THE LITTLE SMILE

Some players tend to display a small, arrogant smile during or after bluffing.

Have you ever made a big bluff and started to feel a silly little smile creep onto your face? Nothing overly dramatic or obvious, but just a small smile slightly lifting the edges of your mouth, almost as if to say to the world, “I’m not worried.” But you are worried. You think you’re getting called on this one. And the little smile makes you feel exposed. You want to get rid of it, but it’s too late; the smile is there and it’s hard to get rid of without looking awkward.

I’ve had that experience. And I know other players have. I’ve witnessed this behavior at a wide range of stakes.

The little smile is usually not acting; it is usually an instinctual, nervous reaction that arises from an aggressor who is aware he is in a position of weakness. The little smile leaks out as an unconscious attempt at communicating relaxation and confidence.

Sometimes the little smile is very temporary. A player may have this smile for a few seconds and then become aware he is doing it and quickly force it away.

Also, the little arrogant smile is not to be confused with the genuine smile, which will be bigger and more real. (Read more about differences between real and fake smiles in the ‘Fake smiles’ chapter.) The most important difference is that there is nothing that seems to cause the little arrogant smile, whereas there will usually be something that causes a genuine smile, like someone’s comment or a funny occurrence. The little arrogant smile comes unbidden out of an instinctual reaction to being put in a position of weakness.

The little smile can be very subtle. Sometimes the difference between a person’s neutral mouth and a slight smile might be only the difference of a couple millimeters at the edges of their lips. The more you practice studying people’s faces, the more you will be able to spot slight changes in expressions.


The player on the right has just bet. She has a tiny smile on her face. For many players, this small smile after betting will indicate a bluff.

CONCILIATORY ACTIONS

Players who are bluffing will often act or talk in ways that seem aimed to appease their opponents.

By ‘conciliatory actions’, I mean body language or speech aimed at defusing a potential conflict or hostile interaction. A bluffer just wants his opponent to go away. He wants his bet to speak for itself and he doesn’t want to be drawn into a conversation or even a slight body language interaction that might rouse someone’s attention or ire. He will avoid any behavior or verbal statements that could potentially “offend” his opponents.

Imagine your typical bluffer as a scared dog who knows he has to stand up for himself when the big alpha dog comes near him. The scared dog must stand his ground and act a bit confident, because giving away weakness may cause an attack. But he also must lower his head, avoid looking the alpha dog in the eyes, and be cautious in his movements, because he doesn’t want to provoke aggression. He just needs enough confidence to survive the encounter; he doesn’t want to start an actual fight.

Staying silent, staying still, and avoiding eye contact (the first three tells in this chapter) are all examples of conciliatory behavior tells. With these behaviors, a player reduces the chance that he might offend his opponents.

Conciliatory smiles

A smile can be a type of conciliatory action. A bluffer might put on a smile as a nervous reaction to being put on the spot by his opponent’s question or stare. It is an attempt at disarming the aggressor, his opponent. It’s not a genuine smile; you could describe this smile as mainly friendly and harmless. It may be lop-sided, which is another indication of a smile that isn’t genuinely felt. It’s what some people might call a “shit-eating grin”. It’s a smile performed out of nervousness and out of an attempt to not arouse the other person’s ire.

Conciliatory smiles can often be seen when someone asks a direct question of a player and the player isn’t comfortable answering it. An example of this might be someone asking the player, “Do you have an overpair?” and the player looks at a loss for how to answer and instead gives a goofy, friendly smile and some vague response like, “I don’t know.”

It might also be seen when you stare at the bettor in an attempt to engage him, and he briefly looks at you and then quickly breaks eye contact while smiling nervously.

Responses to anger or aggression

You won’t often hear a bluffer make aggressive or hostile statements, even if another player abuses him verbally or looks at him in a hostile manner. He’s likely to absorb any abuse and try to look neutral and maybe even friendly.

You should start noticing the behavior of a bettor who, because he has a good hand, isn’t afraid of interacting with his opponents. Then compare that to the behavior of that player when he doesn’t want to attract so much attention to himself.

Keep in mind that conciliatory smiles and actions will not be overly dramatic—the point of them is just to avoid confrontation. The most noteworthy thing about conciliatory actions will be the absence of anything resembling confrontation.

Eliciting conciliatory tells

Some players will try to actively gather this information. This is discussed in more detail in the Deception and Manipulation chapter. When you’re trying to elicit this type of tell, you try to engage your opponent in some way. You stare at him, you ask him questions. You might turn toward him to see how he reacts. You might even try borderline hostile statements, all just to get a reaction.

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