Science and Tradition

Can you tell what’s in your opponent’s hand?

Poker is one of the most popular games anywhere from an online casino to a brick-and-mortar gambling parlour. The game has been around for centuries but its legendary aura comes from the old days in the American South. Poker became a massive hit on the riverboats plying the Mississippi River and spread West during the Gold Rush as people took to playing cards to pass the time. Naturally, some players took it more seriously than others, and so the legend of the professional cardsharp was born.

Nowadays people don’t settle their disputes at gunpoint, but one aspect of the tradition has stayed with us. That’s the technique of figuring out someone’s hand or game plan by reading their “tells” – subtle non verbal cues about what they’re thinking. Today, the science of body language makes it easier for players to pick up on other players’ tells – and increases their chances of winning.

Decoding the unspoken

Body language is all about what we tell people without speaking. Facial expressions are an essential part of body language – there are 7 universal micro-expressions we make whenever we feel intense emotion. Body proxemics – body movements in space – are very telling. We can tell when people are feeling good or nervous about something by the way they gesture, lean, or move towards or away from us.  Then there are the things we put on our bodies – clothes, jewellery, sunglasses and hairstyles all have a story to tell. Colours and styles send signals. If someone fiddles with a ring or keeps touching their hair, there’s an emotional meaning attached.

To read body language, you need to master two skills. Decoding is the ability to read other people’s body language – interpreting the emotional information you receive and using it for your own goals. Encoding is using the power of body language to send cues to other people. The proverbial poker face is an attempt to blank out all expression – but what if you learn to encode so that people pick up on misleading cues? You’ll be way ahead of the game.

What story does your body language tell?

Expert advantage

Reading poker tells is quite an applied form of the science of body language, so it’s a good thing that there are a number of books on the subject written by experts.  For example, Zach Elwood, author of Reading Poker Tells,  says, “There are certain things I tend to look for in inexperienced live players – things like stillness and movement; as a general rule people who are relaxed will show more movement in spots as opposed to someone who is anxious, they are a little more still and tense. This is also usually when there is a significant bet involved.”

Mike Caro, author of Caro’s Book of Tells: The Body Language of Poker, says, “A player gains an advantage if he observes and understands the meaning of another player’s tell, particularly if the poker tell is unconscious and reliable. Sometimes a player may even fake a tell, hoping to induce his opponents to make poor judgments in response to the false poker tell. After all, poker is a game of deception. The general rule is that weakness usually means strength, and strength usually means weakness. But, you must decide how much weight to give a tell at any given moment. If you make learning tells fun, it will be an ever-changing, exciting part of your poker arsenal.”

Learning to read

Here are two classic tells from David Sasseman, creator of Pokerology, to get you started. First, when a player takes a quick glance at their chips and looks away, it’s probably a sign that they want to make a bet. Alternatively, they’ll glance at the chips of an opposing player. If you spot somebody taking a quick glance, don’t let on – if they feel like nobody’s watching, they’ll keep feeding you clues.

Another reliable tell is when a player quickly takes an unconscious glance at their cards. Let’s say the flop brings out three spades. A beginner who takes a quick glance at their cards probably doesn’t have the flush. That’s because inexperienced players will probably not take notice of the suits in an off-suit hand. In this situation, the player probably has one spade at most.