As a recreational poker player with a neuroscience obsession, I often find myself sitting at a poker table with insecurities over my brain betraying my clever betting strategies by revealing the scheme I am trying to hide from my opponents. Did they notice I looked to the left when I made that big bluff? Did I lean back in my chair when I was confident in my cards? Did I glance at my chips to indicate I was going to make a bet? Sometimes I’ll try doing the opposite of what my opponent might perceive as a “tell” in an effort to cause confusion. In turn, I am conscious of the fact that my opponent could be doing the same thing to me, devising double-bluffs to throw me off. Welcome to the psychological dance of poker.
To some extent, our physical reactions in high-stakes situations are uncontrollable. The brain’s limbic system is activated when our emotions get the best of us, triggering the facial muscles to show what we feel. Paul Ekman’s extensive study of microexpressions has revealed that our control over facial expressions is limited. Microexpressions, involuntary facial expression flashes that last only up to one fifth of a second, can be extremely difficult to catch, however. Ekman reported that out of 15,000 people without any formal training for spotting microexpressions, only 50 of them were able to notice them in video clips (although the ability can supposedly improve with training).
But thoughts that are not necessarily linked to emotion can also be revealed by the subconscious. A new study published in Current Biology demonstrates that our eye position can be used to predict what number we are thinking of. When people were told to pick a series number between 1 and 30, a left or downward change in eye position predicted that the next number would be lower, whereas a right or upward change predicted that the next number would be higher. As the researchers state, “the findings highlight the intricate links between supposedly abstract thought processes, the body's actions and the world around us.” In other words, our brain’s oculomotor system that controls eye movement is tightly linked to our neural representation of numbers.
So how might this apply to poker, you ask?
Well try this the next time you play: look in your opponent’s eyes when they have a decision to make. If his/her eyes move left or downward (thinking of lower or neutral values), they might be thinking of “checking” or “folding”. If they look right or upward (thinking of higher values), this could indicate that they will bet or “raise.”
Conversely, try to look in the opposite predictive direction before making your move. If your opponent has a read on you (or has read this article up until this paragraph), they might already be consciously or subconsciously using your eye position to understand you. Maybe you can mess with them by incorporating some cognitive control over your natural reactions.
I claim no responsibility if these strategies fail, but if they result in winnings, I do accept thank you’s, monetary tips, or other things that activate my brain's reward system.