A Straight Face

The World Series of Poker: earth's greatest liars gathered together with millions of dollars on the line. In one sprawling room of Binion's Horsehoe Casino, they duel for flat-out psychological domination. Cards fly to and fro, chips get stacked in strange architectures and cocktail waitresses glide by with coffee and bottled water. It's a blur of action, but the educated spectator ignores these distractions and focuses on the players' mannerisms--it's all part of the science of "tells," reflexes a player can't control that, read right, give away his thoughts. Watch how the tables teem with tiny moments: Amarillo Slim blinks slowly beneath his enormous cowboy hat. Rising star Tony Matenses with the air of a wary cobra, pushing jets of cigarette smoke from his nostrils. Meanwhile six-time champion Phil Hellmuth, considered one of the best players ever, peers furtively at his opponents as they bet, his eyes darting from face to face. Every eyebrow tic, every hand jitter, presents a clue to what cards they're holding. To play world-class poker is to read emotions in an instant, with a single glance; to intuit everything and give nothing away.

Binion's lies away from the Strip, in the slightly seedy old downtown. Outside, it's a glare-bright day as Mike Caro steers his car through the even seedier Vegas outskirts. A desert wind blows along the vacant lots, trapping tumbling plastic bags in the scrub brush. Caro utters his credo: "In the beginning, every thing was even money." The self-proclaimed "Mad Poker Genius," famed author and player, wants this above all to be clear. "When you don't know anything, everything's a coin flip, a 50-50 bet, unless you've observed, taken into account everything around you. It's the same with poker: the more you can take into account, the less the game becomes a coin flip, and the more you have an edge. Reading tells is a huge edge."

We're headed to the Gambler's Book Shop--the resource for students of gambling in all its forms. More a library than just a store, the shop features the most comprehensive collection of gambling publications in the world. Howard Schwartz, curator of this little museum, takes us deep into the back rooms housing out-of-print horse- betting manuals and blackjack guides. "There's a long history of reading tells," he says, rooting through files for ancient clips. "The old fortunetellers, to find out if they were on the right track, looked at your pupils and your carotid artery to see if you got excited as they talked." Eventually, Schwartz finds studies on tells dating back to the turn of the century. Most gambling books dwell on the numbers--how to play the percentages, not how to read minds. "Of course the percentages are vital in poker," says Caro. "I've run computer simulations of millions of hands, figuring out all the probabilities. But just crunching the numbers isn't enough. You see the math whizzes come in, the tacticians, trying to play like computers. They do pretty well, but they only go so far."

Caro himself wrote "The Book of Tells," a volume with photos illustrating various classic gestures and reactions. In an office at Card Player magazine, where Caro's a columnist, we set up a poker table, cards and chips, and dive into a game of no-limit Texas Hold 'Em--two cards in your hand, five shared cards face up on the table. I want Caro to demonstrate how he reads the emotions of a weaker player. Of course he takes all my chips within 10 hands or so, but the terrifying part is how he looks right through me. When I try to bluff (pretend I have a strong hand), Caro plays with his chips a moment, staring intently at me. As he explains after the hand, when I saw him about to call my bluff my body reflexively froze, and I held my breath--that's when he knew I had nothing. Had I kept breathing normally, he would have guessed my hand was strong.

In general, weaker players subconsciously act aggressive when their hands are weak, and sad or indifferent when their hands are strong. Caro's long study has revealed several tells of this kind that appear universally in weak and mediocre players. A player who picks up a monster hand will instantly look away from the table: it's a reflex that implies indifference, hoping to cloak the massive excitement the player feels. Conversely, a player trying to win with a weak hand (to bluff) will stare right at opponents--reflexive aggression masking weakness. Another tell is something Caro calls "pokerclack." If a player looks at his cards and instantly makes a soft clucking sound with his tongue, his hand is excellent. The cluck's a sad sound made subconsciously by an elated player. Hand gestures give you away, too. A flair, a tiny extra motion when placing chips in the pot, suggests a bluff: the player's bolstering a bet he knows is weak. Jittery hands during a bet signal a release of tension when a player thinks he'll win. The key to all these movements: the player doesn't realize he's making them.

Any decent player will spot and exploit these tells. But excellent players control involuntary reactions in themselves. At the Bellagio poker room, topflight player Mori Eskandani takes me on a tour spanning all levels of play. In low-stakes games, weak players show classic tells--when they get good cards they reflexively touch or look at their chips, just raring to go. But up in the high-stakes room, the pros, playing for thousands of dollars a hand, are a blank slate. "There are about 400 great professional poker players in the world," says Eskandani, "and among them you won't spot 10 tells. Reading them is a much more subtle game."

Phil Hellmuth agrees. Hellmuth's the third leading money-winner in tournament history--and one of the most exciting players to watch. At the table, he listens to music on headphones ("It's important to detach sometimes") and paces around between hands, but when a big bet comes down he sees and hears everything: the way hands move, expressions, a catch in the voice. "I don't think I can explain what it is that I see," he says. "I just have an innate sense. Poker players are the best people in the world at determining when someone's lying." At the top levels, it's not an obvious tell that gives a player away, but an overall aura, a subtle shift in shoulder position, the set of the mouth, pupil dilation. It's the sort of thing that's nearly impossible to quantify, though many have tried.

Still, even among top players, tells show up. But no pro wants to divulge specific tells they have on opponents--then they'd lose that edge. Russ Hamilton, 1994 grand champ, had a tell--he won't say what--on his foe in the final competition. "At the last hand, with everything on the line, I looked over to see if I could spot the tell. But he was eating a cheeseburger so I couldn't use it! The biggest hand of our lives, and he's eating a cheeseburger!" Hamilton won anyway. At one World Series event this year, repeat champion Ted Forrest forces an opponent into a tell. Deciding whether to call a possible bluff, Forrest fakes a move to push all his chips in. His foe almost imperceptibly rocks back in fear. Forrest goes ahead and bets his chips, calling the bluff--and wins.

Poker psychology is so complex that top players sometimes fake the tells. Then the decision becomes whether the tell you just saw was a reflex--or acting. "If ever there was a game of 'I know that you know that I know that you know,' poker is it," says Andrew Glazer. Glazer, a poker scholar and player who's writing a book with Hellmuth, has feigned tells. "I had a monster hand. I wanted the other guy to bet so I could take his money. He stared at me, and I wasn't making a move, so finally I gave a tiny gulp, like I'd had to gulp the whole time and just couldn't hold it. He instantly bet, and I won. Of course, a better player might have known I was faking and folded right away."

The World Series final plays on May 13. I'm not a pro yet, but after hours of watching the best in the biz, I'm definitely set to bag a few tourist dollars. Moseying in to the low-stakes Hold 'Em game at the Plaza in downtown Vegas, I am quickly confronted with a large bet. My foe stares right at me. I touch my chips. He freezes. I call his bluff--and win.