The Masters of Poker Tells - Poker's Behavioral Deviants

Do you have some of Phil Hellmuth's white magic? Learn why some poker players have a highly developed aptitude for reading behavior.



Introduction to the Behavioral Deviants

Welcome to the first installment of our series, Poker’s Behavioral Deviants. Since forming the behavioral research company, The Nonverbal Group, I have worked with thousands of people from a wide range of backgrounds. Every once in awhile, I meet someone with an inordinately high capacity for reading, understanding, and anticipating the behaviors of others. When I meet this kind of person, I am always fascinated by their stories and how they developed this skillset. I use the term “skillset” because I am convinced that this ability is largely learned, not inherited.

These individuals represent a very small percentage of people in every industry: sales, hospitality, law enforcement, medicine, architecture, accounting, even convicted felons. Drawing from my experience and research into this topic, my central thesis is that a large part of both the professional and personal success of these “Behavioral Deviants” can be attributed to their heightened capacity for reading others. These deviants exist at the poker table and, whether they realize it or not, a major part of their success lies in their ability to read their opponents.

In the poker community this skillset is greatly misunderstood, undervalued, and doesn’t get the attention it deserves, so I have decided to take a much closer look. This series will take a case study approach, diving deeper into the lives of behavioral deviants in poker.

You might be wondering why am I using the term “deviant.” Some people would refer to these people as “gifted.” Personally, I feel calling it a gift is an insult. It’s a skillset that is the a result of an extensive amount of exposure and feedback. Every person who has this ability has put in a significant amount of work, whether they realize it or not. I choose to use the term “deviant” because if we were to look at a normal distribution, the nonverbal aptitude of these individuals would deviate far from the norm, making them outliers.

To gain a deeper understanding of these deviants we will dissect their performance and experiences, test their nonverbal aptitude and even interview them. But before we do this, we’ll highlight four specific themes that are going to come up for each person and discuss why these things come up.

1. They use a wide range of terms to describe their skill.

The ability has been called feeling, gut, intuition, sixth sense, white magic, among other things. Players sometimes refer to it as being able to read an opponent’s “energy.” I have dedicated my life to understanding these mechanisms at a much deeper level, and let’s get something straight: there is no energy being emitted by players at the table.

There is no mysticism behind an individual's intuition.

There is behavioral information that is being rapidly accessed by someone who has extensive skill and experience playing poker and a very high aptitude for reading the behaviors of others. This “intuition” is actually the product of being a “behavioral deviant.” If we were to test one of these deviants on their capacity for identifying behavioral shifts they would probably do very well but wouldn’t be able to explain why. It has become so intuitive that they can’t explain, so they use words like “feeling.” Some players will process massive amounts of behavioral data and when you ask them how they knew, they will say, “he leaned in a little bit,” completely ignoring all the other behavioral data that happened before and during the action.

2. They are criticized for decisions at the table.

If you play poker on a big stage and you are a well known player, you are inevitably going to get criticized. Everyone has an opinion. But here is the problem: the critics don’t have all the information. The casual observer sees a call out of position with a moderate hand and then jumps to make a criticism of the play. “How could you call out position with that hand? No value! This guy is an idiot.”

If you’re watching poker on TV, you have maybe a tenth of the behavioral information that is potentially available to a player. It’s similar to someone making a questionable decision while playing online and then pulling up his HUD to explain to you that he did what he did based on several thousands hands with this player. The problem with behavioral reads is that players can’t actually articulate why they did what they did. They can’t say something like, “This player 3bets really wide but only cbets the nuts.” This is why we get forum posts where players will talk endlessly about how “stupid” a certain move was. They don’t have the same information that the behavioral deviant has in that moment and to a certain extent the deviant doesn’t have it either because the information is expressed as a “gut feeling” or “intuition.”

If you can’t articulate something it is difficult to actually judge it. A player may be tapping into a different world of information. If this is the case, it’s tricky to argue the line he took because we don’t have all the same information available to us.

3. There is an adaptive reason why they are Behavioral Deviants.

I believe that this high aptitude is learned and often exceptional traits come from exceptional life experiences, meaning there is an adaptive reason why someone’s awareness is heightened. Experiences are often followed by lifestyle or professional choices that further strengthen the skillset. For example, let’s say you grew up in a household where your father was an alcoholic and very violent so you were always paying careful attention to his mood to avoid the negative results of him being drunk. That’s an adaptive reason for having a heightened ability to detect behavioral shifts. One of my hypotheses is that we will find stories in our behavioral deviants that explain where their aptitude came from, and find that their skill was strengthened by activities both on and off the felt.

4. Being a Behavioral Deviant is much different at the poker table than in everyday life.

You might be thinking to yourself, “I am one of those people in life. I am really good at figuring out if people are uncomfortable or interested and tend to be very aware. Why can’t I do this at the poker table?”

It’s because reading poker players is significantly different than reading people in everyday life. This is one of the reasons why the advice of “behavioral experts” sometimes makes absolutely no sense at the poker table.

There are two core differences:

  1. Context. Poker is rich with multiple layers of information. These behavioral deviants aren’t just good at reading people, they are also amazing at thinking through the layers of information at the table and integrating them into their thought processes.
  2. Concealment. When it comes to reading behavior, poker is dynamic on an interpersonal level. People have different capacities for skill, focus, attention, etc. Poker isn’t the open display of emotions and cognitive process that you see in the standard conversation. Players are often dedicating cognitive effort towards masking their behavior.

Poker is unique because you aren’t just reading human behavior. You are reading behavior and trying to determine what that behavior is influenced by, all while taking into consideration stack size, position, betting patterns, board texture, basic probabilities and so on and so forth. This skillset requires the processing of a huge amount of behavioral and contextual information.

If you take someone who has a really high aptitude for reading people and teach them poker they aren’t going to be instantly exceptional at reading poker behavior because they will be unable to understand the other side of the game.

The beauty of behavioral deviants is that these two things are fused together along with a massive amount of experience and critical thought at the table. I have a hypothesis that poker behavioral deviants will also show a high aptitude for reading behavior off the table. They should be particularly aware and reactive in social situations. In terms of social aptitude, Antonio Esfandiari is probably the greatest example of someone who thrives in social interactions due to his ability to read people and we will explore that later as part of our series.


Blake Eastman expert on Poker Tells

My name is and my entire professional life has gravitated around three things: Poker, Psychology, and Nonverbal Behavior. Below are some of the reasons I am uniquely qualified to discuss poker and tells.

Adjunct Psychology Professor at the City University of New York for 7 Years

Professional Poker Player and Owner of the first Brick and Mortar Poker School School of Cards

Internationally Recognized Behavioral Expert and Founder of the Research and Education Organization


The insights and commentary in the video come from an ongoing behavioral analysis of poker players. This section is primarily used to describe the specific methods we used in some of our more complex analysis. As this article is more theoretical in nature we didn’t highlight the specifics. Although you can learn more about our research efforts below.