Slight, unintentional facial expressions, that usually lasts between 1/10th and 1/20th of a second, and are universally shown on the face of all humans. They are caused by primal feelings, and emotions that humans have at birth, and develop in the early stages of life.
With the increasing popularity of people using things like sunglasses, scarves, and headphones; to hide their eyes, pulse, and cut out comments from other players, that can draw body language or expressions. I find the use of micro-expressions the most effective way to ’read a player.’
Anybody who has ever watched a movie, or television show that contains a poker theme, or scene, has heard a quote along these lines.
“I don’t/can’t lose because I don’t play the cards, I play the player.”
Most of the time, the proceeding scenes usually contain close-up, slow motion shots, of over exaggerated facial expressions. Ones so obvious, that any child could pickup an emotion, or mood from. Then the main character makes a ridiculous read, and all is well in the poker world. The result of this is usually an aspiring player (This can be a new player, or one who uses poker consistently as supplemental income.) looking for similar expressions at the table, and that can be a very big problem.
Just from my own experience, I would say about 80% or more, of the players I’ve sat with, are capable of ‘stonewalling’ their face when involved in a hand, and don’t show any ’movie’ expressions at all. So what ends up happening to a player ‘trying to get a read’ is you begin filling in your own blanks. A recreational or novice player may intimidate himself out of a winning hand. Or the other side of it is, an over confident player(maybe just a player who had a good run of hands, or won a big pot) bet/raise when he knows hes probably beat, because he thinks his opponent has locked up.
So does that mean that ‘reading people’ is a myth? Of course not. Its just not as easy as they make it look on the movies. At least, not at first. After making correct decisions only a few times, your confidence will increase, and it will become as second natured as your favorite chip trick. Not only that, but its really not even that far off from what you’ve seen in movies, and on television. You just have to know what to look for, and what it REALLY means. Ironically, the skill you need to develop to do that has very little to do with poker until you choose to apply it there.
The term ‘micro-expression’ was scientifically accepted in the late 70s. The pioneer of this new way of analyzing nonverbal communication was Dr Paul Ekman; and in 1978, after over 20 years of research and studies, he introduced the foundation of what is now called the Facial Action Coding System(or FACS from here on out.) It is based on the 10 emotions that all humans possess. Contempt, embarrassment, satisfaction, relief, shame, pleasure, guilt, amusement, and pride. It has been proven that a man who has lived his entire life under South American or African tribal conditions, make the same facial movement as a man who has never left Manhattan.
The system it self contains around 100 cataloged markers, broken down into several categories, and measured by intensity. Each marker is given a number, or in a few cases a number and letter. These are used to determine what emotion is really underlying the facial expressions that are CONCIOUSLY being made, or blocked. For example, in a poker situation your opponent has pocket Ks, and you have AK. He bets the flop, which didn’t help you at all, and with suited over cards you call. The dealer burns one card ***THIS IS WHEN YOU LOOK AT YOUR OPPONENT*** and deals the turn, and its an Ace. You should NOT be looking at that card until your opponent has ALREADY seen it. Look at them. Even if you are first to act, don’t look until you see some sign that they have already looked. Stare them down if you have to, make them call for a clock if they want(yes people really do that) Just make sure they look first. That card will still be there in the same place whenever you do decide to look down. Say for example, you notice that when the dealer put the card out, your opponent’s lips, or both corners of the mouth, pursed(depressed), and his nose wrinkled. This will only happen once, and for less than a second. This is why it is IMPERITIVE to watch him/her as the card is turned over.
According to catalog , depressed lips is numbered 15 and 16. A wrinkled nose is numbered 9. On the basic mapping system the combination of 9+15+16 together (not a math problem) will always mean the person is feeling disgust. In this instance, he saw the ace. The one card he didn‘t want to see, and that you probably have(having called the flop).
That may seem a little complicated, because the numbering method, is the ’scientific’ way. But I am fully aware, that memorizing the cataloged emotions, and all of their possible combinations isn‘t practical for somebody who isn’t studying FACS. Having recognized this right away when I began learning about this, I decided to focus on the emotions that I needed to find, and their movements(or tells in poker talk). Using the basic 10 emotions for foundation, I added in upper body language, and some of the more general emotions most commonly encountered in situations at a poker table.
Possibly the most profitable or beneficial in a poker game is being able to read somebody who is weak. I call this portraying a lack of confidence. One way to do this is to question and prod them. Annoy them if you have to (over the course of the session, don’t make one hand take forever or the table mood will turn against you.) What you are trying to induce is some form of shoulder shrug. At a poker table, it’s a good method to induce a shrug is to ask them if they have a specific hand. I like to use my own hand.(loose example You have a single pair Qs and the board is Q J T You would ask, do you have queens?) If he can somehow beat queens, you’ll get a different response than if he can’t, most of the time, they’ll also take you OFF of that hand.
When somebody is trying to mislead you in a conversation, and shrugs only one shoulder it shows they have absolutely no confidence in what was just said whether by you, or them.
If the shrugging of both shoulders happens to occur, watch out! This can either be a modest or submissive way, of communicating that you are comfortable regardless of the outcome of a situation(the situation at a poker table being you, turning your cards over). If there is a shrug of both shoulders accompanied by a head tilt, then that’s their ego leaking out. At the table, this usually means the player has better than 2 pair. The less 5 card hand possibilities out there(or if they‘re holding one), the more comfortable they will get, and the more exaggerated the shrugs become.
When checking for a shrug, you want to look at the collarbone area of the shoulder, not the outside or top of the arm. The most movement will take place in the trapezius muscle, that’s located between the neck and where the collarbone and shoulder meet. If they’re wearing a scarf, it actually makes it much easier. Though their hiding their pulse, shrugging both shoulders as opposed to on will cause movement of the scarf the whole way around their neck.
One common exception is, if they are leaning. This was my wall for awhile, and playing and discussing this with a chiropractor at the table one night, he explained that when a person is leaning forward on something, like the table, or leaning all the way back in the chair. This puts pressure on the shoulder blade, and restricts lateral movement. Because of this, the shoulder blade is already being held in the upward position. So instead of moving(more than 1/8 in or so) The should will ACT like it still needs to move, and the tapezius muscle will tighten, and when that happens it enlarges briefly.
So what I started to do, and with a well above average amount of success is I started watching the side they are leaning ON more directly, and allowing my peripheral vision to pickup the shoulder with free motion because it will move more.
Personally, I still ALWAYS personally view somebody leaning all the way back in their chair as weak. I think, and a lot of professionals would agree with me that they’re subconsciously trying to get as far away from their cards as they can.
This is an instant where a value bet can come in handy. If they’re weak, you’ll either get paid off, or they’ll fold. If they’re strong, and sitting back because they’re relaxing, then when the action comes to them they’ll either call if they‘re a cautious player, or raise to get more money assuming you’ll call if they have a strong hand. Either way, you are only risking a small bet as opposed to 2/3, or ¾+ pot bet to ‘preview’ how your hand will stand up.
To my knowledge, against me, nobody leaning all the way back has ever raised, or came over the top with nothing. If they get you to fold, most of them will turn their hand over because they wanted to show it anyways. Be careful though, after the first time you do this at a particular table or player, the next time you are in this situation, a good player, should try to ‘min raise’ you to get you to call the next raise. They’re bleeding you, don’t do it! If you have a raising hand in a No Limit game you should NEVER ‘min raise’(ex: bet 10, raised to 20) unless you’re trying to get value. Anyone playing a long time will either know or have realized this, and that’s exactly what they’re doing to you when it happens.
So next time your at the table, and you can’t get your opponent to give you information verbally. See if you can induce a shrug. Our bodies will always give us away, whether we try to hide it or not. The trick is, to become the person who notices these subtle giveaways, and exploit them.