Physical Poker Tells – Why You Should Track Your Heart Rate

by Michael Stevens
on May 24, 2017

Sometimes we wonder if what we see in the movies is actually true or just a bunch of bologna put out by Hollywood to entertain. If you’ve ever seen any poker movie ever made, you’ve seen them going nuts about “tells” and a lot of times trying to see the heart rate of their opponent. In a recent home game thanks to a generous wife, I accidentally found myself the subject of an experiment into the validity of this Hollywood stigma.

I play poker monthly at a solid home game in my neighborhood. We’ve been playing together for a little over a year now and it is a great group of guys. I enjoy getting to play with them every chance that I get.

A couple of months ago, I happened to be wearing an activity tracker that tracked heart rate along with steps, etc. My wife had given it to me recently as a gift and I had been wearing it for a couple of weeks. I wore it 24/7 since it also tracked sleep patterns. When it came time to play poker, I didn’t even think twice about the fact that I was wearing it. However, I learned a valuable lesson from the data captured on the device that evening.

It wasn’t until the next day that I realized I had something really cool. In reviewing a chart that showed my heart rate for the last 24 hours, I noticed some things from the time of the poker game that caught my eye. What I saw got me digging deeper to learn more.

On my chart showing my heart rate for the last 24 hours, I found two key things. First, I noticed that my heart rate was elevated for nearly the entire poker game.  Secondly, I found large spikes in my heart rate at different points.

I have a normal resting heart rate of about 60 beats per minute.  Your resting heart rate is defined as the heart rate that your body has when it is at rest. It is often found while you have been relaxing for quite a while (like watching a movie on the couch) or while you are asleep. Basically, your resting heart rate is roughly where your heart rate should be when you are not exerting or stressing yourself in some form.

While I played poker that night, I did not notice a feeling of being overly stressed. I definitely recall some highs and lows (as with any poker game), but I didn’t walk out of there feeling like I had been stressed out. However, looking at my heart rate chart, you would have thought otherwise. My average heart rate throughout the entire game was around 120 beats per minute which is more than double my resting heart rate.

I was amazed to see that my heart rate had been elevated that high for the entire game. You can see the moment the game started and the moment when I was knocked out at the final table.  Before and after that, my heart rate was in a normal range.

The other thing that I noticed from the data was that there were spikes at a couple of points. At its peak, my heart rate briefly reached 151 beats per minute. Looking at the time that occurred, it was apparent to me that spike coincided with when I flopped the nut flush early on in the game. Internally, I was super excited and apparently so was my body. There were a few other spikes that evening as well that look to have happened when I was bluffing, scared, or excited. It was very cool to have this data.

After coming across this data, I did some more research on my own to see how I could use this data to improve my game. Clearly, there must be something that I can take away from this data. Below, I’ll help you understand what I learned so that you too can improve your poker game by avoiding this physical tell.

Why You Should Care About Your Heart Rate

A player’s heart rate can be a physical tell to their competition at the poker table. Players looking for this tell will try to look at your neck to gauge the player’s pulse. An accelerated heart rate could mean that the player is bluffing or that he is on a major hand.

A player’s heart rate could increase when he has made a bluff and is scared of a looming call. On the converse, a player’s heart rate could be accelerated when he’s on a big hand and is excited on the inside. Either way, if your heart rate is accelerated, it is giving potential information to your competition and it is, therefore, worth understanding how you can both track and better control your heart rate moving forward.

How to Track Your Heart Rate

You are able to track your heart rate either via an actual heart rate strap of some form of a device that has heart rate tracking built into it. I’ll cover both in more detail below.

When it comes to heart rate straps, there are two forms at this time. First, the classic heart rate strap is one that is mainly used by athletes. It is about an inch wide and it goes around your entire chest sitting just below your heart. These straps can be easily concealed under your shirt without your competitors ever knowing that you’re wearing one.

Brand names such as Garmin, Polar, and Wahoo Fitness all make these traditional heart rate straps that you can wear around your chest. They tend to retail for roughly $40-$100 and they will pair with apps on your phone so that you can get the heart rate data.

The latest trend in heart rate monitor straps is optical heart rate. Optical heart rate straps do not have to go around your chest and can be used in places like your arm or wrist. Instead of listening for your heart beat like a standard heart rate monitor, optical heart rate monitors use light to gauge your heart rate through your skin.

The best known and most accurate standalone optical heart rate monitor on the market at the time of this review is the Scosche RHYTHM+. It can be worn on the arm or the wrist and it retails for $79.99. It comes with a variety of band colors.

No matter what type of heart rate strap that you are using, you should be able to use an app on your phone to tap into the data. Many apps offer real-time data so you could check in on how your heart rate is doing while you are still in the game. It would not look any different than you checking your phone for a text message.

With the development of optical heart rate technology, manufacturers have also been able to build optical heart rate sensors into devices such as run watches and activity trackers. Major brands like Garmin, Fitbit, and Polar all offer devices that have optical heart rate included. I was wearing one of these devices that have optical heart rate on the night of my poker game.

If you’re looking for an activity tracker with optical heart rate included, you might consider the Fitbit Alta HR or the Garmin Vivosmart HR. If you’re a runner, watches such as the Garmin 735xt or the Suunto Spartan Sport HR offer optical heart rate on the device. There are many options of devices out there that offer optical heart rate built in so you should be able to find the one that is the right fit for you.

How to Control Your Heart Rate

If you’re concerned about your heart rate being a physical tell at the poker table, there are a few things that you can do to better control your heart rate in the future. The first thing that players can do is making sure to breathe well throughout the entire game. Many players (myself included), often tend to hold their breath in moments of big hands and big bluffs. Doing so will only work to increase your heart rate. If breathing is an issue for you during your game, make a conscious effort to breathe steadily during every game through every hand regardless of how big or small of a hand you’re on at that time.

The second thing you can do to help better control your heart rate during a game is to simply gain more experience. More time at the table playing poker can allow your body the chance to overcome fearful moments encountered during poker. Playing more will allow you more chances to make big bluffs and experience monster hands so that you’re more used to the occurrences. As both scenarios become more routine, your body will become less stressed during your games which will lower your heart rate.

Lastly, players could benefit by getting exercise on a more regular basis. The more often that you exercise, your heart rate (both resting and elevated) will become lower with time. By exercising more, you will improve your heart rate which is good for both poker as well as your general health and wellbeing.

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