There are two broad categories of tells: body language and betting patterns. Most players would be better off reading betting patterns than trying to understand body language. Tells can help you make a good decision.
Reading body language is not always reliable. You’d never think you could master math by casually reading one article or even one book, but many seem to think they can with tells.
The Transportation Security Administration, the folks at the airport who watch for terrorists, has spent a billion dollars training thousands of “behavior detection officers.”
They want TSA agents to be able to read body language to determine who may be a threat. It turns out the TSA still hasn’t caught a terrorist by reading body language. Yet poker players who read one article think they can read tells like a pro.
It takes time and you need to read Joe Navarro’s articles in this magazine and his books over and over again, then you must apply what you learn and even then it still isn’t 100 percent.
A New York Times article by John Tierney said a research study by Charles F. Bond Jr. and Bella M. DePaulo, who analyzed more than 200 studies, found people identified liars by body language only 47 percent of the time, which is less accurate than a coin flip.
Some researchers have said the best clue to deceit is verbal, but most researchers feel to read a tell accurately, you have to know the person.
Most poker players should guard against overestimating how much mind-reading they can do by looking at body language and staking their bets on that information.
There’s a whole world of literature on how to read body language, such as Navarro’s body of work. There is extensive research and even institutes that deal with this regularly.
If you’re seriously interested in studying body language, you might want to check our neurolingustic programming as a start.
That being said, there are still times when body language is a little easier to read, and if you think you have a good feel for it, you can incorporate tells into your decision-making.
Betting patterns also are considered tells and I think if you can learn to read them you would be better off. But the caveat here is you have to watch the game even when you’re not in the hand. No books, iPads, phones, texts, etc. You have to keep your head in the game.
— Dr. Stephen Bloomfield is a licensed psychologist and avid poker player. Email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.