Tell-tale signs: Non-verbal communication in poker playing

I have to admit that I am not a good poker player. However, if I was, I would certainly try to use the psychology of non-verbal communication to my advantage. A number of years ago, Peter Collett (formerly at Oxford University) published a book on the psychology of ‘tells’. Collett deliberately lifted the core topic of his book from the non-verbal world of poker players. A ‘tell’ is basically an action that reveals what a person is thinking and are often so tiny that they may not even be noticed.

In poker, many players try to infer what kind of hand a person has by looking at the way the card player holds their cards, gazes at the chips or scratches their face. Tells can be both conscious and unconscious. Collett has spent time studying politicians and has highlighted the ‘tells of power’ such as the way George W. Bush used to bite the inside of his cheek when he is highly nervous or anxious, and Bill Clinton’s tendency to bite his lower lip as a way of demonstrating his sincerity. Most of these behaviours are intended to be hidden, but are what psychologists call ‘emotional leakage’. Many psychologists have carried out research into non-verbal communication. However, as soon as a non-verbal ‘rule of thumb’ is well known by the general public, the knowledge can be used to their advantage. For instance, if police are told that criminals scratch their nose or look to the left when they are lying, they will obviously avoid such actions when being questioned.

When it comes to playing poker (or any card game of skill for that matter), an already skilful player will have the upper hand if they can learn to read the non-verbal cues of the other players. One of the problems is that most ‘tells’ differ from person to person. The trick is to try and memorise what the person did at a particular point such as the way they act when they raise the amount of money being staked, or the behaviour they display just before they are about to fold.

Unconscious tells are linked to negative emotions such as anxiety. If a player has been dealt a bad hand, naïve players are likely to show their psychological discomfort through nervous reactions such as unconscious leg or finger tapping. Serious poker players will already know all about tells and will usually have learned to develop their own type of ‘poker face’ to bluff opponents. This is all part of the psychological battle in playing most card games of skill. There are also what have been described as ‘transition tells’ where people display common but repetitive behavioural patterns in times of uncertainty and/or where people cross psychological boundaries.

Collett provides the examples of politicians such as ex-British Prime Minister Gordon Brown who plays with his shirt cuffs and strokes his hair. Obviously, with so much television footage, psychologists have a much easier time in trying to analyse the unconscious everyday tells of those in the public eye. Playing cards with someone you’ve only met a few times where there is no opportunity to replay the event over and over is clearly much harder! But some good poker players do appear to have the ability to read other players and it is this ability that can separate the very good poker player from the great.

Players can also learn to use false tells as a way of bluffing their opponent. The most common that Collett has described is the ‘power tell’ which is often used by political leaders in some of their actions (such as the way they walk). Just like at the way George W. Bush walked. His arms swung and swaggered. His shoulders were very exaggerated. He was trying to show the public that he was the leader of the Western world and what a powerful position he was in.

In a game of cards, poker players will also try to assert their dominance by using more subtle ‘power tells’ by smoking a cigar in a particular way or showing off when shuffling the cards before dealing. The whole point of power tells is to look sincere and dominant and they can be used in a wide variety of contexts including poker. In essence, power tells are about ‘one-upmanship’ and this is the bedrock of most skill-based card games. Even the language of power tells is lifted from the gambling world. In everyday human behaviour, Collett describes power tells as behavioural actions which “raise the stakes” and allow people to metaphorically or symbolically “put their cards on the table”. While power tells are usually conscious and deliberate, most non-verbal human behaviour is totally unconscious and the vast majority of people can’t help but show their inner thinking through actions such as folding their arms.

The whole area of non-verbal communication is a fascinating area of psychological study. Human behaviour is complex and there are too many individual differences to predict what any given person will do in a given situation (such as playing poker). However, by learning to understand what all these unconscious movements mean, we can start to gain access to the window of the gambler’s mind.

Dr Mark Griffiths, Professor of Gambling Studies, International Gaming Research Unit, Nottingham Trent University, Nottingham, UK

Further reading

Collett, P. (2003). The Book of Tells. London: Bantam Books

About drmarkgriffiths

Professor MARK GRIFFITHS, BSc, PhD, CPsychol, PGDipHE, FBPsS, FRSA, AcSS. Dr. Mark Griffiths is a Chartered Psychologist and Distinguished Professor of Behavioural Addiction at the Nottingham Trent University, and Director of the International Gaming Research Unit. He is internationally known for his work into gambling and gaming addictions and has won many awards including the American 1994 John Rosecrance Research Prize for “outstanding scholarly contributions to the field of gambling research”, the 1998 European CELEJ Prize for best paper on gambling, the 2003 Canadian International Excellence Award for “outstanding contributions to the prevention of problem gambling and the practice of responsible gambling” and a North American 2006 Lifetime Achievement Award For Contributions To The Field Of Youth Gambling “in recognition of his dedication, leadership, and pioneering contributions to the field of youth gambling”. In 2013, he was given the Lifetime Research Award from the US National Council on Problem Gambling. He has published over 800 research papers, five books, over 150 book chapters, and over 1500 other articles. He has served on numerous national and international committees (e.g. BPS Council, BPS Social Psychology Section, Society for the Study of Gambling, Gamblers Anonymous General Services Board, National Council on Gambling etc.) and is a former National Chair of Gamcare. He also does a lot of freelance journalism and has appeared on over 3500 radio and television programmes since 1988. In 2004 he was awarded the Joseph Lister Prize for Social Sciences by the British Association for the Advancement of Science for being one of the UK’s “outstanding scientific communicators”. His awards also include the 2006 Excellence in the Teaching of Psychology Award by the British Psychological Society and the British Psychological Society Fellowship Award for “exceptional contributions to psychology”.

Posted on April 4, 2012, in Gambling, Poker, Popular Culture, Psychology and tagged , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 2 Comments.

  1. Hi, I loved the article. I’m just wondering if you could go into a little more detail about “power tells”? Maybe give me a few examples? I think I understand the gist of it but when I Googled “power tells” I didn’t get any hits. Thanks.

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