Exhaling At The Poker Table: A Tell Of Stress

In this month's article, we are going to discuss one of the most classic stress-related tells: exhaling.

Stress-related tells, or pacifying gestures – as Joe Navarro coined them in his great book on tells “Read'em and Reap”, are meant to relieve us from a higher level of anxiety or stress. As we have seen in a previous article on neck rubbing, they are usually totally instinctive. This means we display these tells without thinking about them. They are an automatic reaction to stress. When we experience a higher level of anxiety, we want to soothe ourselves, and exhaling is a great way to accomplish this. And when it comes to universal pacifying gestures, exhaling is probably one of the most common tells you'll ever see display at the table. Everybody does it. And in fact, if you pay close attention to your surroundings you will see it displayed all the time in social situations with friends or on television.

In the picture above, you can see poker pro John Racener start to exhale during the 2010 final table as he faces a tough decision. Try to picture him also pushing our the air a few seconds later and the sound it makes. This is the classic exhaling tell.

I remember taking a relaxation class in college – hey, I had to – where one if the first techniques that we were taught was to try to control our breathing, and to take deep, long breaths. Well, it works, and I still use that technique to this day. Which, come to think of it, might be the only thing I remember from my college years :-). But even if this is really something we can do to soothe ourselves consciously, it is also something we do in reaction to a stressful situation.

If you watch a sporting event, especially an important game like a playoff game, take a close look at the players during the national anthem and how they will exhale to release the tension and the stress caused by the moment. This is one of the most universal non-verbal clues you will ever see. In a way this is kind of like the body pushing out the stress in order to relax itself. You can also look for this tell when people have witnessed or experienced a very intense situation such as after a car accident, or even before or after someone goes on stage to give a speech or sing.

At the poker table, you will usually see this tell when a player is deliberating about playing the hand of folding. You always have to ask yourself the reason why I player is feeling a heightened sense of stress. In my experience, this tell is shown by players when they have a marginal hand and their opponent has put in a bet. They are thinking about either playing on (calling) or folding. They only times I've seen this tells and the player was strong, he was totally acting out in a classic Mike Caro way of “weak means strong”. This tell can be faked, a lot easier than say, a micro expression that really can not be, so you need to pay attention to the player and all the other tells he's sending out too. But with experience, one can easily tell if it's genuine or not.

So let's look at some real poker examples to better understand this specific pacifying tell.

Freddy Deeb at the World Poker Tour

Before I comment on the actual tell, please take a look at the clip right here:


In this video, Gus Hansen has made a set of 8s on the river and has put in a good sized bet. Freddy Deeb, sitting behind with queens, is now faced with a tough decision, especially since the board has a king and two sevens. Watch him at the 0:14 mark, and the way he puffs his cheeks and slightly exhales for the next 3-4 seconds. This is the same exact way I learned to release some tension in my college class on relaxation. Usually, I discuss tells that are totally unconscious, meaning that the player is not aware he is doing it, but of course, this tell is much more obvious for one to see. However, it is still an automatic reaction to something stressful. Deeb did not intend to pacify this way. He just did.

Dan Harrington at the World Poker Tour

Watch the clip and try to catch this tell first here:


So during this hand played at a final table of the World Poker Tour, Gavin Smith puts in a bet of $450 000 with third pair on the turn against Dan Harrington, who holds bottom pair. This time, the tell is slightly less obvious, since Dan Harrington does not puff his cheeks like Freddy Deeb did in the first example. But take a look at 0:33. Notice how his mouth is open, and how his chest deflates as he exhales for a few seconds. Even if this is not the classic way, it still serves the same purpose: relieving Dan Harrington of some of his stress.

Sam Farah in the final hand of the 2003 WSOP
Now in the first two examples the player eventually folded. Now let's look at Sam Farah in the final hand of the 2003 Main Event:


Look at Farah at 1:33 of the video. See these puffy cheeks right after Moneymaker bets the flop. Sometimes, the exhaling part is very subtle, and some people actually puff their cheeks and exhale from the nose. But the intent is the same: to release some tension.

Also notice how at 1:32 he distances himself from the table, a tell I've discussed in a previous article, and also a clue he's lacking confidence in the situation.

Exhaling is a very reliable poker tell and it is almost always associated to a higher level of stress. It is usually also displayed in situations where a player is holding a marginal hand, and is facing a tough decision. Exhaling is certainly not a hard tell to see. In fact, it's probably one of the most easiest tells to spot from your opponents. Even if it's not displayed in a classic emblematic way like John Racener or Freddy Deed did in the examples above, you can certainly see the open mouth and the deflating chest without much difficulty. Also, you can usually hear the sound made by the air as it is pushed out. There is no good reason to miss this one. Be aware, and you will see it, I promise. With Black Friday and all the WSOP tournaments coming up, you'll probably end up playing more and more live poker, so today is really a great time to become an accomplished tells expert. Until then, pay attention!

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