If I had one body part to look at for poker tells, it most likely would not be what you think. No, it’s not the face, though that’s where most players will look. Yes, the feet are the most accurate part of the body and reveal true emotions, but that’s still not it. Men and women have two of these so that means it’s not the neck, though that is an important area for tells (ventilating, touching, covering of the dimple when we’re weak or worried). Any idea yet? Just look at your hands and focus really well on those thumbs.
Yes the thumbs. Why? Because they reveal a lot of information. In some ways our thumbs are like telegraph machines for the brain. When we are content, the thumbs move away from the index fingers. When we’re scared, they tend to hug the index finger and remain there, close by, analogous to how dogs tuck in their ears when they are scared or frightened.
We don’t want an appendage sticking out in case we have to run or fight. And so it is in poker, what the face conceals, those thumbs reveal.
But that’s not all; it gets better. Some players hide their thumb when they are marginal or weak by tucking them into their pocket or inside the waistband of their pants. It means the same thing and it certainly does not communicate confidence. Others, when they realize just how bad their hand really is or when they are bluffing, will put on a really good facial appearance, but when you look at their thumbs, they have literally tucked them in under their fingers. Thumb hiding, which I first observed as an FBI agent doing interviews, says so much: at best it’s lack of confidence and at worse it says I fear detection. Where do we see that? When players are bluffing or about to loose their bankroll.
If that were it, that would be enough, but there’s more. As a player gains confidence based on the community cards, you may see that thumb distancing itself from the index finger and becoming territorial. In positive anticipation, you may even see the thumb tapping (bouncing up and down), much as we do when we strum our fingers when we want things to move along because we are excited for something exciting to happen. That tapping thumb is like happy feet, and it tells us the individual is excited.
Is that it? No, there’s one more. Keep your eyes on the thumbs when the fingers are interlaced and sitting on top of the hole cards. Watch them carefully and notice how they react to the unfolding scene at the center of the table as the community cards are unveiled and how they respond to calls and raises. If you see those thumbs suddenly pop up on Fifth Street, fold; someone just got dealt a monster hand and those thumbs are shouting as much.
— Joe Navarro is a former FBI Special Agent and is the author of What Every BODY is Saying and 200 Poker Tells. He writes about poker tells exclusively for Ante Up Magazine.