Observing when not playing poker is key

November 03, 2014, Joe Navarro  

So what is the big secret to poker tells? In the end, it’s no big secret. It’s the fact that we humans, conditioned to communicate our emotions, feelings, thoughts, excitement, fears and desires, leak those sentiments somewhere on our bodies, in spite of having a poker face.

The big task is learning to spot those behaviors in context, keeping in mind, as I have often said, that we’re not reading reality; we’re reading a poker player’s perception of reality.

After all, a player who’s really marginal or weak may appear strong if that’s what he ignorantly believes.

But how do we get there? How do we get to the point where we can pick up these behaviors? Playing helps but only so much. In preparing to write Read ’em and Reap and later 200 Poker Tells (available on Audible.com), I forced myself to spend hours watching multiple tables at a time in Atlantic City and in Las Vegas. I was probably the only person at Caesars Palace with a journal in hand taking notes. That was fine for me; I was doing research, but what about players like you who want to get better?

Taking notes and watching three or four tables at a time isn’t for everyone, but I can tell you it sharpens your ability to observe quickly those little quirks, tells, cues or micro-momentary expressions that betray a player is weak or sitting on a monster hand.

There are certainly more books now than ever before on poker tells and I would encourage you to read as many of them as you can. But, these books give you the knowledge, they don’t give you the skill to pick up tells quickly, so that you can act on them in time. For that, I found walking around and watching multiple tables at once was extremely helpful.

You may be thinking how about watching videos of tournaments? That’s fine, but keep in mind those shows are edited and most of the time you see the face but not the hands or the rest of the body (those legs and feet are communicating, too). When that shirt starts shaking because a player has “happy feet” (monster hand) you want to be able to see that. Remember that while you’re at play, you’re limited to the behaviors and tells of only eight individuals at a time so the learning curve is not in your favor.

In the end, my advice is this: Every once in a while, if you’re serious about poker, walk around, take notes, watch several tables at once, force yourself to pick up on everyone’s subtle tells, where they place their hands, how they hold their cards, how they touch their face, what do they do with their lips, etc., and then look for changes.

When you can do several tables at once, your job in a real game will be so much easier. Observation is a skill; it has to be honed. The only way I know to do this is through focused observation, which incidentally is free.

— 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.