How Smiles Might Beat Poker Faces

Is putting on a poker face the most effective strategy in cards? People talk about spotting players’ ‘tells’, involuntary behavior that gave away their confidence level. To prevent people from picking up on your tells, you were supposed to work on a poker face – a blank look that gives nothing away.

But instead of shutting down and sending no signals, can we send misleading signals?

Well, via NCBI ROFL, a recent study wants to suggest that a blank face isn’t the best – a trustworthy face is:

Participants made risky choices in a simplified poker task while being presented opponents whose faces differentially correlated with subjective impressions of trust… [P]eople took significantly longer and made more mistakes against emotionally positive opponents… According to these results, the best “poker face” for bluffing may not be a neutral face, but rather a face that contains emotional correlates of trustworthiness. Moreover, it suggests that rapid impressions of an opponent play an important role in competitive games, especially when people have little or no experience with an opponent.

[Quick note: As I read through the procedure, I wasn’t sure that I agreed with their assessment of ‘mistake’ in this simplified version of poker. I’ll look into it, but it’s still interesting to note that people folded more against trustworthy-looking faces]

It’s a natural habit to develop – a if a person looks confident and trustworthy, we’re more likely to believe them if they say they have an advantage (by, say, betting). They provide an image which I think lays it out well:


We have access to the information in grey – our own cards, our opponent’s bet, and our opponent’s facial expression. We’re trying to make a decision based on how our cards compare to theirs – which is unknown. Their style is also unknown, which is a problem because it’s a hidden factor influencing their bet.

Since we can only work with the information we have, we go backward: given the face we see, what is their style/attitude? Given their style and bet, what cards do they have? Of course, the random static computerized faces weren’t ‘inadvertently’ giving cues, but we’ve unconsciously learned to treat facial cues are a vital part of figuring out how the bet correlates to cards.

So is a trustworthy smile better than a blank poker face? As the authors point out, the study holds for first impressions, “when people have little or no experience with an opponent.” I would love to see a study of how long the effect holds up. After repeated interaction with the trustworthy-looking computer opponent, do people adapt and re-calibrate the assumed face-to-attitude correlation? I expect there to be some difference even over time – the unconscious connection is tough to shake. But its impact would diminish.

Perhaps we can smile and look trustworthy whenever we want opponents to fold? Sending misleading information is a powerful tool in game-theory. But I suspect decent card players would adapt quickly. Unless you’re damn confident that you know how to exploit their assumptions, you’ll be giving them an edge. Poker faces give up the chance to send intentional false information, but it also cuts out the unintentional cues we’re not even aware of.

I can’t pass up this perfect opportunity to quote Harry Potter and the Methods of Rationality after Harry’s attempt to bluff Snape:

Professor Quirrell had remarked over their lunch that Harry really needed to conceal his state of mind better than putting on a blank face when someone discussed a dangerous topic, and had explained about one-level deceptions, two-level deceptions, and so on. So either Severus was in fact modeling Harry as a one-level player, which made Severus himself two-level, and Harry’s three-level move had been successful; or Severus was a four-level player and wanted Harry to think the deception had been successful. Harry, smiling, had asked Professor Quirrell what level he played at, and Professor Quirrell, also smiling, had responded, One level higher than you.

Against true amateurs in a little house game, I’ll try some one-level deceptions. But when I’m in a new place with good players, I tend to play it safe and focus my energy on staying blank rather than on sending false signals.

70 Responses to How Smiles Might Beat Poker Faces

  1. Graham says:

    I don’t think it really matters much, but that depends on the skill of the people you’re playing against. The important part is just being consistent with your facial expressions whether you’re bluffing or value betting. Assuming you’re playing against competent people, I’m skeptical whether any conscious changing of your facial expressions would be helpful, even if you attempt to randomize them, you’re probably being less random than you think you are.

    • Jesse Galef says:

      “I’m skeptical whether any conscious changing of your facial expressions would be helpful, even if you attempt to randomize them, you’re probably being less random than you think you are.”

      I think that’s a really important insight, Graham. In our high school, some friends wanted to start a “Rock Paper Scissors” club. They worked with our AP Stat teacher to prove that it was more than pure chance – the leaders of the club beat people a significant percent of the time.

      Regarding being consistent: My suspicion is that being consistently smiling/trustworthy instead of consistently blank has an impact just because it’s so hard to shake the learned connections. If that’s the case, opponents will be slightly more likely to fold and hesitate – something that can make a difference in the long run.

  2. Graham says:

    It also depends kind of style you’re playing. If you’re being tighter, you may not want to adopt an attitude that’ll make it more likely for people to fold, your profit on average is going to be coming from people incorrectly calling your value bets.

    My sense is that against skilled players, changing your facial expression won’t be that effective at influencing their decisions. Against awful players, they’re going to play awfully regardless of what you do. It might have a slight benefit against people who’re in the middle. I could be wrong, of course.

    • pokerbetty says:

      Well, this is a very interesting post. I always smile at my opponents. Sometimes even blinking with my eye. This works (mostly by men 🙂 )…but it only works well ’cause I play tight and aggressive.

  3. Eliott Canter says:

    It’s been my experience that people that win smile…alot…

    • Jesse Galef says:

      Haha, I’ve noticed that too, Eliott!

      It’s an interesting dynamic for tilt. It’s not just that the player on tilt plays looser, but they have a harder time maintaining the smiling, trustworthy face to make loose play most effective.

      Of course, it would work both ways. Loose players on a hot streak are more likely to smile, and thus more likely to be folded to.

      …I might have to sit out of the next game and just watch, recording whether these streaks really happen.

  4. Graham says:

    In regards to randomizing your behavior, though, I read a book a while back covering those ultra-high stakes limit HE games that Andy Beal played with the pros. He realized that how long it took him to make a decision was giving away information, so he devised a method of having a buzzer in his shoe that vibrated at regular intervals, so he’d take however long he needed to make a decision, but then wouldn’t act until the buzzer went off. I think that’s right, but it’s been years since I read it.

  5. Dave says:

    This is an interesting post, which supports advice I’ve received from other poker players without knowledge of this information. Its not a uncommon idea, that smiling and also projecting a positive and fun energy helps you at the poker table….and in my experience have found this out to be true. (In fact, the serious image I projected when starting out playing was one of the key points a friend mentioned to me when watching me play.)

    The opponent folding is always the best result in the long run…. why? Because you can’t lose a hand if they fold! You will always make more money if you can get your opponent to consistently fold than if you can get him to consistently call value bets. Also opponents folding often is also beneficial in the long run as it takes them longer to assess your play because you aren’t showing them your cards when they fold.Thus, you are minimizing their assessments on your play and lengthening the “first impression” stage of your game and thus prolonging the effectiveness of this particular trait, which is naturally hard to shake anyways.

    • Jesse Galef says:

      Also opponents folding often is also beneficial in the long run as it takes them longer to assess your play because you aren’t showing them your cards when they fold.Thus, you are minimizing their assessments on your play and lengthening the “first impression” stage of your game and thus prolonging the effectiveness of this particular trait, which is naturally hard to shake anyways.

      Excellent point, Dave! I take advantage of that dynamic but hadn’t considered it in context.

  6. I wonder if this could be used as a metaphor for otheraspects of life. If we put on a happy face are others more likely not to call our bluffs?

    • criassk says:

      Answer by thought experiment.

      How often have you heard phrases such as “It can’t possibly be that bad…”?
      How often have you heard phrases such as “It can’t possibly be that good!”

      Despite the concept of “too good to be true”, all but the most unbelievable stories seem to pass if they’re about good results, but bad results are quickly questioned and disputed.

      (This, of course, is based solely on my biased recollection.)

  7. ournote2self says:

    I’d have to say that I agree with the ‘trust worthy’ face theory. Great blog!

  8. I say the poker face has been around for a reason. There is less deception, and overtime, builds long-term trust and respect over phony smiling.

  9. I too wonder of the long-term impact of smiling and looking trustworthy. It makes sense that if you don’t know your opponent, they this could work, but after a while if you get to know them, you probably would figure out what they are up to. Unless of course they smile throughout the game….then that smile would be just as confusing as a constant blank face!

  10. thor27 says:

    Good blog !! I put your link here http://thor27.wordpress.com

  11. What’s the old adage killing with kindness? I can see where a smile would put someone at ease more than a poker face.

  12. Arthur says:

    for me it’s just depression….that’s level minus one I suppose? plus i’m being beaten in the larger sphere that surrounds the game and have no access to those cues…little help? Please? I’m smiling…no I’m not but I’m thinking that I would if I could…not a good player…I know.

  13. mypipelineplus says:

    This is good news for me. I can never stop smiling no matter what game I play. I have no poker face.

  14. fireandair says:

    “Sending misleading information is a powerful tool in game-theory. But I suspect decent card players would adapt quickly.”

    This just bumps it up to a question of how you react to their adaptation. What series of facial expressions is best, in other words? Trustworthiness followed by blankness followed by grumpiness? Does the series cycle? How long between each shift is best?

  15. Well, I have never managed to keep a poker face- no matter if it comes to playing poker or keeping a secret or planning a big surprise… What I always thought- that it would be better to be a really good actor than a poker face- act like you have the worst hadn int he world and then clean the table…lol…

  16. colegibbs says:

    I will have to say, having a smile on your face is always better then having a straight poker face. People seem to be more friendly when you smile, instead of just staring.

  17. UAU! Great blog.

    I agree

  18. kitchenmudge says:

    There’s an old quote attributed to Francis Bacon, I think, about surviving in the royal court:

    “He who must keep a secret must keep it secret that he hath a secret to keep.”

    A blank face just says that you’re trying to conceal something. An expressive face throws more smoke in the air.

  19. milieus says:

    I like this theory. I’m not very good at poker, even though I have a pretty good poker face. Perhaps this could be my edge up.

  20. Eva McCane says:

    love it! i’m hittin the casino tonight to see what i can do.

  21. charlywalker says:

    I like the Grin-n-bear it, especially when I’m losing….

  22. Really interesting. I think getting a poker face to stay is really hard, and I can smile broadly at both loosing or winning. So, smile…

  23. akarmin says:

    http://angerclinic.wordpress.com/2011/01/26/reading-a-relationship/

    They look at the totality of cues rather than isolated ones

  24. Pingback: How Smiles Might Beat Poker Faces | Travel to Johor

  25. Hahaha I smile all the time when playing poker, even when I have rather bad cards. I just can’t do poker faces. Once someone at the table looks at me, I start smiling…I just can’t help it.
    It throws people off so badly though, it’s hilarious.

  26. Well, I have never managed to keep a poker face- no matter if it comes to playing poker or keeping a secret or planning a big surprise… What I always thought- that it would be better to be a really good actor than a poker face- act like you have the worst hadn int he world and then clean the table…lol…

  27. ALIVE aLwaYs says:

    I guess its better to stick to one face, even giving signals that are misleading requires thinking on part of player, why waste unnecessary energy on that. Also, with every new move if you were to make faces, under stress you are at loss. At poker, all are smart, all are watching, you rely on your impressions thinking you are one step ahead, but that cannot be the case always, people might interpret.

  28. Victoria says:

    i cant fake faces. godamnit. but if i could this theory is interesting and useful

  29. leadinglight says:

    I don’t play poker. But then with card games like Joker, I’ve managed to win. I just act normal.

  30. midnitechef says:

    It’s all about the cards. I tend to judge my hand and think of how many hands would beat mine before playing on. I did have a smile the whole time I played against an experienced family member, and took him for a ride (It was only about 5 bucks, but the glory of winning against an old fart was the best part)

  31. adamdubai says:

    So what would advice if you are playing online poker? Distract them with quirky remarks?

  32. saltybi11 says:

    I do best when I randomly bluff, and I like to smile the whole time and not think of how I am doing.

  33. Pingback: How Smiles Might Beat Poker Faces (via Measure of Doubt) « Cyprus Life – in pictures

  34. moneycrumbs says:

    Hi!

    I play poker – online as well as tourneys (in a poker league in Toronto) and occasionally cash games in casinos – though I’m not a professional poker player (God forbid!). I do agree with the fact though that an overall “nice” face is prone to be more successful in poker than just a blank face 🙂 I would say that I am a very trustworthy person – the only place I would ever lie in would be at the poker table – and my bluffs while playing, do work about 80% of the time (the other 20% I am actually bluffing against someone who has the best hand, so it’s simply a case of picking the wrong position).

    Anyhow – cheers for the article! it was a pretty cool read.

  35. Stu says:

    Interesting to think about. Nothing wrong with adding one more potential tool to the skillset. Even if only used sparingly or rarely instead of the more common false tells…

  36. rccpals says:

    That is pretty cool

  37. crescendo says:

    more statistics needed to come to a valid conclusion. Law of large numbers should apply to results. Always use proper sample size

  38. dChen says:

    Haha! Great post. I love playing poker online and with friends. Still a bit noobish though and probably can’t pull off a poker face while playing cards. Just for the fun of it, when I play poker with my friends, we just tend to laugh and smile all over while playing. Makes things a bit more challenging to bluff or not. 🙂

  39. Pingback: How Smiles Might Beat Poker Faces (via Measure of Doubt) « Edmondo is THINKING!

  40. nalda says:

    yeaahh me too

  41. Rachael says:

    My brother (a poker player) likes to wear ridiculous sunglasses with a light up flashing purple frame.

  42. NspyraishN says:

    I’ve known this for several years, and finally they have a study to prove it. I swear, people are so behind on times, it’s amazing. But y’know, I think that most professional players already knew this– if I knew it from personal experience (and I only play cards every once in a while, and never for money), then I’m sure that the pro’s, who’s livelihood is contingent on their knowledge of the game, already knew as much. It’s the laymen who are just finding this out now 😛

  43. thor27 says:

    Howdy again.

  44. L.B. Jeffries says:

    Cool, thanks for an interesting post. I just found your blog and really enjoy it!

  45. Good Evening –

    There was a time long ago when I used to play a lot of poker. I did experiment with both sides of the poker face coin; having fun and carefree emotions and the straight faced “read me Jack” or lose it. I didn’t realize much change in the wins or losses, although I had more fun when I was laughing, of course.

    I wonder if that strategy would work in a game of strip poker? Thank you for an excellent read here. Happy Saturday evening to you. 🙂

    http://charlienitric.wordpress.com/2011/05/18/fellow-bloggers-you%E2%80%99re-starting-to-piss-me-off/

  46. armandpolanski says:

    I don’t play poker but I enjoy the mind game while watching it. It would be interesting to see if this will actually work, because a light and trustworthy mood may soften up your opponents poker face and then you may read him easily.

  47. harkheindzel says:

    The best thing is having a tactic that works for you and foolproof

  48. freyja4 says:

    My husband has this thing about smiling a lot and making remarks and one of our friends always falls for it. I know my husband too well so even in a game of Uno, I tend to get back at him.

  49. thesunnygirl says:

    I think smiling is better than a poker face–studies show that we become naturally happier when we physically smile. Why not enjoy the game–win or lose?

    Keep shining,

    The Sunny Girl, Lauren Cook
    http://www.thesunnygirl.com

  50. Pingback: How Smiles Might Beat Poker Faces « Measure of Doubt « Sam Dickens

  51. mcsnitches says:

    Interesting strategy, ill be sure to use it next time i play. Although a mix of beer and wine with poker eliminates any sleuthing 😉

    http://jectramble.com/

  52. smiling is my strategy too, you know. because i always smile it’s kind of like a pokerface. You shoukd try it!

  53. Yes! Smiling can be a great strategy!

  54. I think some people are able to discern better than others. Interesting thoughts here though.

  55. I’m gonna share this information I got to my neighbors who are always playing cards..LOL
    When they play, they always have this obvious expressions.

  56. Well, I have never managed to keep a poker face- no matter if it comes to playing poker or keeping a secret or planning a big surprise… What I always thought- that it would be better to be a really good actor than a poker face- act like you have the worst hadn int he world and then clean the table…lol…

  57. In regards to randomizing your behavior, though, I read a book a while back covering those ultra-high stakes limit HE games that Andy Beal played with the pros. He realized that how long it took him to make a decision was giving away information, so he devised a method of having a buzzer in his shoe that vibrated at regular intervals, so he’d take however long he needed to make a decision, but then wouldn’t act until the buzzer went off. I think that’s right, but it’s been years since I read it.

  58. It’s very simple when a child makes a mistake thank them for their response, tell them how to do it right and then later on give them the opportunity to get it right and congratulate them on their progress.

    Great article btw, agree entirely!

  59. Carl says:

    Cool concept 🙂

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