Psychology can help you tell when another poker player is bluffing

“One of the many fun things about poker,” says Dr Paul Seager, “is that it gives us licence to lie – a practice generally frowned upon in polite society.”

In fact, he argues, because we are taught to tell the truth as children, we assume that everyone else does too. This makes us very bad at figuring out when people are lying to us.

Research suggests we are generally so poor spotting when someone is not telling us the truth that the likelihood of our being right is no better than chance. In other words, you might as well toss a coin.

But in poker being able to spot when another player is bluffing is a priceless talent, so can psychology help here?

Dr Seager, a lecturer in psychology at the University of Central Lancashire, says it can and gives some practical tips for players.

The first is that you should recognise you are probably not as good at spotting a lie as you think you are. This insight should make you pause and avoid making rash decisions.

It’s worse than that: what you think you know about spotting liars is probably wrong. We tend to think that cues such as a lack of eye contact and nervous shifting of the body are signs that someone is lying.

But research has shown that a good liar may hold your gaze slightly longer than normal to convince you he is telling the truth. And because we are nervous when we tell a lie, we tend to put in more effort into our thinking which, simply put, diverts energy away from our normal bodily movements. So when we lie we tend to move less than when we are telling the truth.

Dr Seager says that if you want to spot when another player is bluffing it is best not to concentrate   on one or two individual signs. It is better to notice people’s behaviour when they are not sitting around the poker table so that you have a sense of how they act when they are behaving honestly.

Then, he says: “When it comes to the point in the play when they’ve put in a bet and you’re not sure whether they’re bluffing you or not, try to compare their demeanour with their honest baseline that you’ve observed earlier. If you instinctively feel that there is a difference, then there is probably something going on.”

But, as Dr Seager points out, their different behaviour could be cause, not because they are bluffing with a weak hand, but because they have a very strong hand. Poker is a difficult game.

Another way to spot bluffing is to listen to what your opponents say. Deception experts generally agree that what people say and the way that they say it give good clues for spotting a lie. When people are being honest their speech is immediate in tone: “I am a good player and don’t need to bluff”.

If another player says “A player of my calibre doesn’t need to bluff,” then you may well suspect they are bluffing.

You may worry that other players will know all these rules too and use them to deceive you, but Dr Seager says this is unlikely.

“Unless you are up against a world-class expert, the chances are that the best player will only be able to fake one or two cues at a time. What you need to do is to base you reading of an opponent on a cluster of cues. That way, even if you opponent is able to fake a couple of cues, you are less likely to be fooled.”

These techniques all take time to master, but Dr Seager says it is worth it in the long run. 

“Put away your lucky coin and engage all of your senses instead. That is the way to becoming a master bluff-spotter.”

If you are interested in the psychology of deception you may enjoy the book Would I Lie to You? by Paul Seager and Sandi Mann.