Even people who don’t know very much about poker know about the importance of a poker face. It’s one of those terms that transcends just the game and has entered the mainstream. We read about politicians, businesspeople, celebrities, criminals and parents alike all keeping a poker face (or trying to) as they go about their daily activities.
Your poker face is about focus. It’s about concealing expressions. It’s about not giving away information via body language. Is about keeping your emotions under control and maintaining consistency.
It’s about keeping your cards close to your chest — another expression that has moved out of poker to have meaning in the wider world. In poker, of course, we can do this only metaphorically (the cards must stay on the table), but the poker face helps us deliver on the promise.
There’s no certain way to create a poker face that will work for everyone who plays live poker. But here are a few tips that should help as you try to find something that works for you.
And if all else fails, there’s always online poker. Find an avatar, stick it on your PokerStars account, and it’s your unmoving poker face for life.
FIGURE OUT WHERE TO LOOK — AND DON’T SAY ANYTHING!
In an ideal world, you would find a way for your face to stop moving entirely when you play a poker hand. But human biology does not work like that. Unfortunately, you’re always going to need to blink, and you’re probably going to need to swallow. And there’s nothing you can do about your body’s other mechanics. Blood is going to be pumping through your veins regardless.
That’s why you need to do your very best to manage the things that are in your control — your eyes and your mouth chief among them.
If you read any articles or books about poker tells, most of the most common examples relate to where someone is looking or what they’re saying. Some people find they can interpret a player’s holding by whether that person is staring at a flop, or at a chip stack, or at an opponent’s face. Alternatively, they can read comfort levels by the expression in a voice, or a laugh, or whether the opponent is talking at all.
For this reason, it’s good practice to find a place you always fix your eyes when you’re playing a hand. You might want to stare at a logo on the table, or perhaps at your own cards, which you place in the same spot every time. The important thing is that you look at that spot all the time, whether you’re checking or betting big; whether you’re weak or strong. It’s only when things change that eagle-eyed opponents can piece together patterns. Keep your poker face fixed in one direction.
And, as if it’s not obvious enough, keep quiet! Unless you’re one of those players for whom table talk is a particular strength (and bearing in mind that excessive table talk is rarely welcome), the best bet when you’re in a hand is to keep schtum. Your poker face depends on it.
AIM FOR CONSISTENCY
As mentioned above, people who are good at picking up on tells do so first by observing patterns, and then by noticing when the pattern changes. Does someone usually place their cards on top of one another, but then side by side if they intend to raise? Does an opponent look at the dealer if they have a strong hand, but stare at an opponent if they’re weak?
These would be rather obvious, but it’s the kind of thing that catches out amateur players every day.
The key to avoiding this kind of thing is to maintain consistency in everything you do. Bet, call or raise in the same way (i.e., don’t splash your chips sometimes and slide them on other occasions); find a fixed point to look at during hands; either vocalise all bets or vocalise none of them; put your hands always on your lap or always on the table rail.
As you develop good, consistent habits, you can extend all of this to your face too. Figure out your most comfortable, resting expression and keep your face like that throughout.
HAVE CONFIDENCE IN YOUR GAME
It’s most likely you will find your poker face beginning to crack when you are making a huge bluff. The intensity of the situation — the fact that you’ve piled chips into a pot and know they might not be coming back — can set the pulse racing in even the most emotionless player.
That’s why you need to remember the most important rule of bluffing: it needs to make sense. All good poker players will tell you that a bluff needs to be believable; you need to tell a consistent story. If you wantonly begin throwing chips in a pot despite previously having shown no interest in the hand, an opponent might be suspicious. They might then want to pause for a moment and think things through, perhaps peering over to see if they can pick up some additional information from your face.
That’s when you might find that poker face disintegrating.
However, if you have confidence in your game, if you know that your move is not only believable, but the right play to make at that time, you’re more likely to be able to pull it off. If you’ve run through all the options and have reasoned that a bluff here not only has a very good chance of working, but it also absolutely the correct play, you can commit to it more emphatically.
When you know you’re right, your poker face will hold.
WEAR WHATEVER MAKES YOU COMFORTABLE (AND CONCEAL YOUR TELLS)
Although there have been various short-lived campaigns to outlaw items such as sunglasses, hoodies and scarves at the poker tables, it is still almost universally accepted to wear this kind of thing. (The Covid-19 pandemic even made it mandatory on some occasions to wear face masks.)
So if you are the kind of player who finds themselves with a twitching mouth, or dilating pupils, or a throbbing neck while feeling the emotions of poker, you can probably find a way to put the guilty body part beneath some clothing or accessory.
And you should not feel ashamed of doing so either.
While it’s obviously preferable for you to be able to sit stone-faced in all circumstances, it often just isn’t feasible. So invest in whatever you need to keep your poker face concealed, if that’s what you think you need.