Do You Need a Poker Face?

Pair of Eyes Behind a Pair of Cards

Poker, being a card game, doesn’t require you to do much with your body.

This means that, in a way, your weight, height, or age range doesn’t really matter. You’ll be welcome at any table, as long as you have the money (or someone else does).

That’s part of the reason why some people don’t take the idea of the proverbial poker face very seriously. But does having one actually help players hide their motives or bluffs?

My goal here is for us to take a closer look at this matter. After all, do you need a poker face or not?

1 – What’s in a Face?

Before saying anything else about how important a poker face may or may not be, let’s make sure we’re on the same page about its meaning.

A poker face, by definition, is that emotionless look you have regardless of the strength of your hand. Now, why would it be a good idea to appear devoid of emotions while playing poker?

The answer is simple! You want to avoid giving away any unintended signs or tells. Above all, you want to have control over how other players perceive you.

Closeup of a Pair of Kings

Of course, to have absolute control would be an unrealistic aspiration, unless you’re some sort of master hypnotist. If you aren’t, then other players will always be able to form their own impressions about you.

And that’s actually a great thing if you’re empathic enough to grasp what those impressions are. In fact, a big part of one’s evolution as a poker player requires the development of this skill.

(Being empathic, by the way, is about perceiving others’ emotions, not necessarily sympathizing with them.)

Once you get good at this, you can have a lot of fun playing with other people’s expectations about you, at least to a certain extent.

And a poker face is one of the many tools you have at your disposal to do that.

2 – Expanding the Picture

I think it’s here that things can get a little confusing, because it seems that some people tend to ignore the fact that your face is only one part of your body.

It may be the most important one (it certainly is in lots of social situations). But it should never be seen in isolation, at least this is what all experts on body language agree upon.

They all say that you should never make any assessments about someone based on a single sign. (A person may have folded his or her arms simply because it’s cold, for example.)

There’s no doubt that your facial signs can say much about you at a poker table. But not always for the reasons that most people think.

And, if you’re too hasty in your conclusions, you’ll get all mixed up later on, which can cost you a lot of money.

3 – Telling a Complete Story

The most reliable physical reactions are those that, as far as I know, can’t be faked.

These are great sources of information, and, in poker, we call them tells.

A tell is anything a poker player does that tells his or her opponents something about the strength of his or her hand.

The classic example here is the dilatation of pupils whenever someone’s interested in what he or she sees. This is one of those tells that can’t be faked.

As you might have guessed, being able to perceive someone’s pupils during a game isn’t always easy. But if you can, it’s probably easier to tell if your opponent is less likely to fold.

In any case, most of the tells you’ll see at a poker table aren’t so reliable without prior knowledge of the person behind them.

For example, what can you say about a player who is blinking more than usual? Or of a person pursing his or her lips? Or of someone staring straight at you?

The answer is always the same—it depends.

4 – When a Tell Is Not a Tell (Until It Is)

Poker player and author Mike Caro discerns between two types of tells in his classic book about it:

  • Tells from actors
  • Tells from non-actors

In poker, an “actor” is anyone who tries to disguise a weak hand by acting strong and vice-versa.

This would be the person who sighs after hitting a set on the flop. And who smiles when bluffing on the river. So, that’s already something for us to have in mind.

More than that, if you’re up against an amateur, I’d say this is one of the first things you have to pay attention to. Of course, it’d be naive to ignore the fact that other players also understand this distinction.

Consequently, if they aren’t “actors” themselves, they can sometimes “act as actors.” But those are a minority. In any case, you should pay attention to how your opponent behaves all the time. By this I mean, not only against you.

Paying attention to what is going on all the time is what enables you to have a broad perspective about someone. You won’t have a complete picture, mind you. (You’re not omniscient, are you?)

But you’ll be able to identify those reactions that seem out of place according to that picture in your mind. These are the moments where your instincts will tell you that something is off.

And you’d do well to obey those instincts most of the time, especially if you’re an experienced player.

5 – How Far Can a Face Go?

So, do you need a poker face or not? …Many times, the answer is no.

Not because it’s not important to disguise your hand. Of course it is. But because there are ways of giving and receiving information that go beyond your facial expressions.

In fact, they even go beyond your body language. (Or your verbal communication, for that matter.)

Closeup of a Poker Hand

Do you remember how I chose to define the term tells earlier in this text? If you don’t, here it is again: Tells are anything that reveals to other players something about your hand.

Most of the time, the most critical information comes from other things. Namely, the fundamentals of the game.

That’s why great real money online holdem players don’t take too long to become at least good live players, too. After playing so many hands online, they’re able to have a solid understanding of those fundamentals.

And there’s one in particular that deserves a special place in our discussion here—your betting patterns.

6 – Mixing the Colors of the Palette

Betting patterns are important regardless of the poker variant you choose, but even more so in a no-limit game.

In no-limit, you have the option of betting as much as you wish at any time. (If you have the chips, of course.) This makes it much easier for a savvy player to recognize how you feel about your hand.

That’s an even more dangerous situation if you’re playing Texas hold’em because other games benefit players who understand the pot odds better. That’s why pot-limit Omaha is much more prestigious than no-limit Omaha.

And other games played with no limits don’t offer lots of betting rounds. The only exception I know of is 2-7 Triple Draw.

It isn’t for nothing that people call no-limit Texas hold’em “the Cadillac of poker games.” And it’s no coincidence that poker has become more popular than ever because of this particular variant.

Do you see where I’m going with all this? Imagine a game in which you can bet as much as you can, and the game also has up to four betting rounds per hand. That’s a lot of information for a good player.

I hope I’ve been able to show you why your betting patterns are so important because your opponent may not always see how you placed a certain bet.

He or she may not even have noticed if your hands were shaking, or if you splashed your chips on the table. But they’ll always be able to know in which situations you bet and how much.

They’ll also know how frequently you tend to bet, call, raise, check-raise, or fold. This type of information is usually more than enough for a great player to beat a less skillful one.

Conclusion

So, let’s wrap up our conversation about your poker face (and your body language in general).

Can we say anything for sure about its importance? As you can see, this is not a matter of affirming that you need a poker face or not.

The thing is that, even when you have a great one, it won’t be of much use to you unless you have also worked on your fundamentals.

Until then, by all means, feel free to bring your sunglasses and scarf to the table. Just don’t count too much on them if you’re up against an opponent who knows what they’re d