On poker faces, bleeding eyes, and Oreos

November 10, 2014

As I go about my daily life, I’m often interested to note that – despite all the revolutions in poker, all the increased awareness and literacy from TV and the internet, all the complex discussions that serious players have amongst themselves about maths and numbers and strategy – what most intrigues the average person is the concept of the “poker face”.

“Do you have a ‘poker face’?”, people ask me, three times a week.

“Does she have a ‘poker face’?” they ask my mother.

“Do you have trouble with her ‘poker face’?” they ask my husband.

The answer is absolutely no, in the sense that they mean it. Anyone who’s seen me play the game knows that I certainly don’t sit marble-faced at the table, silent and expressionless like a statue. I talk a lot, laugh a lot, snack constantly, drink tea, make jokes, make faces…


That is a natural and genuine expression of my personality but, usefully, it is its own sort of “poker face” as well. I find my opponents split into two groups: the sort that openly admit they have no idea what I’m up to with all this baffling movement and behaviour, or the sort that think they can “read me like a book” and are always wrong.

My word, the tells people think they have spotted on me over the years. With so much chatter and expression, smart alecs are always deciding they’ve noticed I talk more when I’m bluffing, talk less when I’m bluffing, put my head on one side with a marginal hand, meet their gaze more directly with a strong hand… But there is no such consistency. It changes all the time.

I understand why outsiders are fascinated by the “poker face”. Physical tells, and the elimination of them, are a fun and colourful idea. For me, one of the funniest things about Casino Royale (every poker player’s favourite comedy movie) is that James Bond, apparently the best player in the entire world of international espionage, can’t beat a man whose eyes bleed when he’s bluffing. Or he can – but only when he’s got a straight flush against the bleeder’s quads.

In Rounders, John Malkovich (apparently the best player in New York), has never noticed the peculiar way he crams Oreos into his mouth when he likes his hand. What a bozo.

The truth is, reading physical tells is a complex and difficult art which very few modern poker players have mastered. So, in standard company, don’t worry too much about how you sip your water or handle your chips. That might give you away to my old colleagues from the historic card rooms of London, but the vast majority of your opponents in live tournaments wouldn’t know what to do with the information if they had it.

They’ll be far more aware of bet sizes and types, so pay more attention to that than your imaginary twitches. It’s your frequency and scale of raising and re-raising that you want to make totally standard, or totally random, rather than the number of times you wink at the massage girl.

Victoria Coren Mitchell is a member of Team PokerStars Pro


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