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I have found that most poker instruction on reading opponents’ tells and body language falls short because it lacks any instruction about context. If you don’t know who your opponent is, you can not accurately read their behavior. Most books and articles and videos just say things like “sometimes this tell is faked, so you should watch to see if they are faking it or not,” which is the simplest possible piece of instruction and not terribly useful.

There are lots of ways that you can learn about who a person is and how they approach poker, and we will focus on different ways to learn things about your opponents in this article series. I think it’s best to get started with the most basic information gathering tool, observing your target’s physical appearance. If you get good at this, you will be shocked at how much you know about people within a few seconds of seeing them for the first time.

Reading people can be fun!

Reading people, whether you are reading body language, or appearances, or anything else, takes practice. This isn’t something that you’ll be good at right away, but everyone can learn and it’s a skill that will serve you well for the rest of your life in social interactions, at work, and in relationships. If you can become interested in learning about your fellow humans, you will enjoy your homework and learn quickly while you are having fun.

You may have played a game with a friend where you attempt to guess the story of a person or a couple at a table in a restaurant or tried to guess things about people walking by on the sidewalk. This game, if you get serious about it, can increase your skill in reading appearances very quickly. It works fine to play the game in your head and learn as much as you can about each person you see by reading their appearance, but it’s even better with a friend.

Some things to keep an eye on

Here is a sample list of things to look for when you are trying to discern as much as possible about a person using only their appearance.

Hat – Baseball hat wearers are certainly different from people who wear top hats right? And if the logo on the hat is for a team from out of town, then the wearer may be from out of town. Is the bill flat or rounded? Is the hat clean or old and dirty? Is it for a sports team or a free hat from a construction company? All of these things tell you about a person. The guy wearing the dirty hat from the construction company is not terribly vain, while the perfectly clean flat-bill that cost $40 is more likely to be worn by someone who is very proud.

Hair – Even more than a hat, hair tells us much about a person. Did they spend money on a haircut? Do they dye their hair? Hair plugs or a wig? These things all tell us about a person. Long hair on a man tells us that the wearer is likely to be liberal, while short hair on a woman tells us that she is likely to be independent, confident, and not easily bullied. Dark black hair on an older person usually means that they are dyeing their hair and are vain and may live as if they are younger than their true age.

I could write pages and pages about hair and hats and what they mean and how they combine with other parts of a player’s appearance, but I’ll save some of that for future articles. Those examples serve to show just a few things you can learn from people by simply looking at the top few inches of their appearance. All you have to do to start learning is to apply this approach to everything about people.

Are they wearing make-up? Glasses? Facial hair? What do those things tell you about them? How about jewelry, clothing, wristwatch, backpack, purse or handbag? Shoes can tell us something, and so can a nice tan or lack thereof. How do they move? How old are they? Where are they looking? Do they seem comfortable? Are their chips stacked in an organized way or are they a mess? Be intrigued by other humans and learn about them. Speculate.

It’s not foolproof, but increases your odds

All of these assumptions can be wrong. There are long-haired Republicans and Democrats with military style flat-top haircuts, but if you bet against it you will win much more often than you lose. It’s ok to stereotype when it comes to poker as long as you can change your opinions once you see evidence to the contrary. This isn’t hiring someone for a job, it’s just poker, and making assumptions based on someone’s race, sex, appearance, culture, or anything else about their appearance, is fine. In fact, it’s necessary!

Now go out and read some people. Find new ways to learn everything you can about people you see around you and how to combine different things to narrow down or confirm your assumptions. And from now on, when you are at the poker table, look around you. You will learn something, I promise.

As always, I highly recommend Blue Shark Optics. If you are going to read people, you don’t want them to know they are being watched. To get clean reads where you know that your opponents are behaving the same way all the time, invest in a pair of Blue Sharks and get serious about reading your opponents.



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Chris Wallace

Chris "Fox" Wallace is a professional poker, author, and poker coach from St Paul, Minnesota. While he spent most of his career playing cash games,Fox recently started playing more tournaments and won a bracelet in the $10,000 HORSE World Championship in 2014. Follow him on twitter