Poker Tells: Distancing of the Torso

Although the saying “keep your friends close but keep your enemies closer” can be good wisdom in some situations, the truth is that we usually tend to keep our close surroundings to people or things we like. Try to picture yourself with a close friend, a parent or a child and how much you allow them in your personal bubble. That 18 inches of space around us is reserved to people we are comfortable with.

In the same way, we usually keep people we dislike at a distance. Think of that ex-girlfriend, or that annoying aunt or uncle and how you might turn your head away and keep your hips as far as possible as you give them a welcome hug. You go ahead with the greeting ritual, but in reality what you are really saying is go away.


Take a look at this picture:



This picture features Blake Lively and Penn Badgley hugging. Do you notice how their hips are apart? Would you say they are committed to the hug? Notice how their feet, hips and shoulders do not face each other. They are hugging, but it’s not convincing. It would be announced that they broke up a few days after this picture was taken.
Likewise, should you encounter a dangerous animal on a weekend trek, your first instinct will certainly not be to start running towards the predator. You'll be looking at the first opportunity to get the heck out of there. This instinctive reaction is part of what is called the flight response, and refers to a psychological reaction that occurs in the presence of something that is terrifying, either mentally or physically.
In social situations, running away from a person that we dislike is generally not a socially acceptable behavior, so we resort to more subtle reactions, like taking a step back or as in the hug example above, denying our closest space to an annoying aunt. But sometimes, especially when we are sitting in a chair, the reaction can be quite intense.


Take a look at this clip featuring former Brittish prime-minister Gordon Brown during a radio interview. In the previous days before the interview, M. Brown was caught calling a woman a bigot, when he thought there were no microphones recording his thoughts.

Watch at 0:27 of the clip, at precisely the moment where his interviewer says he will play the clip on the radio. His body shift is quite extreme, and totally in reaction to the playing of the clip (which he obviously does not appreciate).

At the poker table, because of the nature of the game we will usually tend to be much more subtle. But often times, our first instinct is to distance ourselves from our cards and chips when the flop is bad for us, or when a player raises us if we are weak. This is a valuable tell that signals that a player has low a confidence level in the situation. Things are not what he would like them to be.


In my experience, this specific reaction usually occurs in two circumstances.


The first, involves the flop (or turn or river) in community games like Texas Hold’em orOmaha, or the personal up cards in Stud games. The player has either called or raised preflop and the community cards are spread out. If the flop is not to the player’s liking, you’ll often see them shift their bodies by moving away from their cards and the table. A player that was sitting on the edge of his seat now suddenly sits in the back of his chair.


The second situation involves a reaction to another player’s actions. A player will see that an opponent is considering calling or raising him when he has a marginal hand, and that player will all of a sudden move away from his cards.


Both these reactions are subtle ways of increasing the distance between the player and what is threatening him, or what he is displeased with. It can be either bad cards, or a person. Sometimes, you’ll see a reaction as intense as the one Gordon Brown had in the previous clip. But generally, the reactions are less extreme, and more restrained.


Let’s look at two poker hands to illustrate what I am talking about.


Phil Laak on The Big Game


The first example of distancing I will discuss involves Phil Laak on the Big Game. Here’s the link to the video, so you can watch it first:



On the turn, Phil Laak decides to bluff at the pot with air. Tony G then calls. When Doyle Brunson raises, Phil Laak’s response is to lean back in his chair. You can see the start of his reaction at 0:48 of the video. He is, in fact, withdrawing from the hand, and literally pushing himself away from the table and his cards.


As discussed previously, we tend to distance ourselves from people or things we don’t like. It is pretty clear that Phil Laak did not like Doyle’s raise in this hand. No surprise here however, since Phil only had seven high.





Phil Hellmuth at the WSOP


The second clip we’ll look at features Phil Hellmuth in a hand played at the WSOP a few years ago. You can watch the hand now:


Here’s the link:


This is a great clip for tells as there are so many of them I lost count. But especially, notice Phil’s reaction at 0:23. He raised preflop with KJo. The action is folded to another player with pocket tens who puts in a reraise. Of course, Phil is not really thrilled with the way the hand is playing out, holding KJ.


His immediate reaction is to start to lean back in his chair, distancing himself from the table. This body shift is reactive, it’s not an act. And as I’ve seen Phil display this tell many times, he can’t really control it.


Very often, you’ll see less movement from players, such as a slight shift of an elbow, or a shoulder. But the distancing is there.




Distancing of the torso is a very accurate tell, and when you see another player do it you can often conclude that the player has a marginal hand, ar at the very least does not appreciate the way the hand is playing out. Of course, you should always go back to the player’s baseline behavior, how the player moves in his chair and what kind of sitting position he adopts when he feel relaxed and comfortable.


But for some players, this tell is gold.

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