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Jeff Haney

Former FBI body language expert to teach seminar

22 October 2008

LAS VEGAS, Nevada -- The scene, or a close variation, plays out virtually every time Joe Navarro observes the action in any busy Las Vegas poker room.

A guy will push all his chips into the center of the table, forcing his opponent to make a big decision for the rest of his money in a cash game.

After going "all in," the player will recline in his seat, his body language making it look as if he's watching a football game on a couch in his rec room.

"I'm thinking it's clear this guy's got the nuts," said Navarro, who spent 25 years with the FBI specializing in nonverbal communication and behavior analysis. "He's all in and he's all spread out. His legs are open. His arm is splayed across two chairs.

"It's what we call a 'territorial display.' It's what we do when we're strong. And still, the other guy is struggling whether to call (the all-in bet). I can't believe I'm watching this. Why would you call? All the information is right there in front of you."

Navarro has turned his attention in recent years to working with poker players, from relative novices to established tournament professionals, in deciphering nonverbal clues — commonly called "tells" by poker players — at the table.

He's one of six instructors scheduled to speak at a World Series of Poker Academy seminar Nov. 7 and 8 at Caesars Palace. The instructional camp, incidentally, precedes the final table of the 2008 World Series main event set for Nov. 9 and 10.

The study and decoding of tells, Navarro said, can make the difference between winning and losing money for cash-game players. For tournament specialists, the edge provided by spotting tells can make the difference between earning a championship bracelet and missing out on one.

"I've had many professional players in my classes, and they sit there with an interest you would not normally expect to see," Navarro said. "They are pros, so you think they would already know everything they need to know. But they are aware that any small edge to a poker player can be invaluable."

Even for nonprofessionals — the rest of us, in other words — Navarro recommends putting aside time to study body language at the poker table as a way to complement the time spent on strategy and poker theory.

"If you're going to play poker competitively, this is training," Navarro said. "You can spot a lot more by going to the poker room and studying seven or eight tables over the course of an hour than if you played at one table for the same hour.

"Another thing I've had many people come back and tell me is that they were able to take the knowledge they got from my discussion and apply it immediately that day, whether it was at Caesars Palace or the Bellagio, or wherever they were playing. While some of the poker strategy discussion is very important, they might have to wait until a specific situation comes up in a tournament to put it to use."

The November academy focuses on advanced techniques in no-limit Texas hold 'em, the form of poker in which expertise in spotting tells can be particularly effective.

Phil Hellmuth, who has 11 World Series bracelets including one in the main event, has said tells make up as much as 70 percent of the game in high-stakes hold 'em tournaments. Former World Series main event champ Greg Raymer also believes the study of tells is a significant part of the competition, Navarro said.

The same ideology applies to lower limits as well. Navarro was walking through the poker room at Caesars after a seminar when he noticed a player biting the corner of her mouth.

"Of course, seeing that had a gravitational pull on me, so I walked over to see how it played out," Navarro said. "I'm thinking she's weak, she's worried about something. Sure enough, she had been throwing money in chasing cards with nothing but hope, and the cards she was looking for never showed. She had reason to worry.

"These things are out there. You just have to be aware of them. I tell players I'm going to teach them what I've learned through my work in counterintelligence, catching spies, in teaching at these conferences and in working with poker players. There's no reason poker players should not be aware of why we do these things, why people behave the way they do."

Tournament specialist Phil Gordon, also on the roster of instructors for the camp at Caesars, touches on tells in his presentation, focusing on "maximizing your results" after spotting a tell.

Gordon also explores concepts such as aggression, patience and resilience, especially as it applies to playing with a "short stack," or a limited amount, of chips.

I asked Gordon about the challenges of teaching the nuances of poker in a classroom setting, and he responded with a piece of advice for players planning to attend a World Series of Poker Academy seminar: Don't expect easy, formulaic answers to questions that tend to be complex.

"Can you listen to a guy speak and go out right away and win?" Gordon said. "Well, some do. But it's far more likely that you'll listen, and then apply what you've learned over the course of several months as you work on continually improving your game.

"As an instructor, I'm trying to teach them to ask themselves the right questions instead of looking for a prescription. Don't ask me what to do. Instead, ask me what the right questions are to ask."