Poker Tells – Lesson #1 – Learning to Be Observant

Most people walk through life with blinders on, missing most of what happens around them. If you learn to be observant you will be amazed that you ever got by without your newfound observation skills. You will also be amazed at how little other people notice about their world. Learning how to read your fellow human beings will help in everything from dating to business negotiations and it gives you a huge advantage at the poker tables.

The primary obstacle most people face in becoming more observant is actually an emotional one. If you are constantly talking about yourself, you learn nothing about the person you are having a conversation with. If you are too busy trying to look good to the attractive man or woman next to you at the bar, you don’t have time to see how they are responding or learn what things they might respond to.

To become observant, you have to put those desires on hold and start worrying more about other people than yourself. You have to watch, and listen, and think about what you can learn about the people around you instead of teaching them things and trying to impress them.

You have to stop looking inward and start looking out at the the world around you. And you have to be interested. This can be a tough skill to learn, and it is unnatural for many of us. This doesn’t mean you can’t talk, in fact you should be talking. You should be asking questions. Which leads us to our first exercise.

Exercise #1 – Watch, Listen, and Learn

For this exercise you’ll need to be around someone you don’t know very well at all, but who is interested in talking to you. You will also need to spend at least ten minutes engaged in conversation with them. Today you are going to learn to put your other desires aside and simply learn about the person you are talking to. Whether you find them in a long line at airport security or sitting next to you at a poker table doesn’t matter, but how you interact with them matters a great deal.

Luckily for you, most people have never done an exercise like this and most people are completely self-centered. This doesn’t mean they aren’t compassionate human beings, just that they mostly only see things from their own perspective and unless something drastic happens they will be thinking about their own wants and needs. That makes the exercise easy to do with the average person, because they will give you all the information you could possibly want.

Your subject will tell you everything you want to know because you will be offering them a chance to talk about their favorite subject – themselves. Most people will talk about themselves for hours if you appear to be interested and ask them questions. The more talkative a person is the easier this exercise will be for you, but you can learn a great deal about a quiet person too, simply by asking questions and waiting for the answers.

In order to understand your subject, you’ll want to start by looking at their initial statements to determine what kinds of things are important to them. Do they immediately start talking about their kids, their job, their spouse, or a recent vacation? Within a few a minutes you should have an idea about where your subject’s priorities lie.

Asking as question like “What do you do?” will usually give you some good clues to the priorities in their life. If they sheepishly respond with “I’m in tech support, boring stuff.” you can assume that they don’t think they are cool, and they aren’t a terribly confident person. If they proudly answer “I run my own business.” then you know they are confident, used to getting their way, and more likely to be aggressive at the poker table.

As you determine what is important to them, and ask more questions, you can start to look at who they are. What is their level of education? How high is their IQ? What is their moral code? Are they religious? What political party do you think they associate with? How much money do they make.

Some of your answers will come from your subject’s appearance, but you’ll need to find out the answers to most of these questions by listening and thinking, because you can’t ask all of them.

If your subject is giving you too many one word answers, you are either asking questions about subjects they aren’t interested in, or you need to appear more interested in their answers. Open ended questions work best, while yes or no questions will get you nowhere. You can also wait a little longer and use some social pressure to force them to go on talking. This is a common ploy in police interrogation, letting the silence hang in the air after a short answer to get a suspect to expand on his statements.

It’s normal for most of us to want to please the people around us, and if your subject doesn’t respond to your answer and you continue to look at them waiting for more information, they will naturally want to expand on their answer. The fact that silence is uncomfortable for many people can make that silence an excellent tool. Just be careful that you don’t take it too far and make them so uncomfortable that they stop wanting to talk to you.

Remember that this must all be done undercover. Just maintain a conversation and let them talk. Think about what they are saying and listen carefully for the unspoken truths that tell you about who they really are. Simply allowing them to talk, even if the subject is terribly mundane, should give you all the information you need. No conversation is boring when you are using it to learn about your subject.

A Quick Example

On a flight to Vegas earlier this year I was seated next to a woman who I chatted with for about twenty minutes until she became absorbed in a book. In twenty minutes I learned a great deal about her, and at the poker table I would certainly have found a few things I could use to my advantage against her.

To start off she was pretty, in her mid forties, but completely lacking makeup or any of the trimmings that many attractive women will have, even on an airplane. This told me that she was practical and probably not prone to spend money on frivolous things. She would probably be a tight player if she knew much about the game, and wouldn’t play for real money if she didn’t know what she was doing.

My subject was confident and self assured, and flying alone, so I imagine she would be quite comfortable competing with a table full of men. This doesn’t mean she would play poker, just that she wouldn’t be easily bullied, and would probably make sound decisions to the best of her ability. The situation wouldn’t put her under stress and she wouldn’t be likely to bow to pressure.

As we talked I learned that she and her husband were farmers. They ran their farm with their three sons and hired help only seasonally. This confirmed many of my initial thoughts that this woman was no shrinking violet and that she was probably tough as nails when the time came for it. She clearly enjoyed talking about both her farm and her sons, things she was proud of. This indicated to me that building up things that she was proud of was important to her and protecting them was also vital. She would be a tight player who was not going to lose a big portion of her stack without a big hand.

She talked about a number of trips the family had taken recently, indicated that the farm made enough money to support a few vacations and it also let me know that she wasn’t some back country hick who rarely left the county. She was well spoken, with very little accent, which means a good education. People don’t usually pick up perfect grammar on the farm, they pick it up at school, usually college. While I don’t know if she went to college for certain, I would bet on it.

As she talked she mentioned her husband a number of times, and never in a negative way. Their relationship is clearly strong. People don’t generally talk about people they don’t like or are not proud to have in their lives unless they are being disparaging. Most people who are unhappy with their spouses won’t talk about them much except to issue short answers to direct questions. People talk about things they enjoy or they complain about things that they think should garner them sympathy.

I knew she wasn’t just answering my questions out of politeness, because she was turned to face me and her smile went all the way to her eyes (a concept we’ll cover later), but when she asked what I did for a living her demeanor changed and her body language quickly became negative. Apparently professional poker player was not on her list of acceptable professions. Not a big deal to me, some people just feel that way about poker, much the way I feel about preachers, lawyers, politicians, and meter maids.

I could have kept her talking by asking more questions, but I let her off the hook immediately once I knew she had lost interest in talking to me. I knew she wasn’t impressed with my choice of profession when her eyes squinted just a bit, she smiled and it didn’t reach her eyes, and she shifted her feet to face away from me and toward the window. Simple body language and facial expression changes clued me in right away, even though she was a polite woman who would never have told me that she held my job in disdain. It’s possible that her husband, father, or one of her sons had lost important money in a poker game once and she had never forgiven the game. Many people in rural farming communities are also very religious, and it could be the idea of gambling that she didn’t like.

In a very short time, with a person I had never met, I found out a great deal about her personality. I could probably tell you who she voted for (Republicans), how she felt about wolves (pests that should be shot), and most importantly what kind of poker player she would be if she were across the table from me (solid and tight and tough to intimidate). I did this easily without asking questions about any of these subjects.

When you are trying to learn about someone without letting them know what you are doing, it helps to have strong reasoning skills and see yourself as a detective. Sherlock Holmes would have been a fine poker player, and he would have known a great deal about his opponents the moment he sat down. Once they started talking he would have known nearly everything about them, deducing everything they weren’t saying from the few things they were saying.

After you do this exercise with a subject or two, come back to this lesson and do your best to answer the following questions about them.

What political views does the subject have?

What culture were they raised in?

What is their yearly income?

Are they a highly moral person or mostly concerned with what they can take for themselves?

What is the subject’s level of education?

How intelligent is the subject?

Does the subject have an addictive personality or is their willpower too strong for that?

What kind of poker player would the subject be? How well would they play and for what stakes?

What did their clothing tell you about them? Jewelry?

How do they view money and gambling?

Did they like you and enjoy your conversation?

If you have solid answers to all of these questions then you are much better at observing your fellow humans than most people. Most people come away from a conversation with a few minor details like “He was tall, he had a blue shirt, and he owns a basset hound named George.” These details are useless when attempting to understand your subject and they tell us nothing about how they are likely to behave in a poker game.

Once you have gone through the book once, I urge you to come back to this exercise and do it a few more times, but this time make sure that it is at a poker table. Learn who your opponents actually are and how they think. When you come back to the questions above you should know the answers to nearly all of them.

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