Why do professional poker players wear scarves? How are verbal poker tells used to read people for bluffs or lies? Can your knowledge of common poker tells be a superpower away from the table? These seven techniques will help your poker game, your business soft skills, and your understanding of social psychology.
1. Soothing gestures
One of the most telltale signs that a poker player is uncomfortable is when they exhibit soothing motions. This is when they rub their face or arms, similar to how one would pet a dog, to subconsciously reassure themselves in a moment of high stress.
Soothing gestures are both indicative of bluffs in poker, and of discomfort in everyday life. When you see a coworker regularly rubbing her cheeks or forehead, you might ask how she’s doing or offer to take some work off her plate. If a direct report shows soothing gestures before presenting, you might reassure him or offer tips to cope with presentation anxiety.
2. Strong is weak and weak is strong
When beginning poker players talk or gesture, they usually act opposite to the strength of their hand. They’ll stack their chips menacingly before sliding in a bluff, but carelessly toss chips in the pot with a strong hand. They look bored before betting big for value, and they count their chips before checking when they’re weak. These poker tells can give away their game.
In the real world you see overcompensation all over the place! People act abrasive and standoffish to mask feeling vulnerable, or act arrogant and condescending as a response to loneliness. While being lashed out at can feel confusing and personal, never underestimate the influence that insecurity has over our actions.
Perhaps the most impactful response to overcompensation is empathy and inclusion. Efforts to show respect and care will go a long way to someone acting out. Everyone loves the friend, family member, or boss they trust to open up to.
You can glean a lot from a poker player’s posture. When a player sees her cards for the first time, she’ll often lean in if she likes what she sees but stay slouched if she doesn’t. The same goes for when the flop is dealt. This is the brain’s subconscious response to excitement.
In the workplace, positive posture shows engagement and alertness. If meeting attendees display a closed body posture with backs against chairs, that’s a hint you may be losing their attention. Likewise, by sitting up tall, nodding and leaning in, you communicate your interest and enthusiasm (crucial for interviews).
4. Eye movement
There are two big poker tells that come from a player’s eyes. If a player quickly glances at their chips immediately after seeing a new community card introduced, their brain is subconsciously thinking about betting and they usually have a strong hand. And if a player won’t stop staring you down after betting, they usually have a bluff and are trying to feign confidence (another strong is weak instance.)
Outside of poker, following someone’s gaze yields different information. Generally speaking, humans are uncomfortable with making eye contact while lying, and sensory recollection can show by the direction someone looks. People tend to blink more when they are annoyed or angry, and looking up or a rapidly darting gaze is indicative of thought.
5. Speech pattern deviations
Speechplay (the act of talking to an opponent during a hand to gain an advantage) comes with a host of tells. In general, it’s challenging for players to speak with the same cadence, calmness and sense of humor during a big bluff as they do when they have a strong hand. The stress simply gets to us, so many players opt to stay quiet when they’re bluffing but chat it up when they have a strong hand.
In the real world, many people will speak more formally when they are lying. Contractions like “I didn’t” become “I did not.” A voice affectation or vernacular adjustment implies adaptation to a group and a spontaneously sesquipedalian vocabulary (using long-winded exotic words) suggests insecurity. A great boss can tell when someone isn’t acting like themselves, and speech can be the subconscious code that tips you off.
6. Timing tells
One of the only tells you can pick up in online poker is whether a player takes longer to act with a strong hand than they do with a bluff. Quick bets usually indicate that a player is polarized – that their hand is so strong or such a slam-dunk bluff that it requires no thought to know to bet. Experienced players will take their time with obvious decisions so they don’t give information away when they have to think things through.
In everyday conversation, speech speed is indicative of excitement and consideration rather than speed of thought. When someone is talking faster than usual, they could be nervous, excited, caffeinated, or doing their best not to overstep in a group conversation. Someone speaking slower than usual might be tired, bored, careful of what they say (especially through the use of pauses), or mindful of someone who might have a hard time understanding quick speech
7. Signs of adrenaline
When the stakes are high and players are emotionally invested in the result of hands, swings of fortune lead to spikes in adrenaline. This is visibly evident in a neck vein that pulses uncontrollably, heavier breathing, and sweat. The neck vein is such a powerful tell that professional tournament players wear scarves to cover it up!
In life beyond poker, the physical signs of adrenaline are much the same. If you see dilated pupils, jitters, or a lack of sensitivity to physical stimulus, chances are that adrenaline is flowing. Intense, high-pressure situations like all-hands-on-deck M&A deals, looking out for these tells can give you a sense of how your teammates are feeling.
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