Readers are invited to send Joe their questions regarding nonverbal tells to
email@example.com and we’ll print the best letters.
My dad always touches his mustache when he bets. I’ve intentionally called him down to see what kind of hand he has when he does this, but sometimes he’s bluffing and sometimes he’s got a hand. At what point do you suggest someone move on and realize what they think might be a physical tell actually is just a nervous or subconscious reaction? — William in Jacksonville
William, your dad pacifies himself (self soothes) by touching his mustache. Some people do it by stroking their beard, women will play with their hair. It’s a repetitive behavior that satisfies the brain’s need to be soothed, something we do all day long in various ways. Any repetitive behavior you see at the table, you have to ignore, just as with people who shake their leg or are always biting their lip. Great question!
One of the biggest problems I have is once I get a good read on people at my table (from betting patterns and body language) I seem to get lazy. I have trouble staying as focused as I was when I first sat at the table. Sometimes I’ve gotten so lazy that it’s hard to get back to looking for body language and tells. Usually I suffer a loss before I can get my head back into the game. When I’m in a tournament and I change tables I have no problems because I don’t know anyone and have to figure them all out. — detourglr via Ante Up Forum
Detourglr, good question: Staying focused is hard, not just for you. It’s often difficult for FBI agents. One thing that happens is we work so hard to get small meanings from looking at so much information that we exhaust our ability to observe. I remember there were times when I would do an interview and at the end I would be soaked with sweat from the work my brain was doing. My suggestion is this: Take a break, walk around and revitalize yourself. Come back to the table and work on deciphering another player or another part of his body. I break it up into forehead, eyes, mouth, face muscles, neck, shoulders, arms, hands, fingers, thumbs, torso and legs. I then challenge myself to find something new from one of these areas.
At my card room they allow players to expose hole cards when heads-up. There have been situations when a player goes all-in leaving their opponent to ponder a call. I’ve been in this position and, on occasion, have tabled my hole cards trying to solicit a reaction from my opponent. I’ve gotten these responses:
• Nothing. Player doesn’t move or answer my questions and stares straight at the board.
• Player immediately asks if I’m folding (or calling). I tell them I’m considering it and they clam up.
• They start to talk a bit, usually showing concern for my difficult position.
If I’m all-in and my opponent tables his cards, what can I do to make sure I don’t give anything away? — alpha1243 via Ante Up Forum
That is a tough question, but a good one: Nonverbals have to be placed in context, for the moment, and who is affecting that moment. You are at the table so your nonverbals are going to influence the behaviors of others. If you are strong and look powerful without going over the top (confident) that will affect how others perceive you. Try doing this, not making eye contact, staring straight at the felt, and ignoring the world around you with your elbows on the table and your hands up to your chin. This is a powerful display. Even a small shift in your eyes can make others think you are weak. Rather than deal with words, deal with them through nonverbals, strong and firm.
— Ex-FBI counterintelligence officer Joe Navarro of Tampa specialized in behavioral analysis for 25 years. He’s star lecturer with the WSOP Academy and has penned Read ’Em and Reap, which you can find on Amazon.com. Email Joe at
firstname.lastname@example.org and he’ll answer your questions.