The fine art of losing at poker

On any given Friday night hundreds of thousands of Americans—men and women alike—pile into basements, garages, and back rooms to play their weekly poker game. Though a love for poker cuts through all social and economic distinctions, these games have a number of recognizable similarities. At every table will be someone who talks too much, someone who can't seem to deal the cards properly, someone who always spills food on the felt, and a dependable loser—that poor slob who, for the life of him, can't seem to capitalize on his strong hands and can fool no one with his weak hands. Though he probably feels unlucky, cursed by the partisan poker gods, his lack of success has a more reasonable explanation: through some subtle, unconscious action—a smirk or a cough or a nervous little laugh—that guy's giving his cards away. He's got what is known in the poker vernacular as a "tell."

My close friend Steve and I spent the last week of August, 1984, at my grandmother's place in the Adirondack Mountains. Even at an awkward sixteen, Steve had a gift for finding women no matter where he was. He had a girlfriend at the time, to whom he was supposed to be faithful, but for as long as I've known him, his claims to monogamy have been suspect. On this summer trip he managed to conjure up a female companion from the limited population of Paul Smiths, New York, and to spend most of his six-day vacation with her. The night we got home, Steve and I met his girlfriend and some other friends at a restaurant. He walked up to the table and kissed her passionately. She looked him in the eye and said, "I can't believe you cheated on me again."

After the obligatory exchange of accusations and denials Steve finally confessed to his infidelity and groveled for forgiveness. A few hours later she accepted his apology, and they went on to another glorious three weeks of being together. After receiving absolution that night, Steve asked his girlfriend how she had figured out his indiscretion so quickly.

"Easy," she said. "First, you didn't look at me while you were walking over to the table. You were staring at the ground the whole time. Second, you kissed me like you were some porn star. And to top it all off, once I accused you of cheating on me, all you did was smile and blink." I looked over at Steve while she was saying this; sure enough, he was smiling and blinking like crazy. Steve had a tell.

Pop psychologists theorize that tells are unintended actions birthed in the subconscious. Most people are taught at an early age a number of rules that are meant to govern their actions throughout their lives. Parents, teachers, and the Bible preach to us that telling the truth is always better in the long run. That rigorous education settles into the subconscious and becomes the foundation for the character we display as we grow into adults. Tells are simply a result of conflict between the implanted notion of morality and our intention to deceive.

We give our little secrets away every day, even though we don't want to. Some say that only the guilty sleep well in jail. The theory goes that if a guilty man gets caught, he figures that he is where he belongs and might as well get some sleep. An innocent man tosses and turns, trying to think how to escape his undeserved peril.

We are riddled with these tics and twitches. They are everywhere and in everything we do. Those of us who have not been trained to deceive have a tendency to cover our mouths or avoid eye contact when telling lies. That's why I would never date an actress—while normal people are studying, say, the market economy of the original thirteen colonies, actors are learning how to look you dead in the eye and pass along an absolute fabrication.

Our innate desire to tell the truth is most counterproductive at the card table. Having a poker tell can be disastrous. When I was just learning the game, I bought an instructional video called Caro's Pro Poker Tells. I didn't get around to watching it until years later, the night after I was knocked out of the 2000 World Series of Poker. Caro described a tell in which a player, thinking about whether to call a bet, suddenly asks the dealer or another player how much he can raise. Caro's point was that anybody playing in a reasonably high-stakes game knows how much he can bump a bet. Somebody who takes a lot of time and then asks that question must be trying to seem stupid or desperate. When I read that, I thought Caro had to be making it up: no one is that dumb.

The next day I went to watch the final table of the tournament I'd just been knocked out of. When I arrived, only three players were left, all great talents. At one point Melissa Hayden bet, and Men Nguyen, a three-time champion, just sat there looking confused. After a while he looked at his cards and then asked an official how much he could raise. The guy told him, and Nguyen raised. Hayden called, and Nguyen turned over a full house, laughing as he collected the pot. I guess Hayden figured that even the great players have tells.

Overcoming a tell is as difficult as changing any other habitual aspect of your personality. I knew a cardplayer who videotaped his regular card game every week for a year. He would watch the tapes for hours and make notes about his mannerisms and reactions to keep his body language from giving away anything about his hand. He found that even after playing the game for thirty years, he still had about ten noticeable tells.

I asked him if he thought that any of them were obvious enough for other players to notice. He said, "I don't know—you tell me. I smile when I have good cards and pout when I don't. Think somebody was gonna pick that one up eventually?" He had a point.

Anyone playing poker is trying to deceive his opponents. Deceit is essential to the game. Therefore most tells are a matter of common sense. In Texas Hold'em, a game popular at high-stakes tables, each player is dealt two cards down. Five community cards are dealt face up in the center of the table: the first three at once (the "flop"), then the fourth (the "turn"), and then the last (the "river"). There are betting opportunities between rounds. From those seven cards each player makes his best five-card hand. If somebody gets a great hand from the flop, what is he going to do? Common sense dictates that he'll act as if the flop missed him completely. And sure enough, a lot of players do just that: they pretend to have no interest in the hand. They look away, watch TV, talk to other players—anything but look at the cards on the table. Somebody who stares at the flop for a long time almost certainly can't use it. He is examining it as if hoping that he will suddenly notice something new.

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