focused), and second, the interlacing of fingers causes increased tactile stimulation that then serves to calm the person.

This is an accurate tell. I have seen this behavior many times when individuals come in to report bad news. When a player suddenly does this behavior as they deliberate, they perceive themselves as marginal or weak.

One caveat here: Some people do this routinely and as such we note the behavior as idiosyncratic and isn’t as significant as when it appears only in extraordinarily stressful situations. And the only way to know if it is routine is to develop a baseline as we have discussed previously.
Keep in mind most people usually just rub the palms of their hands together to deal with a little stress, rarely do they use this behavior except under high stress.

— 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.