All of our sentiments are reflected in our bodies … and the mouth is no exception. When we’re strong, confident and relaxed, it shows in our lips as well as when we’re weak or nervous. Good reason to keep an eye on your opponent’s mouth … and to cover yours.
The mouth is the primary means by which we pacify stress from the moment we’re born. We suck our thumbs, touch our lips, rub them, pull on them, massage them or lick them. We do these things in real time to calm ourselves. As adults we can’t really suck our thumbs, so we do other things with our lips and mouth that serve to soothe us. From biting pen caps, chewing our nails, smoking, biting straws or sipping on drinks, exhaling through pursed lips or excessive eating, our brain is soothed by these activities.
FULL VS. DISAPPEARING LIPS: When we’re confident and content, our lips are full. They are puffy, normal and in full view, not concealed, tight or compressed against each other. When we’re lacking confidence or are nervous, however, our lips tend to disappear.
When stressed, such as viewing a rag hand or diminishing chip stack, we show discomfort through our lips as they tighten, get smaller or become compressed. When a player looks at his hole cards his lips may be full upon seeing a pair of sixes, but then his lips disappear when three overcards come on the flop. This player has gone from comfort to discomfort and his lips are sharing his story. In a real world example, watch people when they receive bad news.
COMPRESSED LIPS: When we press our lips together, it’s as if our brain is telling us to shut down and not allow anything into our body because at this moment we’re consumed with serious issues. Lip compression is a clear sign a person is troubled and something is wrong. It rarely, if ever, has a positive connotation.
LIP-PURSING: Look for individuals who purse their lips at the poker table. In the real world, this behavior usually means they disagree with what’s being said or they’re considering an alternative thought or idea. At the poker table, these same actions allow you to infer they don’t like what they’re holding or the community cards missed them by a mile.
TONGUE DISPLAYS: While keeping an eye on the mouth of opponents, note what they’re doing with their tongues. When we’re stressed, our mouths tend to dry up and, as a result, it’s normal to lick our lips to moisten them. In times of discomfort, we tend to rub our tongues back and forth across our lips, to pacify and calm ourselves. Many poker players have been caught bluffing when the lips quivered when going all-in.
The mouth can betray you even if you don’t notice what you’re doing; it’s just one more reason to be aware of what our mouths reveal without speaking.
— Joe Navarro is a former FBI agent and author of What Every Body is Saying and 200 Poker Tells. Follow him on Twitter at @navarrotells.