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Spotting Poker Bluffs

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The Game Has Changed Now That TV Broadcasts People Playing Poker

In the old days not a word was spoken, and that tradition continues today in some venues. But lies had to be spotted, bluffs called. I learned about this from winners of the International Poker Tournament, held each year in Las Vegas. It costs $15,000 to enter the fray, and then, after two weeks of serious gaming, the winner walks away with a million bucks.

Two of the winners, in different years, sought my advice, knowing that I am an expert in spotting liars. I told them I had not played poker since junior high and had never watched poker being played. They thought that didn't matter. It turned out they were wrong.

You Can Win Without Bluffing, but You Can't Win If You Can't Spot the Bluffers

The key to winning, each said, was spotting bluffs. Once you know they have a bad hand, if you have a good one, you keep raising the stakes, causing the bluffers to lose a lot of money when they are called. I asked them how they did it, given what each said about what happens during a game. Everyone wears large, dark glasses, blocking most of the face. Not a word is spoken. That worried me, since I had found that detecting lies using my methods got easier the more words were spoken. What did they rely on if they couldn't see most of the face and had no clues from the words or the sound of the voice?

Cards are picked up and laid down, cards are examined, and a movement of the cards on the table signals a wish for another card. They had learned the differences in those few movements to detect when someone is bluffing. But they were not going to tell me how they did it. They wanted me to tell them anything additional they could use to spot the bluffer.

Are Poker Winners Wizards of Deception Detection?

I tested each of them by showing them a videotape I had made in which you see 30 people lying or telling the truth. Some are lying about whether they are watching a film of gruesome surgery or one of beautiful flowers. Some are lying about a strongly held opinion about the justification of capital punishment. And others are lying about whether they have taken money that is not theirs. I had shown this test to nearly 15,000 people in every profession you can think of. Over 95 percent of the people I tested did not do much better than chance. But would these poker winners be in the other 5 percent, whom I call the wizards of deception detection? No, they were in with the 95 percent! They were highly skilled in interpreting a very special vocabulary of movements in this silent game of poker they played, but those movements did not occur when people were interviewed.

If people talk while they play their hand, if they claim to have a great hand when they don't, then what I rely on to catch liars -- very brief (micro) and very small (mini) facial expressions, gestural slips, voice changes, and so forth -- will probably work. But the stakes have to be high; there has to be a lot to lose or gain. And there has to be conversation during and about the game. For the moment, the silent game of poker remains a mystery to most of us. Mum's the word. And it's also the best how-to tip for playing poker and getting away with bluffs.

Authorized Lying and Uncovering Deceptions

No one objects to trying to spot poker bluffers; in a sense it is authorized by the rules of the game. Catching liars is also authorized when interrogators question criminal suspects. Although suspects are told that they have to answer truthfully, confessing crimes they committed, interrogators expect that suspects will lie if they think they can get away with it. Although torture is not allowed, interrogators can trick the suspect to get at the truth. Our Supreme Court has upheld convictions based on confessions obtained by lying to the suspect -- for example, claiming that another suspect has already confessed, or that their fingerprints were on the gun, when neither is true. (Incidentally, that is not allowed in England and most other European countries.)

Medical patients are not always truthful, sometimes concealing problems they are embarrassed about having, and often lying about whether they really did use all the medications that were prescribed. No one objects when the doctors or nurses uncover such deceptions, but unlike the interrogator-suspect context, here it is done to help the person engaging in concealment.

Where Does This Leave Us on Lie Catching?

Whether we should expect to be misled and feel authorized to catch liars is less certain in other arenas. Should we expect someone bent on seduction to be truthful about how many previous partners they have had, or how much undying love they feel? Will our friends tell us about our unwelcome or unattractive mannerisms? Often it is not clear what to expect and whether lie catching is needed or justifiable. That is the ambiguity we live with about truth and lies.

Visit the Paul Ekman Group Training Tools page to learn more about how you can train yourself to recognize micro and subtle expressions and improve your ability to "read" others.