Fatigue will betray you at the poker table

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Most people aren’t aware of their tells, especially those affected by alcohol, fatigue and stress, plus these factors hurt their ability to detect the nonverbals of others.

I am a commercially licensed pilot, not to mention an observer of human behavior, so I know how poorly people perform when they’re tired, mentally fatigued or under the influence. Motor skills suffer, becoming far slower and less reliable. This comes from 80-plus years studying pilots in the military, NASA and the FAA.

A serious poker player should keep his body and mind healthy. I’ve talked with Phil Hellmuth countless times and have heard his lectures. He talks about how important mind and body are to winning, and not in a “New Age” sort of way, but rather, in a practical and scientific way.

Fatigue (as well as alcohol/drugs) affects our central nervous system. It makes your immune system weaker (and can affect a host of other vital systems and emotions); it hinders blood-sugar levels, throws hormones out of whack and, most important, it affects your brain. Some players will be affected more than others and in different ways. So, if you’re going to play poker professionally, treat your body and mind as an enterprise. Exercise and eat well. Train yourself to endure long hours of play where you will make thousands of decisions and observations. Train your body to deal with distractions (noise, emotions, fears, heath-related issues, etc.). It’s not easy to concentrate when your child is about to have surgery, or your mortgage is due and the only money you have is on the table. When concentration is affected you become a weak observer.

Most players, once they settle down at a big event, begin to control their tells. That’s great in the beginning, but we have limits. Your “poker face” is controlled by a “non-poker brain” that, when tired, says I don’t care what you look like any more. The non-poker brain also will look at others less. It’ll pick up fewer tells on others and could misinterpret observations. Don’t let your non-poker brain leave you vulnerable.

Since fatigue affects your mental outlook, you may think you’re fine physically, but you’re not. Your face becomes easier to read and prone to leak information, especially around the eyes and mouth. Your shoulders and neck will reveal more information. I talk at length about this in Read ’em and Reap. These areas become more visible because the brain doesn’t have the energy to maintain a poker face.

Holding a poker face when you have a monster hand requires energy, which isn’t available because of fatigue or excessive drinking. Leakage occurs in what are called micro gestures. This occurs, according to Dr. Paul Ekman, because our brain can’t contain our sentiments, especially when we are weak or tired.

Here’s what you can do:
• Stay strong.
• Stay healthy.
• Eat normally so blood sugar is stable.
• Get up from the table often and walk around. We are designed for walking, not sitting.Your calf is called a “second heart” by physiologists. By walking around you release pooled blood from your lower legs and it helps to get rid of lactic acid build-up, which causes the shakes after stress. Rotate your neck and shoulders, move around a little and drink plenty of water. Lots of water, especially out west where you need to drink 40 percent more water each day.

• Put in eye drops if you need them.
• Wash your face and hands, freshen up.
• Look at something other than poker tables. This helps “reboot” your brain, which was designed to work best when confronted with variety. Even children grow tiresome of theme parks after a day or two. Take the time to clear your mind and thoughts; it will help your poker game.
• Review notes or read a favorite poker book when you’re not in a hand to reinforce what you’re doing.

Realizing your tells will be easier to read over time and your ability to read others will become weakened the more fatigue you have so try to avoid it as best you can.

— Ex-FBI counterintelligence officer Joe Navarro of Tampa specialized in behavioral analysis for 25 years. He has penned numerous nonverbal books, including his new Kindle book called 200 Poker Tells, which you can find on Amazon.com. Email Joe at editor@anteupmagazine.com and he’ll answer your questions.