Contempt Microexpressions Tells at the Poker Table

In a previous blog post, I've introduced “disgust” as one of the most reliable poker tells you will ever see at the table. Contempt is right up there too.  The reason is that contempt is one of the seven basic human emotions (along with, anger, joy, sadness, fear, surprise and disgust), and one of the strongest negative emotion you can ever feel. So when you feel contempt towards someone, something or in any situation, you will end up showing it in your face. And just like disgust, contempt at the poker table usually takes the form of a micro-expression.

Remember that whenever we want to hide our emotions, whether because we are playing poker, negotiating the price of a new car or because we are excited to talk to a cute girl in a bar, what is likely to happen is that we will display in our faces what are called micro-expressions. These are a quick flashes of an emotion that last 1/5 to 1/25 of a second. These micro-expressions are accurate displays of a person’s state of mind when the emotion is felt. We feel an emotion, we want to suppress it and leakage happens in the form of a micro-expression. And that’s why they make for very accurate poker tells. They literally tell you what emotion someone is feeling at that time.

So how is contempt displayed exactly? Well, contempt is actually the only emotion that is asymmetrical, meaning that

Contempt microexpression at the poker table
Contempt microexpression at the poker table

it is one sided. Look at the picture to the right.

Notice how only the side of the mouth is raised. That is contempt: a slight rising on one corner of the mouth. And it’s fairly easy to see also, because it is asymmetrical.  And it can be displayed on either side of the mouth. Some people will display it on the left while others on the left. Science has not yet told us why or when a specific side is used and what is the meaning of it.

Let’s look at some real play examples:

Stan Goldstein on the World Poker Tour

Look at the video below:

Stan Goldstein has raised preflop with A3o and Hon Le has called. The flop comes K Q 9, certainly not a very good flop for a hand like A3. Take a good look a Goldstein at 0:17-0:18 of the video, which is right at the moment he checks. Well, if you’ve been paying attention to my articles J, you might actually spot two micro-expressions in a span of less than a second. The first one is of disgust (see the rising of his upper lip and the opening of the nostrils) and, most importantly for this article after that, Goldstein shows contempt on the right side of his mouth (notice the crinkle below the right cheekbone). It is very, very improbable that a player can feel contempt (and disgust on top of that) while holding a great hand a feeling good about the situation. Think about it, if you flop a good hand, how would you feel? You probably would not feel contempt about it would you? No, the truth is, and this is why contempt is such a great tell, is that it is such a negative emotion that we rarely have it when we are strong and hold a good hand.

Daniel Negreanu on High Stakes Poker

Watch this video first here:

In this hand Daniel Negreanu is playing against Doyle Brunson. Daniel has K5o and Doyle holds QTs. The flop was T 5 4 and we pick up the action on the turn after the 3s is tabled. Daniel bets and Doyle calls. The river brings another 4 and now Negreanu checks. Now notice at the exact moment he raps the table, at 1:09 in the video, you can see the left side of his mouth showing contempt. In this case, it is likely that Daniel believed he had the best hand the whole way, as Doyle had not raised on the flop or the turn. The second 4 on the river is thus likely to have hit Doyle’s hand, and so Daniel is not feeling too good about the hand at this point.

Gavin Smith on the World Poker Tour

Watch the video here before I comment on it:

The hand involves Gavin Smith and Dan Harrington during a World Poker Tour final table. Here, Gavin has flopped top set with his pocket aces on a flop of A 3 2. Dan has a gutshot holding Q4o. Gavin decides to make a bet and Harrington folds. Now in case you are wondering why I chose this particular hand, well, it’s because that this time the player showing contempt is actually very strong! See it at 0:20 on the left side of Gavin’s mouth? Ok ok, so what the heck am I saying here? Didn’t I say above that it is very difficult to feel contempt when things are going our way? Yep I did. But remember that the timing of tells is really important. And in this hand, Gavin displays contempt AFTER Dan folds. He feels contempt because his opponent made the right decision and he missed out on more chips because he was strong.  And this is also what makes contempt such a great tell, because it can give you insights into your opponent’s mind even after the hand is “over”.

Say you are facing a very tough decision on the river after your opponent has bet the pot. You finally fold and then you carefully watch your opponent and he flashes contempt in his face. Well now you know that you made the correct decision. You don’t have to think about the hand for the next hour. You pat yourself on the back and move on feeling great about your read.

Contempt is a great poker tell to look out for. And if you find all this micro-expression stuff difficult to see in real time, it’s because it is. But contempt is probably one of the easiest to see for someone starting out in facial expression recognition. It’s one sided, and it’s an emotion you can see very often if you like watching TV if you really pay attention. People feel contempt all the time.

So the next time you are playing live poker, please look out for this tell. It is so reliable, and so accurate that you will profit from it from the first time you spot it.

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1 thought on “Contempt Microexpressions Tells at the Poker Table”

  1. Absolutely fantastic stuff. I’m in about a 90% proficiency on the Ekman tool currently and play Blackjack professionally previously. Well War to pay for college but it was professional by definition. Never played poker because I knew I didn’t have the emotional cognition to handle the bluffing with this may well be an opportunity to reverse that opinion. I’m going to seek to converse with you direct me to email as well, I have some thoughts I’d like to discuss with you.

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