Recently I sat with a few poker players who had come up to me to say hello. While there I took the opportunity to validate something I suspected. I asked, “How many of you have ever heard of ventilators?” There were some chuckles; one guy asked if that was anything like a little battery-powered fan with a squirt bottle. Another said he thought I had mentioned it somewhere but wasn’t sure. It was confirmed: Most people really don’t know about ventilators and that’s almost forgivable except for poker players and law enforcement officers.
Humans are interesting, so interesting that thousands of books have been written about human behavior, cataloging and explaining the things we do. One area rarely written about is how humans relieve social anxiety or situational stress by the use of ventilators.
Even the great zoologist and anthropologist Desmond Morris spends little time exposing this feature that we exercise with greater variety than any primate. I have talked to professional poker players about ventilators and they never mention it except, of course, once I point it out and then they remember, “Oh yeah, of course, so and so does it.”
Before I list the ventilators let me first say I do recognize that we ventilate ourselves all the time if the temperature becomes significantly warm. However, the presence of others in close proximity can cause us to ventilate ourselves also, as can a difficult college test or an interviewer’s piercing questions. In these cases, you may find yourself ventilating your shirt by pulling or tugging at it away from your body. We do this to relieve physical as well as psychological discomfort.
About 35 years ago when I first got into law enforcement, I began to observe that suspects often ventilated themselves while the innocent did not. This served me well, not in detecting deception, but rather, in seeing which questions caused the suspects discomfort such, “Where were you last night?” I used it to gauge comfort and discomfort; the same as in poker, because ventilators suggest there are issues (e.g., hot room, someone sitting too close, don’t like what you just said, don’t like my hole card or I am bluffing).
What can cause psychological discomfort at the table? The same things as in life: insecurity, doubt, fear, apprehension, a sense of weakness, vulnerability or anxiety; all the things we associate in poker with being weak or marginal or with reluctantly being forced to act.
Because ventilators are associated with physical or psychological discomfort they can be reliable for the careful observer. Here are five ventilators you can look for while playing. When you see these ventilating behaviors, put them in context. By that I mean do they show up when someone is forced to call or raise or when they have gone all-in or perhaps while deliberating? Chances are something is bothering the individual and with all of the other information you have gathered at the table, this may give you a significant advantage in discerning what the other player is thinking, feeling or fearing as they contemplate their next move or after going all-in.
• Look for players to run their fingers through their hair multiple times in quick succession. Women incidentally are less likely to do so.
• Players who wear hats will lift their hat completely off the head or angle it upward in such a way as to let in air.
• Female players ventilate slightly differently than men when it comes to hair. If they have hair down to the neck they will lift up the hair at the nape of the neck brushing the hair upward, an effort to allow air to cool the neck.
• Look for players who pull on their shirt buttons or the front of their shirt by lifting it away from the skin. This may be repeated by both hands lifting up the shirt simultaneously just above the pectorals. The lifting of the shirt allows air to flow beneath the fabric cooling the skin.
• Pulling at the collar is also often missed. This tell (behavior) was popularized by comedian Rodney Dangerfield, who would immediately tug at his neck collar when he was verbally getting into trouble.
These then are just a few ventilators you can look for at the poker table. Because ventilators are associated with physical or psychological discomfort, in context, they should give you a good read at to whether a player is marginal, weak or threatened. For additional poker tells or to learn more about ventilators please check out my book 200 Poker Tells.
— Joe Navarro is a former FBI agent specializing in human behavior. He is the author of the international bestseller What Every Body is Saying and 200 Poker Tells. Follow him on Twitter at @navarrotells. Additional information available at joenavarro.net.