LOOKING DOWN AFTER BETTING

Some players will glance downward for a short period during, or right after, making a bluff.

Humans have an instinct to lower their heads and look at the ground when lying. You’ve probably experienced this instinct when you’ve lied to others, or else witnessed other people doing it. It seems to be a deeply ingrained instinct. It shows up a lot when players are bluffing.

This tell typically only occurs during or right after a bet, not before. The typical tell is that while the player extends his arm for a bet, his head and his line of sight dip down in the direction of his chips. This downward glance will usually only be for a second or two, although it may be longer. Sometimes, it can be more subtle, with only the player’s eyes, and not his head, dipping downward as he bets. A player who is value-betting a strong hand is more likely to keep his head and eyes facing straight ahead when betting.

I think the real value of this tell comes from the fact that this behavior is not normally associated with weakness in most people’s minds. It’s largely off-the-radar, so players aren’t going out of their way to hide this behavior.

I usually look for this tell, the stillness tell, and the eye-contact avoidance tell in combination. A player bets the river, immediately glances down for a second while betting, then looks back up to stare at the flop. He is still, just looking at the flop, not moving. I wait a few seconds, watching him, and he does not even glance towards me. For your average player, the presence of these three tells together will mean a bluff a large percentage of the time.

This is also a useful tell in limit poker. In some limit games, this will be the only tell of much use if the players are fairly experienced. I often use this tell to make up my mind in spots that seem pretty break-even. For example, even if I think my read of this tell is only about 65% reliable, if I see it, I’ll be more likely to try a bluff-raise on the turn or a light call on the river.


The woman on the left is betting. As she puts out her bet, her head dips down momentarily, as if she was looking down at her lap. This will be a quick movement; it won’t last long. For many players, this can be an indication of a bluff.

FAKE SMILES

A player with a fake smile is more likely to have a vulnerable hand than a strong hand. Smiles are one way players can give away their emotions. Paul Ekman, in his book Telling Lies,

says:

Smiles are probably the most underrated facial expressions, much more complicated than most people realize. There are dozens of smiles, each differing in appearance and in the message expressed.

He goes on to describe a dozen different smiles, and the nuances of their meanings.

He also says:

Any emotion can be falsified to help conceal any other emotion. The smile is the mask most frequently employed…It is selected often because some variation on happiness is the message required to pull off many deceits…Still another reason for the popularity of the smile as a mask is that it is the easiest of the facial expressions of emotions to make voluntarily.

These are good reasons why you see so many people using smiles in so many different ways at the poker table. Some of it is acting. Some of it is a result of anxiety. Some of it is a result of a release of anxiety.

For some people, spotting fake smiles is easy. For some people it’s surprisingly difficult. Some psychologists think that most people’s inability to differentiate a fake smile from a real one serves an evolutionary purpose. Being effectively “fooled” by fake smiles means less confrontation in our social interactions. If people were able to easily tell if others were humoring them or only being nice for selfish reasons, relationships and society would be weakened.

I’m not going to pretend to be an expert on recognizing real and fake smiles, and even if I was, I couldn’t teach that in a book. But I will give you a quick rundown on the basics of how I use smiles at the poker table.

A real smile involves not just the mouth and cheeks but the eyes as well. Ekman describes how a genuinely felt smile is displayed in this way: “[the zygomatic major] muscle also stretches the lips, pulls the cheeks upward, bags the skin below the eyes, and produces crow’s-feet wrinkles beyond the eye corners.” A real smile uses an entirely different set of muscles than a fake smile. A fake smile uses only the consciously-controlled muscles around the mouth; the eyes are not wrinkled, and the cheeks are not pulled upward to the same extent.

Another big difference is that a fake smile is more likely to be asymmetrical. This means that if the smile is lopsided (for example, the left side of the smile is higher than the right side), it is more likely to be fake.

You typically won’t see someone expressing much emotion, real or fake, when involved in a significant pot, but sometimes you will. Maybe a player can’t restrain his glee or relief upon catching a big card and starts to joke around with a big smile on his face. Maybe a player with a good hand hears something funny and doesn’t bother to restrain his genuine relaxed laughter. Maybe a player with a weak hand hears something funny and tries to respond in a natural way, by laughing or smiling —but can’t quite pull it off.

If you want to learn more about this, I’d recommend reading Ekman’s books (Telling Lies would be a good start, because it’s also about recognizing liars), or doing an Internet search for ‘Ekman real fake smiles’, and finding some sites and documents that way. Ekman also has his own online facial expression recognition test that you can purchase. Or do some real-life research; for example, if you work in an office setting, study the smiles at your next work meeting—most of them will be fake.

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