Nonverbal poker tells of the fingers

November 22, 2013, Joe Navarro  

In poker, most players focus on the face, but hopefully you’ve learned the whole body speaks and the hands have a lot to say about what we’re thinking or feeling.

The chip shuffle is perhaps the most common action you’ll see at a table involving the hands. It’s a repetitive behavior and serves to calm us and pass the time (like leg-bouncing, finger-strumming or playing with the hair); it’s a pacifying behavior.

I look to see changes in chip-shuffling, such as when it stops, speeds up or they fumble the chips, to tell me something is going on. For some players, the fumbling of chips is indicative of stress, perhaps they’re weak but committed to the pot.

Others do the same behavior when they’re nervous because they’re sitting on a monster hand. For others, when they stop, they want to pay close attention to what you’re doing because they may be concerned. It’s tough to generalize, which is why you want to get a base line of behaviors on each player and see what they do with those chips and when.

When some players get strong cards, their hands will begin to move slowly toward the center of the table. They don’t realize when they’re weak they place their hands on their hole cards, but when strong they move them toward the center.

Look for players who suddenly treasure their hole cards after the flop. They’ll literally cage their cards with their fingers as if to keep them from escaping.

We never think about our thumbs and yet we know from research that when we’re happy and excited the thumbs rise or move away from the index finger. And when we’re weak or stressed, the thumb moves closer to the index finger. When there’s a lot of stress or fear, the thumb gets tucked under the index finger.

Fingers also communicate confidence. When we’re lacking confidence they come together when we exude confidence they tend to spread apart. Look for a change in the distance between fingers (territorial display) as cues that suddenly a player is stronger or more confident.

We pick at our nails or cuticles to ease stress. If all of sudden you see nail-biting or cuticle-picking, the player may be experiencing more stress and needs to calm or soothe himself with these behaviors that our mothers told us to stop long ago.

One last thing: We use our fingers to soothe us. Watch when the hands moves toward the neck; neck-touching is usually indicative of some sort of psychological discomfort, insecurity, or weakness.

Always remember at the table, we want to conceal our tells, not just observe them. For a more in depth look at hand behaviors, take a look at my book, 200 Poker Tells or What Every Body is Saying.

— Joe Navarro is a former FBI agent and author of What Every Body is Saying and 200 Poker Tells. Also, you can follow him onTwitter at @navarrotells.