Poker players speak in tongues

October 07, 2013, Joe Navarro  

What’s one thing we use every day that adds so much to our lives, but yet we rarely think about it? It’s something we often see at the poker table but we mostly ignore. It’s essential when we snack, eat or take a sip. It’s not the lips; it’s the tongue. Yes, the tongue. It’s out of the way. It’s hidden. So how could anything involving the tongue assist you with poker tells? Just like any part of our body, the tongue can give away information about what we’re thinking, feeling, desiring or fearing.

Watch players who lick their lips. Lip-licking is how we use our tongue to stimulate nerve endings in the lips and tongue. Signals are sent to the brain to calm us and soothe our emotions. You’ll see this often when a player attempts a bluff. They’ll go all-in and then immediately lick their lips in a subconscious attempt to calm their anxiety. The stress of bluffing requires a pacifier. No matter how talented the player, they will calm their stress using some sort of pacifier. Given the secrecy of the tongue, many lean on this behavior.

I know what you’re going to say: Some people lick their lips when they aren’t bluffing. That’s true, but we know it increases with stress. The tongue is activated on an as-needed basis. When the brain says, “Look, I’m stressed here; help me out,” the tongue responds.

To pacify, the tongue will move around massaging the insides of our mouths. If you were an observer, you’d notice the tongue create a movement along the cheek or right in the front of their mouth as the tongue brushes against the front teeth. Though these movements are subtle, they’re noticeable. All are ways of pacifying, but they tend to be more covert.

One behavior often mistaken for pacifying is called the tongue jut. This occurs when the tongue is subconsciously shown so that it juts out between the teeth, usually not touching the lips. We see this with individuals who are caught doing something they shouldn’t be, making a mistake or getting away with something.

The tongue jut is visible in poker when a player who’s really strong, gets other players to commit to the pot. As they bring their chips forward, the strong player will jut out the tongue between the teeth, indicating he has gotten away with something, in this case, inducing his opponents to put more chips into the pot.

Ever notice when people dangle their tongue out of their mouths while accomplishing a task? Michael Jordan used to do it. Some people do it to concentrate. Not everyone does it, but it’s worth taking a look. Be aware it’s not a sign of confidence or strength, but rather deliberation and intensive thought.

So, when you see that tongue moving around, ask yourself why does this player need to calm down?

— 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.