Read anything good lately?

March 29, 2009

In my gaming circles, I often hear a commonly spoken phrase regarding bluffing and the ability to read a person at the table. And to paraphrase, it sounds something like “you can’t learn it, you’re just born with it.”  Or more accurately, “I’m just born with it.” Nothing like a little self-appreciation at the casino.

Is that true, though? Is the ability to read another person in the genes, or can it be learned and taught like the rules of Texas Hold ‘Em? The answer might not be what you were thinking.

My answer, for the record, is that it requires a bit of both. It helps, of course, to be born with the unique talent to accurately pinpoint what someone’s intentions are, or whether they’re lying, simply by observing their face, body and tendancies. The skill goes much further than calling out a bad bluff in a game of cards. Detectives use it during a homicide case, many use to their advantage in work environments…there are dozens of different scenarios.

I can remember an instance recently where I was sitting in a colleague’s office, and we were discussing something important to the daily workflow. It was a casual conversation but with serious aspects. I tested myself throughout the meeting, not to call out a bluff or a lie, but simply to observe the different facial emotions as paired with the different outward moods he was offering. And I was reminded what many of you already might know, as well. The real tell is in the eyes. In a split-second, the change in mood from serious to light humor was revealed in the eyes. It’s difficult to convey in words a more detailed description of what this change appears as…and that alone is one of the reasons it’s impossible to completely teach the trait of reading people without some “born-with” basis to spot these things when they occur.

All other things equal (no facial movement, no development of sweat, no body twitches, no speech, no hesitation on decision), a true expert can still decipher what you’re thinking and what your mood is just by watching your eyes.

So don’t laugh next time you see someone at the World Series of Poker wearing thick Moneymaker sunglasses with or without the company of a full-mouth scarf. The fans blowing sweat away, the large-rimmed hats, the quiet tones, none are as valuable to someone trying to conceal their intentions than a good pair of black-out sunglasses.

What can be taught, then? To discipline yourself in how you reveal (or don’t reveal) that you’re actively trying to read someone. How to look for more obvious physical tells, and when to expect them. Both of these things can be taught and, through practice, mastered. I don’t want to over dramatize and sound like we’re talking about Neo in the Matrix here, but even the deeper talents of reading someone’s eyes need to be harnessed and controlled.

If I had to pin it down to a percentage, I’d say mastering the art of successfully calling out a bluff is 70 percent natural ability, and 30 percent education. So, if you’re trying to improve your skills here, don’t shy away from studying the experts, reading books and practicing religiously until you build your confidence. If it’s something that you enjoy doing, the studying and practicing won’t seem like work at all. And on the other end, you’ll add a valuable weapon to your poker arsenal.

You can have all the control in the world, the greatest run of cards, the most disciplined betting plan and a heap of luck on your side, but there’ll come that moment when your gut is ferociously disagreeing with your logic, and that’s when you need to step outside your own head and try to get inside your opponent’s.

That’s the moment, when there’s a $500 bet on the table and you’re straining yourself not to show your heart beating through your shirt, where you’ll need to draw on your talent to read someone else to make the call for you.