I’ve been a psychologist for a long time and my field of expertise is forensic psychology, where I deal with a lot of things that have some relevance to poker; often I try to read people.
When reading someone, it’s important to know if someone is presenting truthfully. Often someone I evaluate is motivated to present as overly favorable, like trying to show they’re a great parent in a custody evaluation. Sometimes a criminal defendant might want to show they have more problems and exaggerate or malinger; this is done to get leniency from the court. We also deal with false confessions.
Body language and the study of neurolinguist programming help with reading people, and understanding if they’re presenting truthfully.
So how does this apply to poker? The two most obvious cases are bluffing and tells.
How do we know when someone is bluffing? I will tell you; it’s hard. The most effective way is to know their patterns and read or listen to their story to see if makes sense in the hand and for them. It’s not simple.
Tells are about interpreting an opponent’s body language, not just observing but really interpreting. We see someone nervous: do they have a big hand or are they bluffing? We see hands shaking; if the bet is big for them, do they have a monster hand or are they drawing and a bit scared? Are they trying something new? Are they making a move?
There is some research that says the best-trained people can tell if someone is lying by looking at them about 54 percent of the time. That’s only 4 percent better than chance or guessing.
Relying on tells is a sophisticated and advanced aspect of poker. There are better things on which you can spend your time. I agree with Daniel Negreanu when he questions, “What is it that separates average and good players from the great ones? Well, obviously, tell recognition would be one factor, but it’s simply not the most significant.”
He then explains other skills that are more useful, easier to learn and more profitable, including hand reading ability and using information from past hands; betting patterns, from past hands; knowing the fundamentals, the probability and the odds; and attending to your psychology.
The problem with reading tells is behavior may be observable, but without knowing the person, you can’t know what the behavior means.
A nationally known psychologist expert was invited to my program when I was in graduate school. One of his areas of expertise was body language.
At dinner with a small group of students and faculty I had a glass of wine or two and questioned his ability to “read” body language of someone he didn’t know.
He looked at me and said: “It’s easy, once you know what to look for. For example, every time a middle-aged man rubs his nose with his right hand, he is about to tell a lie.” The expert took a drink of wine, waiting us to digest his wisdom and then added, “Unless his nose itches.”
Keep your head in the game and remember: Don’t get too confident about reading people you don’t know.
— Dr. Stephen Bloomfield is a licensed psychologist and avid poker player. His column will give insight on how to achieve peak performance using poker psychology. Email questions for him at firstname.lastname@example.org.