The Nonverbal Poker Tells of Our Age

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I’m often asked if culture makes a big difference in nonverbals. It’s a valid question and asked so often that it serves as a reminder that even an amateur can recognize that where we grow up will influence some of the things our body says. The question I’ve never been asked after years of giving seminars is, “How does age affect the nonverbals or poker tells?” So let me jump in with some observations and hopefully some answers.

I’m no authority on aging, but five years into an AARP membership I can now see how I’m changing and how time has affected some of my nonverbal behavior. Let me start with some of the behaviors we see with aging, because here in Florida, with its large retired population who have taken up poker, understanding the changes that are occurring could be significant.

Those of you who are familiar with my book Read ’em and Reap are aware I don’t get into culturally derived behaviors. The book is dedicated to the study of those behaviors that are most accurate because they’re controlled by the emotional part of the brain known as the limbic system, and are thus universal. The behaviors that stem from that region of the brain can’t be faked readily; they truly reflect what we feel, think and intend. Because this part of the brain reacts to the world in real time, we also call it the honest brain. This part of the brain doesn’t know how to say, “Tell them we are not home.” It merely reacts to how we feel, and in poker that’s huge because we’re comfortable or uncomfortable with our hole cards or community cards, accurately reflecting whether we’re strong, marginal or weak.

So the question is: “Do limbic reactions change with age or over time?” Yes, however, it requires a lot of explanation, which for the serious poker player may make a difference.
As we get older we have less testosterone. This affects our body chemistry, including the makeup of our muscles and our reaction times. This is why athletes take artificial hormones. What to young people may look like an awfully long time to change lanes or look at hole cards, is merely a reflection of the slowing down of our bodies. But just because we slow down and no longer have “cat-like reflexes” doesn’t mean our bodies don’t show emotions. The reactions are there and so are the emotions; they just take time. For example, people often touch their necks when they’re troubled by something (including having a rag hand). A young person may reach for that neck instantly where someone later in life may take their time achieving that same behavior. In both instances the brain is saying, “Please do something to pacify my concern (rub the neck, ventilate the collar, massage the back of the head, etc.),” but with the elderly, it just may take longer to manifest.

The elderly may show more shaking or quivering of the hands that’s not associated with how they feel about their cards but rather is a reflection of their health. Low blood sugar, stress, fatigue, alcohol, drugs, coffee or any number of neurological disorders can cause the hands or the body to tremble or shake. This is often mistaken for excitement or anticipatory exhilaration. It is not. One of the easiest ways to assess for this is to determine when this behavior is observed and in what context. If we see it constantly, most likely it’s physiological or neurological, not game-driven.

Because we lose more precise muscle movements in our hands as we age, often times mature poker players will accidentally knock over or fumble with their chips. It’s not excitement necessarily, but rather this natural progression that unfortunately afflicts many of the elderly, especially those with arthritis.

Another factor is the lines of our faces. The older we are the more lines we have on our faces. These lines develop as a result of muscle activity underneath our skin so that over time, when we smile, we have lines on the corners of our mouth that frame a smile. We also have lines on our forehead from frowning and so forth.

As we grow older we’re at a distinct disadvantage in that these lines are not only deeply imbeded, they reflect our true emotions (furrowing of forehead, knitting eyebrows, frowning, etc.). These are extremely accurate in revealing what we feel or think and are easily read.

One of the recommendations I make to older poker players and even young ones is wear a visor or a hat to mask those very expressive lines. You can’t monitor them or control them so you may as well hide them.

Unfortunately (or fortunately, depending on your point of view), young people who avoid stress and sun can avoid having these lines, including some well into their 30s. I also know women in poker who have gotten Botox injections so the lines disappear, thus reducing their exposure to being read and obviously lowering their apparent age. And, I know of at least one pro male poker player who confided in me he does this. I suspect there are more, or will be.

Daniel Negreanu, whom I have known for the past five years and is a terrific poker player, often reveals the strength of his hand by the lines and contortions of his face. So young players aren’t exempt from this tell. On my face you can fairly much read how I feel as the lines of my face, perhaps marked by life’s experiences, tell quite a bit about me.

So what about young people? Well they play a lot of poker online. They’ve played thousands of hands so they’re really good with betting patterns and statistics. But I find few are really good at reading people, lacking interpersonal skills. Young players who attend our WSOP Academy camps find they need extra hands-on help in assessing tells. The good thing is their minds are more flexible and can be more receptive to new information.

One other thing that often happens with new poker players, usually youngsters, is called “irrational exuberance.” This is the phenomenon that often irritates Phil Hellmuth. A novice player with a marginal hand becomes giddy and excited over a “rag” hand causing pros to fold when they had stronger hands. I know this can happen to old timers, too, as sometimes I get excited for a pair of anything, including deuces.

So, next time you’re at the table be sure to look around. Whatever your age, you’ll notice behaviors that will inform and instruct. The tells are there, somewhere on the body, young and old, men and women, for there is such a thing as a poker face, but there is no such thing as a poker body.

— Joe Navarro is the author of Read ’em and Reap and What Every Body Is Saying. He lives in the Tampa area and is a frequent guest on Ante Up’s poker show at anteupmagazine.com.