The Body Language of Poker Games

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You know them as “poker tells,” but those player habits you watch for are a dialect of body language. Salespeople and pickup artists study body language to improve their game. Poker players study tells for the same reason.

Call them tells or something else, but all body language is cut from the same cloth. Psychologists say women are better natural body language readers than men. Evolutionary biologists believe men spent so much time on their own, waiting for game, they didn’t need to interpret body language as often as women.

Despite the various theories about who is better or why it exists, the basics of body language are easy to grasp. In a crowd situation, some people seek attention, and others shun it. Most of the people on the edge of the crowd are probably not fully invested in the group.

Then again, it’s easy to misinterpret the signals one sees. Body language experts say you should look for more than one sign of interest, rejection, confidence, or whatever.

Is It True You Can Hold a Conversation in Body Language?

A popular belief circulating for years on social media through various memes claims that communication is 93% body language.

Is that really true?

In 2017, researchers at Carnegie Mellon University announced they had designed a computer that reads body language. It was an impressive feat.

And yet, the first generation of software only tracks body parts as they move around and it can’t be used to understand what another person is saying.

If a universal translator can work through reading body language, this isn’t it.

Journalist Philip Yaffe, who has a degree in mathematics, debunked the idea that states communication is 93% non-verbal communication is 93% non-verbal in an article he wrote for Ubiquity in October 2011. Yaffe attributes the idea to a general misunderstanding of the research Dr. Albert Mehrabian published in 1967.

In short, you may use every nuanced glance and posture you can think to tell the girl across the room you want to date her. She probably has no idea what you’re trying to say. She may even think you’re a little creepy.

So, What Does Body Language Really Tell Us?

Experts say that body language conveys your mood in a particular situation. You may also use body language to enhance what you’re saying. A good example is the way a politician points his or her entire hand in a certain direction when “making a point” during a speech.

Donald Trump Pointing

The catalog of nearly universal human gestures and expressions is extensive. One often knows when people are fearful, angry, or happy without their saying a word. Psychologists say if you express your emotions strongly you may project them, and someone else will begin sharing them.

Picture two guys who suddenly start yelling at each other for no clear reason. It’s possible one of them projected his anger at the other. The second guy would be right to feel defensive, but later he may wonder why he felt so angry.

Body language also reveals:

  • When people are open to ideas
  • When they’re closed
  • Feeling confident
  • When a person seizes a dominating position over others.

Have you ever had a boss put both his hands on your desk? That is an example of dominating body language. It asserts that the other person is your superior, and you are that person’s subordinate.

It might seem fair to say body language does convey a lot of information. A picture is worth a thousand words, as they say. The child whose mother blocks their bedroom door until he cleans up his mess gets the message.

Body Language Is Also Subtle, and Poker Players Learn This

When playing a game of cards, people may inadvertently express their confidence, or lack thereof, in the cards they have been dealt. It could be a frown that says, “I hate these cards.” It could be a sudden intense stare at other players that says, “I think I have a good hand.”

Phil Ivey Staring At Another Player Poker Tells

Experienced poker players learn to assess tells in the game quickly. If a player acts like he has a strong hand it is probably weak. The opposite is most likely true if he acts like he has a weak hand.

The first tell beginning poker players should look for is who doesn’t reveal anything by their body language.

Although psychologists say it’s impossible to NOT communicate, people can channel their energy into other directions. The blank expression and lack of movement suggest a player has a few games under their belt.

By the same token, someone who is broadcasting their feelings probably lacks experience in the game.

Another tell to watch for is how people act when they are not at the table. Compare that behavior to how they act when in the game. Excitable people struggle to contain their energy.

Who protects their cards at the table? Who counts their chips? Who is ready to call? Who could care less about what is in their hand?

The less sure you are how they feel about their cards, the less you’ve learned from their tells.

Keep an Eye out for Tension

What do you do when you’re tense? Don’t be surprised if you struggle to describe how you reveal your tension.

People are tense when they restrain themselves. The runner braced to charge down the track is tense with excitement and energy. The student dreading to hear the teacher call on them is tense for another reason. In both situations, you and I will contain our energy.

A poker player’s tension might slip out in the way he holds his cards. Or you may only realize she was tense when she suddenly relaxes.

Like the student, another sign of tension is nervousness.

Trey Harrel Looking Nervous At WSOP

People sometimes mask their nervousness by distracting themselves. It’s rude to hum at the table, but any kind of rhythmic movement might be the equivalent of humming.

Someone who is trying to burn off their energy may be excited. They also may be about to lose their paycheck. It’s an attempt to remain calm.

A player who is clearly excited may only be thrilled to be in a game with you. Or they may have the best hole cards of their lives.

Some Players Think Out Loud

Everyone reveals they are deep in thought now and then. That’s normal. In a game where strategy is critical, it’s a sign someone is considering as many possibilities as possible.

One tell you may see often is when a player stares at the table after the flop. They probably think they’ve lost this hand and want a way out.

Several tells are intentional. Players may try to intimidate each other with subtle gestures. Maybe it’s how he pushes the chips in hard. Maybe she’s asking for a recount.

Early intimidation could be a sign of a player’s favored strategy.

It might also be a test. They want to see how you react. Staring at other people intensely is not only rude, but it’s also a classic intimidation technique.

Anyone who delays the game for any reason may be buying time to think. Someone who plays through the hand with little interest may already be thinking about the next hand.

When a player folds, what does he do next while everyone else finishes the hand? Are they watching you, studying the way you handle your cards? Are they paying close attention to the bets?

What players do while waiting for the next round of cards could reveal what they are feeling or thinking.


It’s a good idea to browse lists of poker tells published on the Internet. You may have missed something in your last game. Having an idea of what to look for could make a difference in the next game.

The goal is to play a neutral game.

A neutral player reveals as little as possible. Neutral players don’t try to intimidate other players. A neutral player may still bluff or make a bold play at any time.

Neutral play is hard to read. It takes practice. Neutral players may seem very reserved or very relaxed. A good way to describe neutral play is to set one’s feelings aside for the duration of the game.

Neutral play is a sign of experience and confidence in one’s skill. Beginning players learn best from neutral players.

Michael Stevens

Michael Stevens has been researching and writing topics involving the gambling industry for well over a decade now and is considered an expert on all things casino and sports betting. Michael has been writing for since early 2016. ...

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Michael Stevens

Michael Stevens has been researching and writing topics involving the gambling industry fo ...

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