Lip pursing is a weird poker tell. It's one of those tells that I can't explain to you very easily. It's not a leakage of an emotion like a micro-expression is. It's not a defensive display like crossing of the arms or the sudden downwards drop of the head. It's not a stress related display either. It's simply something we do when there is something that's not quite registering to us in a positive fashion. We purse our lips when things are not going our way; when we hear or see things that we simply don't like. And usually we purse our lips while we are debating our next course of action.
As far as facial tells go, this is one of the easiest to catch, but it’s another thing to know what it means, as most people don’t know what state of mind a played who purses his lips is in. So when it comes down to playing poker, needless to say that pursing of the lips is a low confidence poker tell.
Let’s look at a simple example from real life. In the picture below, you can see Gordon Brown, UK's ex-prime-minister, displaying classic pursing of the lips. Watch as his lips form a circle and extend out. It's as if he's trying to give a very tensed kiss in mid-air. He’s not is a very positive place. What this display is telling us is that there are issues. Things are bothering him and he's thinking about it all.
At the table, you will catch this tell when players see the flop, turn or river cards and the cards are not what they wanted. At the moment they realize that the cards have missed them, their lips will form an “O” instinctively. Sometimes it will disappear very quickly, other times it will fade away in a slower motion.
You will also see this tell when players are suddenly facing a bet or a raise that they don't necessarily want to call. So when you see this tell while playing poker, you can be almost certain your opponent is not very strong. Something is not sitting right with him and he's indecisive about it.
But that mean that you really have to watch your opponent’s mouth while the cards are being tabled. Lip pursing is an instinctive reaction and can be displayed really fast. Remember you can always look at the community cards later – they are not going anywhere. But if you miss this valuable tell because you are not staring at your opponent, you might misplay the hand completely.
So let's look at some real examples so you can really understand this poker tell. Remember I select hands where the tell is very easy to spot. I don’t necessarily try to find hands where a player played the situation well or not. The point is for you to get what I am talking about.
Mike Sexton at the World Series of Poker
Let's watch the hand first:
In this first video, we are looking at Mike Sexton at the World Series of Poker. He is playing in a pot-limit hold'em event and open-raised to 85k with AcTc. Kathy Liebert, who is sitting behind him with pocket aces AA, pushes all-in.
Now watch carefully Mike Sexton here. And specifically, notice his lip movement at 0:31 of the video. See how his lips are now extending forward, and form some sort of a compressed circle. That's lip pursing. He's got issues with what is happening. He does not like having to call Liebert with his AT. He’s weak.
So if you are sitting in Patrick Antonius's shoes (and say you don't have pocket kings but a more marginal hand like AQ in this situation, you can be pretty certain that Sexton will probably fold if you play. Of course it depends on the stacks but you get what I mean.
Daniel Negreanu on High Stakes Poker
Let’s watch the video first and I will explain it all after:
In this second hand, we are looking at poker pro Daniel Negreanu playing a big cash game on High Stakes Poker. In this hand, Daniel is facing Sam Farha. Daniel flopped top pair and Farah had middle pair. The turn pairs the low card and Daniel checks. Farha then bets and it’s up to Daniel to call.
Watch his lips carefully.
Pause the video at 0:34. Bingo! Lip pursing!
Ok, I guess it’s pretty clear in this hand that Daniel hates the turn called and is reluctant to call Sam’s bet. But he does purse his lips (it’s genuine – he’s not putting down a show).
As a side note, if you’ve been paying attention to my column for the past year, you might have picked up on several other tells Daniel displayed here. Before he purses his lips, you can catch him distancing, exhaling, and pressing his lips. Classic tells showing us he’s uncomfortable and hates the turn card. No wonder Farha bets. However, Sam also displays signs of weakness (pacifying, disgust to start), and Daniel must have picked up on it and decides finally that his hand is likely the best.
Good read sir.
Lip pursing is pretty easy to catch if you are focusing on your opponent. In fact you probably noticed that several reliable poker tells issue from the face. So if I had one word of advice to give you it would be to focus on that area primarily. That being said, lip pursing can often be displayed very quickly, and often times it is a much more subtle display than the ones I showed you in this article. In any case, if you look closely, you should catch this tell very often. I know I catch this specific tell in almost every session I play in. So please watch those lips very carefully, and you’ll be on your way to becoming a great tells reader.