Poker, Psychology and the Science of Tells

Poker, Psychology and the Science of Tells November 16, 2013

A friend who has a PhD in psychology sent me a recent study that found that “the quality of professional poker players’ hands is perceived accurately from arm movements.” In the study, they showed 78 undergrads video clips from the World Series of Poker that included no sound but had one version where you could only see the players’ faces and one where you could see their upper torsos too. They were asked to rank how strong they think the player’s hand is on a scale of 1-7. And the study found that seeing their bodies significantly increased the chances of reading their hand correctly.

In an email exchange that followed, I told her about a book written by a former FBI profiler about reading physical tells, particularly micro-gestures (tiny, unconscious physical reactions that are difficult to control) and she noted, correctly, that the evidence shows that “profiling” is pretty much a pseudo-science. But I don’t think this is really a reason to reject the idea of reading such gestures at a poker table and this is what I wrote to her in response:

Poker is a little bit different than the usual “can you tell if someone is lying” question. First, because you get to observe someone’s behavior over a long period of time. Second, because your analysis of the information you’re getting from someone’s physical cues is only one of many pieces of information that you have to try to figure out what’s going on. One of the things I hate about poker movies is that they make it look like reading people is some sort of supernatural power, like really good poker players can just look at someone and know instantaneously whether they’re bluffing. It doesn’t work that way, of course.

There are many different types of “tells” that a player can give off, but most of them involve betting patterns rather than physical clues. If you know how to play Texas hold ’em, let’s say someone opens for a raise in late position and you’re deciding whether to call them. Do you think they have a really strong hand? The first question you’re going to ask yourself is: how aggressive is this player? Have they been sitting and folding for the last hour? Or do they open for a raise when they’re in late position 80% of the time? If they’re an aggressive player, they could be raising pre-flop with a wide range of hands, everything from rags (two crappy cards) to a pair of aces. If they’re a tight player, it’s more likely that they’ve got a premium hand. So you take that information into account.

You make the same calculation after the flop, if you call them. If they make make a sizable bet after the flop, you have to evaluate again how likely it is that they have a strong hand. But now you have the additional information of the cards on the board. If it’s a tight player and the board comes with high cards, there’s a relatively high likelihood that those cards match with their hand and they’re probably pretty strong. If they’re a more aggressive player, the chances are smaller. Let’s say a player who raises a lot before the flop does so and you call them and see a flop of Ace/King/9. You know that the range of hands he could have is very large, which means it’s less likely that he started with a really strong hand (like Ace-King or Ace-Queen). It may not be a bad idea to reraise them after the flop, representing that the flop “hit” your hand and you’re very strong. If they raised pre-flop with a medium hand, like maybe 8-9 or 9-10 suited, there’s a good chance you can push them off that pot whether you have an ace or a king or not if you reraise them after the flop.

It’s in the context of all of that kind of information that you’re getting from their betting patterns and their tendencies over the course of a few hours that a physical tell can provide just a little bit more information that can help you decide whether their hand is strong or weak. And what you’re really looking for with physical tells is a change in behavior. You take a mental snapshot of how someone behaves at the table — do they sit up close and pay attention to every hand or do they lean back in their chair? When they have a decision to make, do they take their time and carefully think things through before deciding whether to fold, call or raise, or do they do it very quickly? Do they put their chips in forcefully or do they just casually slide them in? Do they announce what they’re going to do before they actually do it or do they just put the chips in? There are a lot of these aspects of their usual behavior that allow you to detect a chance in behavior.

If someone is just kind of bantering with the players around them and leaning back in their chair and then suddenly, when they get dealt their cards, they sit up straight and stop talking and start paying close attention to what’s going on, that’s probably a sign that they just got dealt a really good hand. But it could also mean that they’ve decided to play this hand regardless of whether it’s good. You combine the physical information you’re getting with your previous analysis of how they play, how aggressive they are, what kind of hands they’ve been playing in early position or late position, etc, to give you a total picture of what’s going on. And a good player knows that all they’re really looking at are clues with a conclusion that is strictly probability — I think there’s a pretty good chance, based on all of these factors, that this person is bluffing or is not bluffing right now. In that context, I do think the examination of these conscious and unconscious physical gestures can really help you narrow down the possibilities and make an informed decision, but they’re not magic powers. It’s not “Oh, he just stroked his beard or she’s suddenly blinking a lot so I know they’re bluffing.”

And I’ll add to that here: This is all only one part of reading people, of poker psychology. I can’t remember who it was who originated this idea, but there are four levels of poker thinking that go from bad players to good players.

Level 1: What do I have? These players focus only on the cards in their hand, not thinking at all about what you may have and whether it’s better than them. You will make a hell of a lot of money playing against them.

Level 2: What do I have and what do they have? These players will think about both the strength of their hand and the strength of your hand. These are better players. They’re at least paying attention to both of those things so they are less likely to pay you off with a really big hand because they’re actually thinking about whether you’ve got them beat or not.

Level 3: What do I have, what do they have, and what do they think I have? These are much better players because now they’re thinking about how you’re thinking about the hand.

Level 4: What do I have, what do they have, what do they think I have and how can I make them think I have something different than I have? This is the highest level of poker. Now you’re thinking about how you can manipulate other players into thinking about the hand wrongly, into misreading you. And the better you are at all of those four factors, the more likely you are to win.

And again, in all of this you’re reading not just physical tells but also betting patterns, tendencies, basic personality, and situations at the table. Are they aggressive all the time? Are they thoughtful and deliberate? Are they just here for the fun of it and don’t really care about winning or losing (which makes them harder to manipulate)? Are they fed up and tired of getting pushed around (and thus likely to call a big bet with any decent hand)? Are they getting tired and shortstacked — and does this mean that they’re likely to put all their money in on any halfway good hand or that they’re going to play really tight until they get a big hand? All those things (and much more) factor in to all of the analysis at those last three levels.

You see why I love the game of poker? It’s a psychological chess game. And physical tells are just one small part of it.


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