Your success in reading people in a live poker game is largely governed by your ability to effectively observe their behaviour and I found reading Phil Hellmuth Presents Read’em and Reap – A Career FBI Agent’s Guide To Decoding Poker Tells by Joe Navarro with Marvin Karlins improved my offline a game dramatically.
Joe Navarro worked with the FBI, both as an agent and supervisor in the area of counter-intelligence and counter-terrorism, for 25 years. He is presently an adjunct faculty member at the FBI’s Counterintelligence Division. In addition to his law enforcement work, Joe conducts poker seminars and offers personal consulting services to poker players.
He first realized that his skill set could be applicable to poker after filming a Discovery Channel special entitled “More Than Human” where he met Annie Duke in a test of human lie detectors against machine lie detectors.
He then applied his craft at Camp Hellmuth, Phil’s poker fantasy camp in August 2005, and by some accounts, stole the show with his presentation on Decoding Non Verbals at the Poker Table.
Here is an article originally published in the aforementioned book where he discuss the importance of observation and how you can improve your ability to do so effectively, also included are a couple of short video clips where he discusses what to what look for and how to conceal yourself at the poker table.Make Observation A Way Of Life
Effective observation is not a passive act. It is conscious, deliberate behaviour; something that takes effort, energy, and concentration to achieve and constant practice to maintain.
The best way to become an effective observer, then, is to conscientiously observer your world at all times. Please don’t delude yourself into thinking you can turn off your observations except when you’re at the poker table. It doesn’t work that way. You need to begin observing the minute you wake up in a morning and begin interacting with the world around you. You’ve got to keep observing right up to the time you go to sleep at night.
Conscientious observation has to become a habit. Once you train yourself to become a full-time observer in your everyday life, you’ll be a more effective observer when you get to the poker table. Your observation will be more natural, practiced, and you won’t be overwhelmed by the sheer amount of information you’ll need to process.
It’s amazing how much more you will notice once you’ve developed your observational skills through constant practice.Don’t Get Out Of The Observational Habit.
Observation – whether it be reading nonverbal tells at the poker table or watching what’s going on around you as you walk down the street – is a perishable skill. If you stop using it, it will weaken, deteriorate, atrophy. Observing is a lot like speaking a second language or playing a sport: if you don’t keep working at it, you’re going to get rusty and your competency will decline.Sharpen Your Skills (Or Maintain A High Level) By Playing Observation Games
Observational skills improve and/or remain at high levels with practice, and one of the best ways to practice is the “recall game.”
This game can be played at any time, in any location, and as often as you wish. It involves observing something that occurs in your everyday behaviour – say, walking into a room – and then closing your eyes and trying to remember in as much detail as possible, whatever you saw. At first you’ll find it difficult to recall much of anything. But as you continue to engage in this exercise, you’ll be amazed at how much better you’ll become at reconstructing an accurate mental picture of the physical environment you encountered. Not only will you remember more major objects in the environment, you’ll also begin to recall smaller details as well.
I have played these games so frequently they become an integrated, automatic part of my everyday observation. I have developed my “observation muscle” to a point where I can p[ay a visit to a friend at his or her home and, by the time I enter their front door, have an accurate mental picture of the immediate neighbourhood: the type of vehicles parked on the street, a man mowing his lawn three doors away, a home where two newspapers lie in the driveway, a metal stake protruding from the middle of a warn section of lawn next door, and a lot across the street with one particularly green patch of grass along the side of the house.
I readily admit I have always been fascinated by what’s going on around me, and, of course, I make my living studying the behaviour of others, so my infatuation with playing observation games will probably exceed yours. Nevertheless, I think they are a great way to develop your visual powers, and also help you measure your progress towards observational excellence.
A second game, particularly useful for poker players, is the “what does this observation suggest” challenge. Once again, you are trying to observe and remember your surroundings but now, in addition, your challenge is to discover what “intel” (knowledge) you can gain from what you see around you.
Using the neighbourhood visit I just described, what might I conclude from what I saw? (1) The man mowing the lawn probably lived in the house, as no commercial lawn maintenance vehicles were parked on the street; (2) the newspapers in the driveway suggested nobody had been home for the last day or two; (3) the metal stake in the middle of the lawn was probably a place where the neighbour kept his dog; and (4) the greener patch across the street indicated the owner probably had a side-yard septic system.
In this game, it’s fun to see if your hypotheses are correct, but even when they’re not you’re still sharpening your observational skills by learning to pay more careful attention to your surroundings and, at the same time, working to extract more information from what you see. Both these habits will serve you well as the poker tables when you learn to decipher what behaviours really mean.Expand Your Observational Range
Some people have narrow-angle observation – they see what’s directly in front of them, and that’s pretty much the range of their worldview. Others have a more wide-angled vision and are able to expand the area that they observe. Obviously the wider your observational field, the better. Wide-angled observation increased your chances of seeing things you might otherwise miss, gaining information you might otherwise lose.
Here’s an experiment for you to perform. Stretch your arms out from your body, shoulder high, and turn your hands in. Now wiggle your fingers. If you can see them moving, this is your field of vision. If you can’t see your fingers, then move your arms inwards until you can. Once you spot your finger, you’ll know that’s the potential field of vision you can observe.
Many people don’t take advantage of their full field of vision when it comes to observing. They limit their observation to what’s directly in front of them – at the centre of their viewing field, rather than expanding their range of sight to encompass their full viewing area. Learn to stretch your field of vision; life is more than what is directly in front of you! With practice, you will be able to look straight ahead and develop much wider sight lines. You’ll be amazed by how much more you see. This will be particularly valuable when you are at the poker table and want to observe more of your opponents without having to constantly turn your head and/or shift in your seat.