An expert poker player will shred a novice every time, even though both players have the same chance of drawing strong cards.
Knowing the odds has something to do with it, but not as much as you might think. In Texas Hold’em, today’s most popular form of poker, each player only gets two cards so there are only 169 possible starting hands. Only about two dozen are strong enough to give you a chance of winning at a full table. Someone who plays regularly for any length of time will quickly achieve a fairly reliable sense of what his chances are to get the right cards.
What makes the difference is the veteran’s ability to read the other players. Emotions can’t help but reveal themselves through subtle, involuntary signals called tells. A classic example of a tell: a player tosses his chips into the pile a little too enthusiastically, overcompensating for his lack of confidence in his cards. If you can discern how the opponent feels about his hand, it is a small matter to determine whether your cards can beat his.
The pros know all the tells, they just have to learn what they are for each opponent, and what they indicate. While you are deciding what to bet, they are watching for your ears to flush red, for you to breathe too deeply, to blink too much, to be too friendly, to touch your face for no reason, or to peek at your cards three times instead of two. They’ll figure out what makes you tick as a player, and you can bet they’ll never forget it.
Tells in the Game of Life
Of course, the involutary gestures that poker players know as tells also exist outside the game. People often touch their faces, rub their scalp, or fidget with things around them when they lie, exaggerate or speak outside of their authority.
It is self-consciousness that causes them, and self-consciousness always arises from some sort of feeling of inadequacy. In poker, that feeling comes from knowing you don’t have good enough cards to keep your bet safe. Outside of poker, it might come from your belief that you lack some quality that is vital in that situation: knowledge, experience, good looks, skill or status.
When you feel that you lack something important, the body develops an uncanny urge to move something. It can’t bear to sit and be fully and only itself, with all its faults and limits. To break the unbearable tension of remaining still and leaving its inadequacies exposed, it springs into action. The hand comes up to touch the head, the lips tighten, the eyes cast downward, or some other aimless movement happens in order to distract attention from the truth.
Tells can be useful for interpreting the internal processes of others, but outside of poker it’s probably better to give people the benefit of the doubt. When your employee shuffles papers aimlessly as he explains why he stayed late last night, you may be certain that something’s up, but you may not know if he’s stealing from you, or preparing a birthday surprise. It’s a hint to look deeper, but not a smoking gun.
Much more useful is to use your own tells as a tool for self-examination. Each of us has certain habitual movements we make when we say something we aren’t sure is true, when we outright lie, or when we are trying to affect confidence we don’t really have.
When you spot one of your own tells in action, you have a red flag that signals to you that you’re feeling inadequate about something. Take it as a hint to look deeper; there may be an major issue hiding beneath an ordinary, unassuming remark or reaction.
Why did your eyes dart over to the window while replying to your coworker that yes, you had great weekend too? Is it because you think Monday-morning small-talk is trite and stupid? Do you suspect your colleague is trying to one-up you with his awesome-weekend story? Or are you ashamed of how you spent your weekend? Do you feel like you have no passions in life? Are you lonely? Are you bluffing about something?
Why did you hold your breath when you saw Marco give Julie a birthday card? Is it that you think the greeting card industry is a multi-billion-dollar cash grab, a decadent waste of trees? Do you think it’s silly to blow up balloons and eat cake just because the earth has spun around the sun another time? Or do you wish you had Marco’s initiative and thoughtfulness? Do you love Julie? Do you hate yourself for never talking to her? Are you bluffing about something here?
Life is full of these little exchanges, and hidden within are deeper storylines. Big feelings are sometimes right near the surface, but most of us have learned to smooth over the rough bits with tired pleasantries, fibs, and canned responses. These big issues hurt, and the more fearful parts of our minds would prefer if nothing ever dredged them up. In many cases, without some sort of signal, we’d scarcely notice whether we’re just managing everyday social banter or fending off deeper, heavier issues.
Just like a shrewd poker player does with his opponents, through keen observation we can learn what makes ourselves tick.
Learn your own tells. They’re different for everyone. The best place to start is to watch what your body does when you lie. Do you bite your lip? Tense your jaw? Curl your toes? Hold your breath for a moment? Tilt your head forward to conceal your swallow? Chances are the same reflex will arise whenever you feel you’re bluffing in some sense, even if you aren’t flatly lying.
After you’ve identified one of your own tells, you’ll begin to catch yourself red-handed in the middle of it from time to time. When you do, ask what in that moment do you feel you are lacking? What do you feel like you should be hiding? Can you learn to live with that? Or is there something you should be doing that you’re not doing?
Poker can be won by convincing others that you have something you actually lack. In life though, fooling others won’t cut it unless you can fool yourself too. Many make a lifelong strategy out of it. But if self-improvement is important to you in life, you have to admit what don’t have in order to find a way to get it. So keep an eye out for clenching jaws and tapping fingers, and pay whatever it costs to see those cards on the table.
Photo by Alexindingo