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Stanford University Study Reveals Key to Physical Tells in Poker

The face and its various movements have been a key aspect in several psychological studies involving behavior and emotion. Studies have shown that basic facial movements are universal for emotions such as happiness, anger, and excitement. Furthermore, eye movement has been an important aspect of psychological studies in infants and in marketing.

Given the importance of the facial movements, most poker players have believed that the best physical “tells” come from the face. This notion has been popularized by top professionals who seem to glare at the opponents face for a sign of emotion or some form of a “tell”. It has even inspired a pop culture song by Lady Gaga entitled “Poker Face”.

However, a recent study by Psychologist Michael Slepian of Stanford University and his colleagues have debunked the popular notion of facial tells. The study published in Psychological Science suggests that poker players are more likely to give away emotional tells with their hands than their faces.

In the study, 78 undergraduates were shown video clips of players placing wagers at the 2009 World Series of Poker Main Event. The short clips (1.6 seconds) showed an array of poker players’ anatomies during the act of betting. Some clips show the entire body above the table while others focus on the face or hands/arm. Each volunteer was only able to see one type of anatomy clip and was shown several instances of this particular part. After the viewing, the volunteers were asked to rate the strength of the players’ hands on a seven point scale. Furthermore, the volunteers were asked to rate personal experiences in poker on a similar scale.

The study found that there was a negative correlation between the actual hand and the “face only” volunteers’ perception of the hand (0.07). In this group, the actual hand actually became worse when the volunteers perception of the quality of the hand increased. There was no correlation when a person was able to see the entire posture. However, there was a positive correlation between the volunteers’ perception and the actual hand strength in the group that was shown only the hands and the arms (+0.07)  

Michael Slepian and his colleagues confirmed the results of this initial experiment by repeating it. Furthermore, Slepian concluded that this phenomenon occurred due to the fact that anxiety had a tendency to disrupt smooth body movements. To test this hypothesis, Slepian conducted a third experiment by showing the same clips to 40 volunteers. However, the volunteers were asked to rate the players’ confidence or the smoothness of a players’ movement of chips into the middle of the table.

Slepian found that those players who rated as confident or smooth in chip movements tended to have better holdings. There was a 0.15 correlation when the students considered confidence and an astonishing 0.29 correlation when focusing on the smoothness. From the statistics, Slepian and his colleagues were able to empirically prove that hand movement and smoothness were better indicators of hand strength.

Overall, the Stanford study reveals the fact that anatomical tells at the live poker table can be irrelevant when focusing on the face or posture. However, the study does confirm that players should look at the hands and the motion of wagering when trying to gain a read on an opponent.

Although physical tells have diminished in value given the dominance of online poker, players can now use this study to gain a little more information at the brick and mortar casino. Although the correlations are not as strong as some would like, any given information is considered an edge in poker.

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Wootae Min