A Poker Player's Tells Are In The Hands As Much As The Face

Michael Slepian, a graduate student in psychology at Stanford University, has been studying the way poker players communicate the value of their poker hands through non-verbal signals. He tells Weekend Edition Sunday host Rachel Martin that they give themselves away, not in their facial expressions, but with hand motions.

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RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:

Let's talk poker. Dealer, let me see those cards.

(SOUNDBITE OF MOVIE, "COOL HAND LUKE")

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #1: (as character) King-three, you got a four. Queen-deuce gets a five. And a pair of sevens gets a john. And the big ace gets a slap in the face. OK, you still do the talking.

MARTIN: That's a poker game from the movie "Cool Hand Luke." Poker, of course, is a game of deception. You have to play your bet based on the cards you think your opponent has. And if you think they've got good cards, you should probably fold. But there's always a chance the other guy is bluffing.

(SOUNDBITE OF MOVIE, "COOL HAND LUKE")

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #2: (as character) A hand full of nothing. (unintelligible) mom and dad. He beat you with nothing.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #3: (as character) Sometimes nothing can be a real cool hand.

MARTIN: Well, it turns out, a person's cool, confident hands, as opposed to her tight-lipped poker face, might be the best place to look if you're trying to guess her cards. Which leads us to the research of Mike Slepian. He's a grad student in psychology at Tufts and Stanford Universities. He studies the way our intentions can influence our movements, and he was looking for a real world example.

MIKE SLEPIAN: When people are playing the game of poker, they move chips into the center of the table, and we're like, oh, well, what if how good their poker hand is influences how they move their chips into the center of the table. And if so, can people sort of decode maybe the quality of their poker hand without them, obviously, wanting to repeal their poker hand.

MARTIN: That would be valuable information. So, what did you find out? Can you apply this to poker?

SLEPIAN: So, you can. So, we showed participants videos of professional poker players playing in the World Series of Poker, and participants watched either just players placing bets but only their faces or they watched their whole bodies or they watched just their arms pushing chips into the center of the table. And it turned out that people couldn't do it from just the whole body. They couldn't guess accurately how good a poker hand was. They couldn't do it for their face. In fact, they're a little bit worse than chance suggesting that the facial cues players were sort of admitting were deceptive. But when just looking at the arms, they could tell how good professional poker players' poker hands were.

MARTIN: Wow. The truth is in the arms. Why does that make sense? What is it about our arm movements - and that one in particular, moving chips into the center of a table - that's so revealing?

SLEPIAN: So, it could be if you have a really good hand and you feel confident about that, you might just push the chips into the center of the table just a little bit more smoothly. And actually, we found that if we have participants rate how smoothly is this person putting chips into the center of the table, the smoother they're doing it, the better their poker hands were.

MARTIN: Do you play poker?

SLEPIAN: I actually don't. Maybe I should start.

MARTIN: Mike Slepian is a grad student at Tufts and Stanford Universities.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

MARTIN: This is NPR News.

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