I have a belief that some people might find extreme. I believe that everything a poker player does at the poker table means something. Every movement, every spoken word, every little twitch: it all means something. I think that it’s theoretically possible, with infinite knowledge, to interpret every action at a poker table to discover exactly what a player is holding at any given time.
And I mean this fully. I believe you could theoretically differentiate between very similar hands; for instance, whether a pre-flop raiser in Hold’em was holding a pair of twos or a pair of threes. Assuming infinite knowledge of all information about the physical attributes of a player (heart rate, muscle tension, moisture of skin, tone of voice, etc.), and assuming infinite knowledge of that player’s hand history—then theoretically there would be enough evidence to determine what a player is holding at any given time.
This is all only theoretical. Obviously, infinite knowledge is nowhere near possible in an actual poker game. You will never be able to observe all of the information available, let alone remember it. Our powers of observation are very limited. But we should strive to absorb as much important information as we can.
The science of physical tells
Dr. Paul Ekman is a scientist who has had a long career studying the meaning behind human facial expressions. His books are well-respected classics in the field, and he consults for industries as diverse as criminal investigation work and 3D character facial animations. (I recommend all of Ekman’s books. Even if most of the information doesn’t directly apply to poker, it will improve your understanding of human behavior.)
He and Dr. Maureen O’Sullivan conducted a survey of people that took place over many years. This survey was dedicated to finding what they termed “truth wizards”, participants who were exceptionally gifted at spotting deception in the mannerisms and speech patterns of other people. After testing 20,000 people, Ekman and O’Sullivan had identified only fifty people as truth wizards— that’s 0.25%, or one-quarter of one percent of the population.
The average person could do no better than 50%, which is no better than random. The truth wizards could identify deception with an accuracy of 80% or higher in the challenges the experimenters gave them. The wizards came from a wide range of backgrounds; most worked in jobs not related at all to identifying deception (although Secret Service agents did show the most aptitude.)
Dr. O’Sullivan said the wizards “are extraordinarily attuned to detecting the nuances of facial expressions, body language, and ways of talking and thinking.”
She also said, “Some of them use the demeanor and vocal clues…but others base their judgments on behaviors and word usage that no researcher has previously identified.”
If these studies are accurate, it means there are some people who are naturally skilled at reading other people. I believe such people exist; luckily for most poker players, there are very few of them around. Stu Ungar was a player who I think fell into this rare category.
Also, for the record, I don’t believe I am one of these naturally-skilled people. But I do believe, as Ekman does, that such information can be studied, acquired, and taught.
Side Note: Dr. Paul Ekman
One of Paul Ekman’s discoveries (also credited simultaneously to other scientists doing similar work) was that the major facial expressions—sadness, fear, surprise, happiness—were universal, across continents and cultures. Even though Charles Darwin, in his 1872 book “The Expression of the Emotions in Man and Animals”, had already stated that he believed the major emotional expressions were universal, the idea had never been accepted in the mainstream. Most people had been operating under the assumption that facial expressions were culturally learned. The fact that the major facial expressions, and the underlying physiology, are universal is great news for students of body language and poker tells. The same basic tells will apply across different races and cultures.
Side Note: Stu Ungar
Stu Ungar was an expert of both gin rummy and poker. He was so good at gin rummy, and made so much money at it, that virtually no one would play him. Then he turned to poker and proceeded to dominate that game, too. In his short time playing competitive poker (he had serious drug problems for a large part of his career), he won three World Series of Poker championships.
While he was said to have a photographic memory and a natural mathematical understanding of cards, the skill that seemed to set him apart at poker was his ability to read people very, very well. Many other professional card players testified to his seemingly clairvoyant way of knowing what other players had. It’s my opinion that Ungar was one of the very few super-gifted readers of people to focus all of their skills on card games.
If you want to become a great reader of poker tells, it’s necessary to start with the belief that it’s possible to become a great reader of poker tells. If you’re someone who thinks that tells are of no real importance, then it’s almost impossible that you’ll ever be a great reader of poker tells, simply because your mind isn’t going to be open to the many ways that you might improve.
I’ve been playing and studying poker seriously for eight years now, and I’m constantly amazed at how many factors can influence even the simplest poker decisions. I think the main weakness of most players is in thinking that they have already accumulated most of the knowledge needed to become a great player. This mindset leads to a know-it-all mentality and an inability to absorb new kinds of information that might take their game to a higher level.
When it comes to poker tells, many players, even many experienced ones, tend to downplay the importance of tell-reading ability. This may be because they have become winners without relying on poker tells, and they think tell-reading is a soft skill that either doesn’t contribute to a win-rate at all or else contributes very slightly.
Many players also underestimate how much information they’re giving away with their own verbal statements and body language. Because they can’t read tells or don’t think tells are important, they don’t bother to work on eliminating their own tells.
If you want to become the best poker player you can be, it’s good to acknowledge the possibility that you may be at the beginning stages of your education. Starting with the belief that there is greatness possible in reading people opens your mind to the almost infinite amount of information that is present in a live game.