To keep myself professionally updated about body language cues, I keep reading about its application in various fields of work. I had read a lot about poker cues since the game does depend heavily on how well you can read the person sitting across the table. Then I had the chance to speak to Jagdeep Singh, who is a full time professional poker player. He engages in live poker games, and has been engaged full time from the end of 2013. One would want to believe it is a strange profession to pick, especially after management studies from IIM Indore. However, during the course of my interview with Jagdeep, he told me how poker involves a lot of mathematics and strategy, the driving force for him to stay glued to the game.
Poker games are played both live and online and Jagdeep plays the live one, which would help you get a lot more body cues from other players than an online game. Again, there are tournament games and cash games. In tournament games, each player is allowed to bet the same amount of initial amount and once you unload your pool of money, you withdraw from the game. In a cash game, you can rebuy as many times as you want. Poker tournaments are usually open to all.
Is it true that poker players give away cues like subtly rubbing palms if nervous or excited, or touching the face if feeling threatened, I asked Jagdeep. I could hear a gentle smile in his voice when he reminded me that here we were talking about thoroughly professional poker players. If such cues are observed in players, they are taken to be amateurs because playing the game day and night, the professional players are much beyond such giveaway cues.
A live poker game generally lasts upto 8 hours, giving each player enough time to establish a baseline behaviour analysis of all players on the table. Not a single talk or movement on the poker table is unintentional, mused Jagdeep. Every professional is constantly interpreting behaviour of those around him to try and make sense of each player. Each cue would be player specific and professionals evolve to the extent that they remember every subtle cue of players during the game and even later when they meet for a game at some other time of the year.
A few easy cues to go by would include
- Difference in the body language of a player before and after his bet: If the player was calm before the bet and suddenly starts shifting in his seat or using his hands more vividly, it could mean he was waiting to bet big and this time he has initiated his big bet, be it for real or a bluff. Again, someone who was casual and relaxed might suddenly go into a freeze mode. Most of the times such a person would be bluffing. But it could also be that he is playing a high stake and is terrified of a bad outcome.
- Where he generally looks when cards are dealt: If a player starts looking around immediately after his cards are dealt, he might be conscious that others would see his hand and could mean he had a strong hand. Then again, it could mean he was trying to gauge the reaction of the players around the table when they saw their own hand.
- Whether he starts acting cocky at any point in the game: This might include sudden chattering by any player or laughing out loud etc. which are all signals of nervousness, the reason for which can differ from person to person
- When he fiddles with his chips: This could show impatience for his turn, because he is ready with his move. Absence of this in any game by a habitual fiddler could mean he is fairly sorted for that particular game.
Interestingly, besides physical body cues, the timing of the bet is a strong tell both for live and online poker games. For example, a quick bet would indicate a strong hand and a delay in betting would indicate the player is weighing his chances. Then again, professional players can deliberately use such cues to throw others off their tracks. Jagdeep recalled times when the player sitting opposite him would have sensed that Jagdeep had made out his deliberate cues, and then there was an interesting play of each player trying to deliberately throw the other one off his tracks by bluffing with one cue after another.
Like in any other situation, body language cues need to be analyzed in clusters and not independently. Only if a bunch of different cues are consistently suggesting something and are in sync with each other, can they be used to derive something definitive about a player’s intention. One heuristic that Jagdeep has developed to perfect his poker skills is to develop categories for people based on their behavior. What this means is, looking at people’s cues, their bet timings, their risk appetite, their strategy, he would try and fit each individual into a category in his own mind, so that he would know what to expect from that player during the game. Of course, such categorising would come with time, and each professional would have to make his own assumptions and categories.
Jagdeep summarized poker cues for me, saying most poker players concentrate more on trying to hide what they don’t wish to reveal, rather than trying to read what other players are doing or wanting them to see and believe.