Joe Navarro answers your questions: Dec. 2008



Readers are invited to send Joe their questions regarding nonverbal tells to and we’ll print the best letters.

When sitting down at a live game, should you concentrate on the people sitting to your left since they will be in the blinds when you’re on the button, try to find the ones who are easiest to read, or try to read the players to your right since you will be out of position against them?
— nord1c

The best time to read tells are when a table is formed. A lot of nervous gestures will be manifest then because players are self-adjusting and nervous. When you join a game, tell yourself, “I have to ride this out for a few hands so that I can read the people all around me.” To do otherwise is foolish, besides you should be folding about 60 percent of the time. I tell students to not only read the person making the call but also who is affected by that. There may be three other players down the line who will be elated, dejected or frozen. One other thing: Try to learn to read everyone, break their personal code, and if there’s someone at the table you can’t read, for whatever the reason, avoid any challenges and just play the cards and the statistics, don’t try to guess their tells.

What are some books you recommend about nonverbal communication besides yours? They don’t necessarily need to be poker-focused books.
— Steve in Tampa

Steve, thank you for your question. I think poker players who are interested in becoming really good at reading tells should invest the time in reading what is out there. Two books that are useful are Demond Morris’ Peoplewatching, which is in paperback, and Peter Collett’s The Book of Tells. Morris’ book is excellent at deciphering cultural tells from emotional tells. Collett’s book is not well-known but is full of useful information. I would also consider my latest book, What Every Body is Saying, as it contains important information that never made it into Read ’em and Reap. I’m a firm believer the best way to learn is from multiple sources and this may be a first start. Good luck.

What does scratching indicate? And is the location of the scratch significant? My boss scratches at the top of his hand and forearm a lot. He seems to do this when I ask him a difficult question or when I disagree with him.
— Nathan in  Columbus, Ohio

Nathan, your question shows you’re a detailed observer. Obviously we scratch when something itches, but quite often we scratch to pacify us because we’re nervous. When stressed or nervous, our hairs stand up and there are minute muscle movements that prepare us for flight or fight. Which is why we see people often scratching their heads, literally, when trying to figure out a problem. Whether on the head or on the arm, or on the side of the face, it is all the same thing: It is a pacifier indicative of stress, doubt, insecurity and or weakness.

I’m actually reading Read ’em and Reap right now. What differences occur when a player is drunk/tired/talking to a friend? And if a person is showing their cards to a rail bird, what kind of tell can you get from that situation?
— Zorag, via

Zorag, first of all, thank you for reading the book. I hope it leads you to the final table. In the meantime, I have to say poker players should be like athletes: no drugs or alcohol while playing. Any drug or substance that alters your ability to observe or affects your central nervous system, no matter how slight should be avoided during tournament play. You may not think it affects you, but it does. As to talking and other distractions, they’re just that, a distraction. I see players playing poker while talking to the girlfriends, while watching ESPN, and listening to their iPods. Some players can pull it off in cash games, but you wont see it in major tournaments. Why? Because tells are too important. In teaching with Phil Hellmuth and Greg Raymer, they have told me nonverbals (tells) can play as much as 70 percent of their game. I hardly think it’s possible to win a tournament while distracted. So I would say, avoid the distractions.

— Former FBI counterintelligence officer Joe Navarro of Tampa specialized in behavioral analysis for 25 years. He is star lecturer with the WSOP Academy and has penned Read ’Em and Reap, which you can find on Email Joe at and he’ll answer your questions about nonverbal behavior.

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