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What Poker Pros Can Teach You About Your Deepest Issues

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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.

Red Flags

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

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Henri @ Wake Up Cloud January 7, 2010 at 4:05 am

Solid post. My 5 years as an online poker pro have definitely added to my self-awareness and expanded my consciousness. It’s kind of funny to observe other people and their “tells”, but I also enjoy messing with others by masking my own tells and mixing them around to induce confusion ;)
.-= Henri @ Wake Up Cloud ´s last blog ..The Cheater’s Guide to the Law of Attraction =-.

David January 7, 2010 at 8:26 pm

Hi Henri. Yes, when it comes to poker there’s a whole additional level of fake tells. But a fake tell is a signal too. The rule of thumb is Weak means strong, strong means weak.

Lisis January 7, 2010 at 8:08 am

This is awesome David… as I was reading it, I found myself wondering something along the lines of what Henri said: How do you know what the other person’s “tells” mean? Or, what if they are faking them? Then I read Henri’s comment and wondered: How the hell do you have “tells” in ONLINE poker?

But, intrigued as I am by those issues, none of that has to do with your main point, about recognizing our own tells and using them for self-improvement. I’m still processing this. It feels a little like focusing on our weaknesses (in order to improve or overcome them), which is a valid school of thought. But it kind of contradicts the “focus on your strengths” and “act as if, and you will soon become” strategies.

Perhaps a combination of all of the above is called for. ;)
.-= Lisis´s last blog ..An Anniversary, a Thank You, and a Promise =-.

David January 7, 2010 at 8:33 pm

Well in online poker there is a whole different set of tells to look at: the playing speed, the sums they bet, chat, etc.

I think it makes sense to look at your weaknesses, provided you don’t define yourself by them. Sometimes we let a particular fear cordon off large areas of possibility because we never want to look at it and never want to do anything about it. So we gravitate towards our strengths which is often just what is comfortable and easy for us. Focus on strengths, but don’t ignore weaknesses, how’s that for a combination? :)

Earl January 7, 2010 at 10:32 am

My first thought was that we can also use our ability to recognize ‘tells’ in order to help others. If we are able to notice that every time a good friend scratches her ear it signifies that she is uncomfortable with the conversation, we can make decisions to help eliminate her unease.

As for self-improvement, reading our own ‘tells’ is similar to a meditation technique where you observe the sensations on your body after reacting negatively to a particular situation. You first learn to recognize the sensations, then to understand why those reactions are occurring and you then take action to avoid such reactions in the future (this is a very basic summary of course).

Excellent post David.
.-= Earl´s last blog ..Thank You to the Militant Who Stole My Car! =-.

David January 7, 2010 at 8:39 pm

That’s an excellent thought Earl. I will experiment with using this for compassionate purposes. Maybe combine it with this technique.

That sort of meditation is essentially what I’m talking about. Any negative mental sensation is a perfect time to look inward at what exactly is taking place, what is being reacted to.

I used to find sitting meditation frustrating because I couldn’t get all the little mental objections out of the way (it’s too hot in here, my butt hurts, I can’t sit still) before I could begin to meditate. Then I learned that those are perfect opportunities for watching what makes me react. Watching those goings-on is valuable self-examination. Learning your tells is really the same.

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Patty - Why Not Start Now? January 7, 2010 at 1:15 pm

Fascinating, David, to link poker with self awareness. It took me back to all the poker my husband and I have played with my cousin and his wife. And the four of us certainly do bet our emotions along with the chips: Curt is bold and devil may care; Laurie is cautious and nervous; Dave is usually cracking wise; I’m always looking for the thrill and get impatient if the game seems too slow. In spite of ourselves, we “tell” this to each other. When you translate it to everyday life, it does play out in our interactions with others. And what struck me most in your post was this line: “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.” I think that not only do we learn to do this, but “civilized” society EXPECTS it of us. So often when we ask a person how they are that day, we don’t really want to know. In turn, we rarely ask it of ourselves, or look for that deeper storyline. Nice post.
.-= Patty – Why Not Start Now?´s last blog ..Introducing Meaning Mondays =-.

David January 7, 2010 at 8:43 pm

Hi Patty, thanks for your insight. This really struck me:

So often when we ask a person how they are that day, we don’t really want to know. In turn, we rarely ask it of ourselves

I don’t know if I’ve ever asked myself how I’m doing. Once in a while a friend asks me that when I’m feeling a bit off, because they notice I’m off even when I don’t. You gave me something to think about.

Erin January 7, 2010 at 5:16 pm

It is interesting always to think about the strategies of games, and connect the observations to the relevance of the human behavior.
.-= Erin´s last blog ..The Spirit Within Us =-.

David January 7, 2010 at 8:44 pm

Yes, and the possibilities are endless. Chess is another one that’s often compared to life. Snakes and ladders often illustrates life pretty well too. :)

Sarah Joy Albrecht January 7, 2010 at 5:52 pm

There is so much that can be learned from poker about life. I loved the idea for this post and how you fleshed it out.

My parents used to be Kenny Rogers fans. This post had me singing “The Gambler” :)

Happy New Year!
.-= Sarah Joy Albrecht´s last blog ..Waking Up Early : A Small Habit Change With Big Results =-.

David January 7, 2010 at 8:45 pm

Thanks Sarah. I had The Gambler in my head the whole time I was writing this, I swear. I can’t get rid of it.

Vincent Nguyen January 9, 2010 at 1:29 am

Very interesting correlation between poker tells and life tells David.

A thought came to me about our red flag tells
I was wondering what about “delayed tells”? and the effects they have in our lives
What I mean by “delayed tells” is getting our red flags after an event has happened
Things we know we should not be doing but we do it anyways such as:

-Still going shopping even though we know we need to use credit and have more debt afterwards
-We are coughing often but still keep on smoking
-We know we get out of control but still keep on drinking

Does it make sense?
I am not even sure myself.
.-= Vincent Nguyen´s last blog ..D.A.R.E. to Achieve Greatness =-.

David January 9, 2010 at 11:38 pm

Hi Vinny. The kind of tell I’m talking about it something that happens right in the moment, when some part of you recognizes that there is a deception going on, and reacts.

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