Hand Shrugging: A Very Revealing Poker Tell

In this month's article, we look at a great poker tell: hand shrugging. This particular tell takes its roots in what are called by science social emblems, which are gestures that have a meaning on their own; gestures that do not require any words to explain what they mean.

An example of a well-known social emblem would be the thumbs up. Although it can have slightly different meanings like “good job”, “bravo” or even “I agree”, if someone throws that gesture to you, regardless of the situation and without saying a word, you will undoubtedly understand exactly what he or she means.

Another example of a social emblem would be the nodding of the head up and down, or its opposite to the left and right to communicate respectively yes and no. These are well understood in society and they do not require any verbal statements.

Both the thumbs up and the yes/no head movement are socially learned. We are not born knowing what they mean. If you encountered someone who has lived in a cave his whole life he would have no clue what you are trying to communicate to him. Social emblems will vary in meaning depending on where you live, where you were raised and even in what sub-culture group you belong to. For example, that thumbs up has multiple meanings throughout the world. It can mean five – as in “give me five beers” – or the number one. And in Greece it can also be the equivalent of giving someone the middle finger. Some societies will even nod their head up and down to indicate no, and from side to side for yes. But with modern television, Hollywood movies and the Internet, more and more North-American emblems are becoming international and well understood around the globe.

Now when people are trying to deceive us, what happens is that they will often flash these social emblems out of context. While emblems are usually very obvious and conscious gestures, someone might, for example, give you the middle finger while discussing a hot topic, signifying that he is not too keen on your opinion.  This will not be done unconsciously.

A classic indication of deception involves the yes/no emblem.  Often, when someone states a definitive answer to a question while being deceptive, they will nod the opposite with their head. So, even if they are saying no with their words, their body betrays them and nods yes.  As an example, check out this video featuring Alex Rodriguez, during an interview on CBS with Katie Couric concerning his steroid use:


Especially, notice his head indicating yes at 0:13 of the video. You can also see a micro-expression of contempt – a tell we’ve looked at before – on the left side of his face.

So these emblems will often leak out without our knowledge in a situation where we are not conveying their meaning. They are very often, however, an indication that there is more to the story than what is being told. There is no single display that indicates a person is lying, but discrepancies like these are signs that one should try to get more information from the subject.

In poker, things are no different. And the most common emblem slip involves hand shrugging. Shrugging, whether our hands, shoulders or even our lips, indicates doubt, or something like “I don’t know”. Look at this picture of Sarah Palin:


You can see her hands are turned face up in a shrug, and also that her shoulders are raised, and her lower lip is raised upwards as well. This a classic emblem that means “I don’t know”. And even without having no clue whatsoever about what she was saying here, we totally get it don’t we?

At the poker table, you will often see this tell in two situations. The first, is when an opponent has to call a big bet – where usually a player is all in – and he’s not too certain he’s making the right decision.  At the moment he’s about to call, you’ll see him hand shrug. Here’s an example of this tell featuring Gus Hansen:


Watch carefully Gus’s right hand at 1:42 of the video; at the exact time he says “I’m all in”. Notice the shrug? Hey, I know it’s not that difficult to see that he’s struggling here, what all the facial expressions he gives seconds before, but this is simply to prove that this tell is in sync with his behavior.

Now I understand that in a situation like this, the action is pretty much over, and John Hennigan’s decision is pretty automatic with Q9. And if your opponent has to call all in this won’t give you the opportunity to outplay him after catching the tell, but it is nevertheless additional information at your disposal. You know the player was indecisive, and not sure he was making the right play, and you get to see the hand he was debating over. Every bit of information helps. And this is something you might miss if you don’t catch this tell.

The second situation where you might spot this tell and where it can really make a difference in your decision making is during a player’s speech. I’ve often said that if you can you really should try to get your opponent talking. This is when this tell can give you very valuable information. When you start to ask question to your opponents, and they shrug their hands, you should take this a sign of possible deception.  Most importantly, you should doubt what they were saying at the moment they shrugged.

So let’s take a look at our friend Phil Hellmuth in this next clip, from the WSOP:


Tricky tricky Phil! No you don’t have aces, because when you said you did, at 0:46 of the video, you shrugged your left hand. Yep. You turned it face up, and that’s a social emblem that indicates your body is really saying “I don’t know”. Doubting yourself? Well, it’s pretty normal to do so, since you don’t have aces, but rather pocket Jacks.

Situations like these happen very often and this is why this is a valuable tell to look for.  And the best way to get it out of your opponents is to get them to talk. The more they talk, the more their body will betray them. The mouth lies, the body tells the truth. And if Gus and Phil are betrayed by their hands, chances are your opponents will be too :-).

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