Poker Body Language – Reading Tells




When he worked in counter-espionage, the FBI agent, Joseph Navarro could spot a traitor by a series of minutiae movements that a person gives off, their idiosyncratic micro-tics. He has provided modern professional poker players with his knowledge of poker body-language, in order to help them read their opponents motives and help them win, he has taught players how to spot if an opponent is bluffing or not. Poker players are always lying/bluffing, explains the retired FBI agent, they try to convey an image of strength when they have a weak hand and weak when they have a strong hand. In truth, it is possible decipher all the fronts that players present.

Today, Joseph Navarro is an instructor for players in the “World Series Academy of Poker”, so he is well placed for detecting the small signals that players give off that betray their underlying emotions, the anxieties they are trying to hide. He was a specialist FBI agent in counter-espionage (spying) for 25 years and he has forged a worldwide reputation for his abilities to understand non-verbal body-language.

Navarro, an American of Cuban origin, has participated in nearly all the enquiries that have taken place in America regarding counter-espionage, between 1993 and 2003. Particularly notable amongst these enquiries is the famous ones of the celebrated “moles” Aldrich Ames and Robert Hansen ( Click here to find out more about Ames & Hansen ). He retired from the FBI in 2003, but continues to teach new agents at the FBI and the CI, in techniques of interrogation and the habits of spies and terrorists.

Navarro, who is 58 years old, thinks that his know-how is easily transposable to the world of poker. Following the example of the spy, the poker player will convey, through very subtle and minute non-verbal cues, how confident or anxious they are about their game. He says that when you feel good or when you have a sensational hand, your body will show how it feels; you may begin tapping your feet in excitement, like the child anticipating a trip to a theme park.

On the other hand, a negative emotion may be translated into a pout of the lips, a crinkled/frowning nose, and a narrowing of the eyes, as happens when we are presented with things we find unpleasant, it the classic look portrayed by the actor Clint Eastwood in various films.

Navarro asserts that he can judge anybodies body-language, even a hardened, professional poker player, simply by observing them for a few minutes. Players are often in the habit of hiding their emotions with sunglasses, hoods, by staying silent, or by a whole host of other techniques. But for Navarro, the ex-FBI agent, these techniques are insufficient guards against conveying deeper emotions, he says that non-verbal communication is involuntary and dictated by the brain and will always show the strength or weakness of the players emotions, if they convey weakness, they probably have a weak hand and vice-versa if they convey strength.

The manner in which players “treat” their cards, with more or less respect depending on whether they have a good hand or not, is revealing. Posture, as well, is important. A player who lowers his head into his shoulders is betraying a sense of low confidence. In contrast, a player whose fingers meet so as to draw a bell tower of a church, the thumb pointed upwards, is the sign of a winner.

Navarro advises players to observe the behaviour of their opponents from the beginning of the game. When the players are confident they have a tendency to use their hands more, with more flourish, and to occupy a larger personal space at the table, they have expansive behaviour reflecting openness and a positive attitude, they have no reason to feel defensive and they do not act as such. When they are having a good game they have a tendency to look more often in the direction of their chips.

Women tend to have different gestures, but they are not generally more difficult to decipher, says Navarro. For example, a woman can reveal a lack of confidence by passing their hands through their hair or touching their throat. On the other hand, men touch their necks in a much brusquer manner or put their hands to their face.

The techniques that Navarro teaches can also be used to trick other players into believing a sentiment you are pretending to convey. For example, you can use negative body language when you actually have a good hand and deliberately confuse your opponent. Phil Helmuth, considered to be one of the best players of Texas Hold’EM has said, in the past, that Navarro’s advice has served him well in poker tournaments.

Poker, Espionage and Breathing Tells

The subject of tell-tale body-language with regards to poker and the way a poker player can give away his playing agenda has been discussed a lot. The concept of “tells”, or the revelations people make through body-language, was depicted in the film Rounders (1998). The character known as Teddy KGB, played by John Malkovich, carried out a particularly curious example of body-language; he held a biscuit up to his ear when he had a good hand. However, the majority of poker “tells” are not so self-evident. Often they are the result of a very subtle body-language.

Remaining still and bodily movements are used equally to hide and disguise motive. For this reason, players who do not wear sunglasses are actually at an advantage, the sunglass wearer believes he has constructed a smokescreen, but this false confidence will lead to more revelations through the body-language of such player, as they allow themselves to relax more keeping their body-language less in-check. Plus, the lighting in a poker room is often dim and the sunglasses will hinder the reading of other people’s body-language because they cannot see as clearly.

A good book for understanding body-language with regards to Poker is Mike Caros’ “The Book of Poker Tells”; it has a lot to teach and has a sound knowledge base. The basic premise of the book is that “weakness reveals strength/strength reveals weakness”. This adage means that the majority of players behave in the opposite manner to how their hand should have them behave, so a good hand will be reflected through an attempt at negative body-language. By elaborating this concept, Caro explores the behaviour of players in an extremely subtle and detailed manner. It is a book that when read and re-read can lead to a very insightful understanding of the subtleties of boy-language and Poker, and will probably have applications to everyday life.

The book, by Caro, has been hailed as an extremely influential and beneficial book to the professional poker player, with French poker player Chris Gabriel even saying that the author deserved some of his profits because of the extent to which it has helped him win.

Chris has the following anecdote to recount; while playing at Foxwoods Casino in the United States for a two day event, he felt he did not really want to play on the first day, which if you knew him you would know was out of character. It had been a long day and he was fairly tired, so decided to relax for a bit. In his hotel room he found the publication “Casino Player” and started leafing through that month’s issue, the articles on the cover related to the general topic of casinos, not just poker, but in that particular issue there was an article by Caro that dealt with breathing techniques.

In a previous issue Caro had told about a situation where a player was playing No Limit and wagered a massive amount on a large pot. He said that when the player wagered with a good hand he tended to relax, his breathing normal and regulated, indeed his breathing was actually more regulated than in the rest of the game. When the player was bluffing he became afraid of moving, but more than this he began breathing less frequently, on occasions he appeared to hold his breathe. Caro’s idea is that when a player is scared of revealing that he is bluffing, he tries to control himself extra hard, as if the suspense is so great that he is motionless until the result is known. The player’s opponent recognised his immobility and slowed breathing and called, forcing the player to throw his hand.

The article Chris Gabriel had read in his room was a continuation of the previous article described above. In the article in the hotel room, Caro reported on the way that more experienced players, who believe that the more nonchalant they are about the play, the more easily they would manage to pull off a bluff. Consequently, these players are attentively analysing their behaviours so as not to fall into the trap of becoming rigid and of under-breathing, so as to appear more relaxed. But Caro says that even experienced players give away subtle signs that betray to others the strength or weakness of their hands. To uncover when someone is bluffing (or the probability that they are bluffing- dependent on the situation), Caro’s advice is to observe behaviour at the time when you are calculating how many chips you would need to make a call. If you count them behind your cards, and you keep your mouth closed, you are not required to call or to lay your cards down. On the other hand, you can look at your opponent and observe his reactions to the possibility that you will call. Therefore, you can often see players who have been trying to be nonchalant, suddenly become rigid at the point at which you assess the possibility of calling.

The following day, after having read the article, Chris went to a local casino and the exact situation described occurred. Holding an 8-7 he flopped a pair (of sevens), another player having started again before the flop, wagered on the flop. There were no face-cards among the communal cards and no Aces either. He sensed a weakness, but decided to call and see what happened. The fourth card was nothing of interest, although it now put two colours on the table, two spades and two hearts. The player wagered $100 for a pot that contained $120. Chris wanted to test the player’s strength and so upped the ante to $200. The other player called, it was now possible that he missed one card for a flush with two high cards, but Chris was sure he did not have better than his pair.

Next, Chris was dealt an awful card, the king of hearts. Now there was a high card and a flush on the table. His opponent immediately wagered $300, in three small piles, very sensitively placed. Following this he made a gesture that was apparently courteous, which consisted of tapping the piles gently on the side so as to separate the piles and show that each one contained 4 chips, not 5 or 3, but 4. He was very calm, he was leaning back, his right arm relaxed, and then he began shifting and fiddling with the tokens. Chris watched the player and waited, he continued to play with his chips, without changing the speed and nothing showed that he was afraid of Chris calling. He had the air of a player who’s in the habit of winning and a high tolerance towards taking risks- a person who liked to tempt fate. Chris had heard the player; earlier in the night recount his prowess on the poker circuit. Finally, without breaking eye contact, Chris took his chips and counted three piles of four green chips each. The hand of the other player that was fiddling with the chips suddenly became tense. Plus, he looked him straight in the eye, and Chris knew he had him- the brave show of eye-contact betrayed a weakness. Chris called and the other player revealed an Ace and a Queen, Chris won the pot worth $1,100 with nothing more than a pair of sevens.

Take time to practice these techniques, maybe with friends, before trying them out in real play. Professional players will be well practiced!!

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Gordon Dyke

Poker Expert

Gordon Dyke has served as our poker expert since 2017. Gordon has been playing poker professionally and recreationally for nearly two decades.

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