Poker is war.
The best training you have, the more likely you are to survive and win the battle.
I remember the hand like it was yesterday…
We were on day 2 of a No-Limit Hold’em Event at the Venetian Deep Stack Extravaganza in Las Vegas and there were about 30 players left.
A 26 year old player, named Josh, opened with a raise UTG+1 and it was folded around to me, in the cut-off.
I looked down and saw KhJh.
One could argue that with a hand like this, either folding, flat-calling or three-betting are options.
Considering the raiser was pretty aggressive, even in early position, our history together and that the blinds were capable of just about anything, I decided to flat call his raise.
Everyone else folded.
The flop came Jc9c3d. Josh bet out 2/3 of the pot and I called.
The turn was the 8h.
Josh bet half the pot and considering everything, I called again.
Josh had about ¾ the pot left in his stack.
The river was the 5c… And Josh pushed.
Tough call? Easy fold?
It depends right?
I can tell you straight up that my decision in this hand was the biggest factor in my tournament. In fact, this key hand allowed me to get to the final table, and finally win the tournament.
But more on that later…
Because my assessment in this hand was based on a decision I took 3 years before. So let me first tell you how I came to write this page today.
When I started playing 15 years ago, poker was still an underground game.
Sure I’d play in some casinos at Fox woods or Atlantic City, or when I traveled to La's Vegas to play in the WSOP, but most of my playing time was done in low-lit basement games or at “invitation-only” private clubs.
The games were good (very good in fact), full of fish that had no clue how to play the game. Around 2003, as you probably know, poker exploded to the public scene with the World Poker Tour on television and Chris Moneymaker’s historical win.
So much has changed since then.
To say that the games are much tougher now is an understatement.
They are 100x tougher.
Just about every player has read dozens of books, watched online pros dissect their play and have played hundreds of thousands of hands, if not more.
On top of that, there are hundreds of training sites, discussion forums and software that can analyze your play and find your leaks in a matter of minutes.
Unless you are dedicated to working on your game for hours every day, it’s very difficult to stay ahead of the pack.
So 5 years ago, when I had a kid and I couldn’t work on my game as much as I wanted to, I started to look for ways to stay ahead of the competition. I wanted to find an area of poker strategy that was still untapped.
I loved playing live, and one aspect of live play that I did not fully understand and that I thought most players did not fully get was poker tells.
Even though I started playing poker on the Internet, that didn’t stop me from having success in live games.
I knew the odds, played position well, adjusted to my opponents, read betting patterns effectively and knew when to apply pressure and bluff profitably. So I didn’t need tells to win.
Plus every week it seemed a “green live” internet pro won a major tournament, like when Annette Obrestad took down the WSOP Europe for example.
I was asking myself if tells really as valuable as the big shot pros want us to think.
That’s what I thought when I started out.
I felt what I knew about poker tells seemed somewhat esoteric, that people move around all the time, and that if I was able to bet with a shaking hand to appear like a nervous player, or sigh at will to “prove” I was acting, anyone could do it.
I’d play a hand. The guy would twitch nervously, bet with extra emphasis and then stare me in the eye. What the heck is all of this?
I DIDN’T KNOW WHAT TO THINK!
I had read all the books.
The bad ones like “Poker tells for dummies”, the “Ultimate Guide to Poker Tells” and other atrocious ones like Howard Lederer “Tells” All and Phil Hellmuth’s Million $ Secrets To Bluffing & Tells.
I also read the “good” ones like Mike Caro’s Book of Poker Tells and Joe Navarro’s Read ‘Em and Reap: A Career FBI Agent’s Guide to Decoding Poker Tells.
Mike Caro’s book is a classic, but it is severely outdated.
The tells in this book were awesome in the 1980s and 1990s, but with the profound education of poker players these days, many of the tips in the book are rarely, if ever, seen at the table.
I mean, when are you ever making a decision in a pot because the player has stacked his chips neatly? Right?
Joe Navarro’s book is a well written book by a very credible author, but the main critic everyone seems to have with it that a lot of content in that book is very general and is more applied to general life situations. Although I believe this book has great gems in it, I’ll admit that catching a tell by focusing on foot movement can be quite an endeavor at the table.
But I really wanted to get better at this stuff.
There had to be a better way.
I went to seek advice from people that dedicate their lives to catching cheats, spotting liars and busting criminals. After all, bluffing is like lying but with chips. So there had to be a correlation between interrogating a suspect and catching a bluff. (There is, and I will discuss this in a moment.)
So I started to study human behavior from world-class psychologists like Dr. Paul Ekman (the technical ad-visor behind the TV show Lie to me), Dr. David Matsumoto (a Professor of Psychology at San Francisco State University and a consultant for the US Department of Defense) and other renowned experts.
I studied lie detection techniques from the U.S. Marshals, the CIA and the FBI.
And I trained myself to spotting micro facial expressions using specialized software that emulate emotions in 1/25th of a second.
I did this for 3 years.
Yep, 3 whole years.
Reading books, watching video training, using software, and also speaking with world-class psychologists and law enforcement professionals.
Eventually, I became the 14th person on the planet to get a Certificate of Expert and Master of Facial Micro-Expressions by the prestigious Humiliate Institute. I also published a best-selling poker book and contributed to the Two Plus Two Monthly Magazine.
[The study of body language is a pretty confusing when you think about it. People move all the time, they twitch and make thousands of facial expressions every day.
How the heck are we supposed to figure all of it out?
Well, it took me 3 years, but now I get it.
Studies are published every month on human behavior, and there is now scientific proof that certain gestures or facial expression have a unique meaning in the right situation.
It turns out that human beings are predictable.
And poker is one of the best arena for tells to leak out. Why? Because 2 conditions have to be in place to maximize leakage: stress and high stakes. Poker has both of these.
And big time.
And no matter how hard we all try to keep a poker face. The scientific fact is that it’s just not possible.
We all have leaks.
I’m not saying this to be arrogant.
It’s just how we are all geared as human beings.
It’s impossible to be tells free. I’ve checked .
In fact, I’ve picked up a tell on EVERY SINGLE KNOWN PRO out there.
Phil Ivey, Daniel Negreanu, Phil Hellmuth, Doyle Brunson.
Even the new generation like Vanessa Selbst, Jason Mercier, Jonathan Duhamel and Tom Dwan.
Name it. I can tell you all of their tells.
And if they have tells, wanna bet you have one too?
Don’t make the mistake of thinking you have a thick wall protecting you from your opponents.
Next time you are all-in with a monster, or are running a huge bluff, ask yourself if you are leaking anything away.
Don’t you dare breath.
Don’t look anywhere.
Don’t move an inch.
If you do, you are certainly something away.
Fortunately, there is scientific proof that can help us all.
A recent study published in the FBI Law Enforcement Bulletin called “Evaluating Truthfulness and Detecting Deception” pinpointed 2 areas of one’s body that leak out clues that give a liar away.
As poker players, we seek liars every hand we play in. People try to fool us when they are bluffing, and they try to keep their cool when they have a monster. We are getting lied to every time we enter a pot. These 2 clues are key to elite poker players.
HOW SUBTLE BODY SHIFTS CAN BETRAY BLUFFERS
“Body language” is the study of body movements and subtle shifts. Like the hands, arms, torso and the head. Since these are the most visible at the table, as a poker player you must understand what subtle movements can mean. Here’s what was published in the FBI Bulletin:
[…] liars produced significantly more nonverbal behaviors inconsistent with the context or content of their words than truth tellers. Conversely, the nonverbal behaviors of truth tellers remained much more consistent […].
At the table, this means that players will often display behaviors to the opposite of how they really feel, meaning for example that they will show stress and fear after placing a big bet when they are bluffing.
WHY PLAYERS WHO DON’T WEAR SUNGLASSES MAKE A HUGE MISTAKE
Research has shown time and time again that the face is the most genuine part of our bodies. The face simply doesn’t lie.
Forget about putting on a poker face. That simply does not exist.
From the FBI Bulletin:
Facial expressions of emotion, including macro-, micro-, and subtle expressions, are universal and independent of race, culture, ethnicity, nationality, gender, age, religion, or any other demographic variable. All people express emotions on their faces in exactly the same ways. Moreover, they are immediate, automatic, and unconscious reactions.
These are incredible characteristics of facial expressions because learning to read them means that someone can the upper hand on almost any player. And most-importantly, these tells are unconscious and automatic, which means that your opponents can not mask them.
As poker players, we seek liars every hand we play in. People try to fool us when they are strong, and they try to keep their cool when they have nothing. We are getting lied to every time we enter a pot. These lying gestures and facial clues should be part of the tool set of any elite poker player.
The river was the 5c… And Josh pushed.
5 years ago, I would have folded.
Holding on KhJh on a Jc9c3d8h5c board against an all-in push, it’s a pretty easy fold.
But I didn’t fold.
You see, as I was debating just for a moment what to do and simply taking my time before throwing my cards in the muck, I reached for my chips.
And that’s when it happened…
Josh’s face betrayed him completely.
It was a subtle muscle contraction on the left side of his face. Hardly noticeable if I had blinked for too long.
Josh flashed a micro expression of contempt.
As you’ve seen in the FBI report above, micro expressions are immediate, automatic, and unconscious reactions. They come and go in our faces, without us even knowing it. And contempt, is one of the worst negative emotion you can have.
When you see such an expression in your opponent’s face, you know they don’t like the action. Something is not sitting well with them. And these are very, very hard to fake convincingly. When one tries to fake these, he looks stupid. It’s almost impossible to sell.
So when I reached for my chips and he showed contempt, I figured he wasn’t not a happy camper. Was he bluffing?
In a vacuum, this is usually a pretty reliable tell.
But Josh also started to wring his hands. Which I had also learned is a sign of stress.
So when you look at his reaction once I go for my chips: a negative feeling coupled with a higher level of stress, it becomes a huge possibility that he’s bluffing here.
So I went with my read and made the tough call.
Josh flipped Ts8s, and I took down a massive pot.
This single hand, or I should say this single river call propelled me to one of the chip leaders of the tournament and help me cruise to the final table.
I went to sleep that night ready for the next’s day’s final table, pumped and confident as hell.
The next day, I took it down. The whole enchilada.
It’s funny when you think about it.
Had I not studied tells to the extent that I did in the years before, who knows where I would have finished in the tournament.
So did I make a hero call here?
Could I have been wrong?
If I had been I would have told you about one of the thousands of hands I’ve played since and where I was right. I pick up tells like this EVERY TIME I PLAY POKER.
There is a HUGE misconception in the poker world about the accuracy of physical tells. Many players dismiss tells because a player can show a tell and be strong, while another player with the same tell will be weak.
That’s true of many tells.
It’s the same as the fact that an UTG raise does not always mean a big hand. It depends.
How about a C-bet on the flop? It depends.
But does that stop you from studying your opponents’ betting patterns?
Of course not.
Well the same goes for poker tells.
One single twitch or facial expression can mean lots of things.
In my hand at The Venetian, that single contempt tell, in a vacuum, is almost meaningless. But there was more to the story. It told a story for Josh, that day, in that moment. And it made my day.
These 3 years of studying finally paid off, big time.
Since winning that tournament in La's Vegas, friends and fellow players have come to me asking me to help them out with reading poker tells.
I’d told the story of my win, and especially that key hand, and they say: “Geez Nic you HAVE to teach me these tells.”
So ever since that day, I’ve helped players with my articles in Two Plus Two Magazine, my blog posts on this site and interviews on various poker radio shows.
By helping these players, I started to notice some patterns.
I noticed that certain questions were being asked over and over again, and that some specific, very reliable poker tells were simply not understood properly, or were simply never seen in print.
I really didn’t feel like setting up a complete teaching system, but my friends kept bugging me to put some sort of book so I can pass my skills to other poker players.
But, a book is really not the best way to teach poker tells. It’s static, easy to misunderstand and can lead to confusion at the table.
So I decided to put together my thoughts in a video series.
And I have this video course for you today…
Inside this explosive course, you’ll discover:
Inside this explosive course, you’ll discover: