Hands down, the face has the poker tells information

December 23, 2013, Joe Navarro  

I recently tweeted about an article that had appeared in Psychological Science conclusively showing poker players are more successful in picking up bluffing tells if they focus on the hands and arms alone than if they focus on the face. This should not be a surprise to Ante Up readers since we’ve been saying this since the first issue.

And while the hands (and, yes, the feet) reveal a lot of valuable information, I would be remiss if I didn’t point out that there’s still a lot the face can tell us; we just have to be careful because the face can be disingenuous.

Our faces, along with feet, hands and even shoulders, reveal our true sentiments in real time unless efforts are made to conceal them. It’s these restrained or hidden behaviors when we’re stressed that we look for through what is called leakage.

Stress (weak hand, bluffing, shrinking bankroll) causes us to increase pacifying behaviors so look for things such as more gum-chewing, lip-licking, lip-biting, nail-biting and exhaling through pursed lips, to let us know something is at issue. These are all indicators of weakness, anxiety or concern for the most part. And while these are useful, there are some behaviors that are consistently more accurate and you should look for them:

FULL VS. DISAPPEARING LIPS: When we are confident and content, our lips are full. They are puffy, normal and in full view; not concealed, tight or compressed. When we’re lacking confidence, however, our lips tend to disappear.

COMPRESSED LIPS: Lip compression is an extreme form of communicating stress. Most players don’t realize they’re doing this even though highly visible. Lip compression is mostly seen when there are negative emotions involved. In severe cases, you’ll notice when the corners of the mouth come down the side so they look like an upside down U; that’s when things are really bad.

TRUE VS. FALSE: At the table you may ask a player if she has the nuts and she may just answer with a smile. Not all smiles are the same, however. A smile that looks forced, tense or is asymmetric is likely fake, and we fake to conceal how we really feel.

LIP-PURSING: This is our way of saying I’m unhappy. Look for players who, upon seeing the flop or the ensuing community cards, purse their lips. In one study we found 95 percent of the time players who pursed their lips eventually folded or revealed a weak hand.
So while our hands have much to reveal, don’t ignore the face.

— 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.