Feeling Awkward at the Poker Table? Strategies for Keeping Your Cool

strategies to keep cool at poker tables

After a year of being cooped-up playing online, it was so exciting to play poker in the real world again. Or so I thought. I forgot what it was like to have a table full of eyeballs staring at you, especially being the only girl at the table. Then imagine completely fumbling over your chip stack…can you say awkward??

I had to completely reorient myself from interacting with a computer screen to interacting with other people.

At first, it was tough. To this day, I still have my slip-ups. But I have learned a few key strategies for keeping my cool which have really helped my confidence — and game.

How Not to Be Awkward at a Poker Table:

#1 – Wear Sunglasses

When I interviewed former F.B.I. secret service agent and body language expert Joe Navarro for my book A Girl’s Guide to Poker, I asked him all about the shades. He said they could be beneficial — not for the reason that you think. Sunglasses don’t do a great job protecting yourself from giving off tells; most people send signals with their mouths, posture, timing, etc. Even feet jitters can be read correctly by expert poker players. So sunglasses don’t provide full coverage. But here’s what they do conceal: your own eye movements. Basically, people cannot see where you’re looking, which gives you the freedom to stare, assess, and decipher more comfortably. Most of us feel strange glaring straight into somebody’s eyeballs. However, it can lead to valuable information and can be worth doing behind a pair of sunglasses.

Note: Sunglasses can give you a more intimidating persona. Do not wear them if you don’t want people to view you seriously because they can backfire.

#2 Dress for the Occasion

My favorite hoodie is an oversized sweatshirt that reads “UCLA” from the University of California, Los Angeles, where my mom volunteers and is an alum. The problem with wearing it at a poker table is that people always excitedly ask if that’s where I went to school and are disappointed when it turns into a conversation about my mom in university hospitals. A similar mishap happened when I once wore a shirt without knowing the sports team it advertised. People spend hours sitting next to you at poker tables, so anything you wear that isn’t basic will likely attract attention and prompt conversation. Make sure it’s something you’re interested in talking about and fielding questions.

Pro tip: Wearing poker-themed clothing can seem particularly fun. And it is. What better place to wear spade-shaped earrings than a casino? But people will also likely assume you play a lot of cards if you do and judge your playstyle accordingly. I wouldn’t advertise tons of card-playing experiences unless you want to invite attention.

#3 Know your Lines

I’m a big fan of being friendly and chit-chatting at the poker table – unless I’m in a hand. Some players swear they can talk and play at the same time. Most people can’t. At least not in a balanced way where they don’t give off plenty of tells. Whenever I decide to play a hand – whether it’s a pair of fives or a pair of kings – I kindly tell whoever I’m in a conversation with, “I don’t talk during hands.” I’ve never had any trouble after saying this, and it’s always been respected. But you need to plan on saying that going in because otherwise, you will most likely be caught in the middle of someone’s story and don’t know how to cut them off when you flop two-pair politely. My advice? Know your line ahead of time, so you don’t have to think of it at the time.

Another canned saying? Whenever someone asks to see my hand, I always say, “You have to pay to see it.” It’s cute. It’s cheesy. Most importantly, it’s consistent. There are so many times when I used to get caught on the spot after running a big bluff and not knowing how to respond if they asked to see my cards. Having my answer pre-programmed in advance saved a lot of brainpower and awkward interactions where I might’ve otherwise offended people by not telling them my hand.

#4 – You Don’t Have to be a Robot

Whenever I teach my classes for the women’s empowerment organization Poker Power, inevitably, someone always freaks out, “I don’t have a poker face!” That’s OK! You don’t need one. There are plenty of famous, successful professional poker players known for being animated and cordial at the table (Gus Hansen and Daniel Negreanu come to mind). You don’t have to turn stone-faced and stiff if it’s not your personality. Really. The key is simply being consistent. Are you a Chatty Cathy? That’s fine as long as you’re balanced about it — meaning talking both when you have a good hand and when you don’t. Or always smile. Anything goes as long as you keep the same demeanor.

Also, remember that most people playing in beginning to midstakes are not looking for tells. You could be a flashing neon sign with dead giveaways, and they probably will not know how to pick up on it or interpret it. Don’t stress.

#5 Do Your Homework

We feel most like we don’t belong at a poker table when we second-guess ourselves. Insecurity leads to awkwardness. The solution? Study up! The more confident you are in your decisions by researching the game, the more confident you will feel socially.

If you can assure yourself by knowing you made the right move, then it doesn’t matter what other people think. Knowledge is power.

#6 Bonus tip:

Breathe. It helps.

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