Poker tells are all about making observations

January 25, 2014, Joe Navarro  

By now, you’ve noticed there’s no end to the things we should look for at the poker table to give us a clue as to what the other player has, intends or is lacking. Mike Caro’s book covers about 50 of those things and my 200 Poker Tells expands on that. With each new book or article here in Ante Up, there are more things to look for and that’s great.

Most of my readers know when it comes to poker tells, I start with the top of the head and work my way to the toes. There’s always something there to see, whether it’s the hat being lifted to ventilate the head (stress), the sudden lip-biting (need to pacify), neck-touching (issues/concerns) or the thumbs that pop up (positive emotions) on the river. All of these reflect what’s going on in the brain; they “tell” on us. But this information is of little utility if one important factor is missing: how to properly observe.

Our parents taught us how to look. They probably said look left and right before you cross. Look to see who’s at the door before you open it, and so on. But rare is the parent who teaches us how to observe. Did anyone ever say, “hold still and look straight ahead, relax the muscles of the face and the eyes, now allow yourself to see peripherally as much as you see directly in front of you?” And yet how we observe will determine how much we observe and how honest that observation really is.

We assume all observations are honest yet we have long known that intrusive observation affects what we observe. If an opponent knows you’re staring at them, you’re in effect influencing the observation. You’re saying, “I am interested in what you’re concealing.”

Subconsciously, when we know someone is trying to read us, we instinctively try to hide what we’re thinking or feeling (we call that a poker face) or we try to do some perception management (making you think I’m weak, when I’m strong). Because this is universal and subconscious, the secret then is to observe without being noticed so we can observe the more honest or pure behaviors.

So how do we achieve that? Just as I mentioned, relax the eyes and facial muscles. Look at players indirectly. Pick a point on the table you can comfortably stare at that also allows you to see the players hands, torso, shoulders, face and hair. By not staring at the player, you’re more likely to get better reads on opponents since they will get the impression you’re not interested in them. Try it out; it gets easier over time and your observation skills will increase.

— 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.