A few years back, I was playing a poker tournament at the MGM National Harbor Casino, and I went for what I thought was a brilliant bluff. And, given, what the cards were, I am still pretty proud of my play.
But it didn’t work.
My check-raise all-in on the river failed, and I had no idea why.
Until my opponent told me: “You have a tell,” he said.
“What’s that?” I asked.
“You were chewing gum,” he responded, “and you stopped chewing. When you froze up, I knew you were bluffing.”
So there you go!
Ever since then, I have stopped chewing gum when making big decisions. I also learned to be more aware of my tells, and for my book A Girl’s Guide to Poker, I even interviewed an FBI. body language expert on how to improve your poker face.
Here’s what I can tell you.
Why Your Pokerface Isn’t Working:
You don’t have a neutral baseline. When looking for tells at a poker table, you shouldn’t be trying to look for someone’s quirks but instead, be looking for their normal. How do they usually sit or speak? That way, you will be able to recognize a deviation.
In my example, he knew that my norm was chewing. When I did something different — stopped chewing — that was the tell.
Keep a standard position at the table to avoid giving anything away. This can mean always maintaining a consistent posture when you are in a hand. Or keeping your hands rested in the same place.
You don’t know where your leaks are. Most people think the best way to protect themselves at a poker table is by wearing sunglasses. When I spoke with FBI body language expert Joe Navarro, he said many people actually give away more with their mouth than they do their eyes. (It is now very “fashionable” in high roller tournaments for poker pros to cover their mouths with long-necked hoodies for this reason.)
You may be focusing too much on your eyes but not on the other parts of your face — or even your body. Navarro said posture is a huge giveaway. Professional poker player Melanie Weisner likes to look at people’s feet, something they never think of monitoring. But she has told stories of calling people’s bluffs simply because their legs were wrapped around their chair legs. A total giveaway you may have not even known you had.
Be conscious of your entire body language, not just parts. Also, ask any particular intuitive friends if there are any specific squirms you have.
You don’t have a plan. Even if you have the most consistent body language and can freeze like a statue, sometimes your opponent will throw a curveball: they will start talking to you. Table talk is part of the game, and oftentimes you will be asked questions when someone is trying to decide whether or not to call your bet.
Be prepared! Don’t be surprised if someone tries to chat and crack you. But do have a plan. If your plan is to maintain silent and not respond, stick to that at all times. That way, you’re balanced both when you have a good hand and when you are bluffing. If you like to talk back, make sure you already decided that ahead of time (and maybe have a few preplanned comebacks). Don’t decide on the fly.
Oftentimes you can anticipate the questions your opponent will ask you, the main one being, “Will you show [your cards] if I fold?” Know how you are going to respond to that in advance, so it doesn’t stump you on the spot.
Bonus tip: Professional poker players Maria Ho and Phil Ivey like to wait people out to see if they crack after a few minutes. When people are trying to read you, be aware that it’s not always your first reaction they are assessing. They may want to see how long you can keep your cool.
Even a willingness to examine your own body language will go a long way and transform subconscious giveaways into conscious movements you can control and change. Many poker players never begin to study their own behavior. Doing so will go a long way and speaks volumes as to your dedication.