In this month's article, we are going to look at a tell that you will often see at the table: squinting. To properly understand squinting, imagine yourself on a beach, on a nice sunny day, you forgot your sunglasses and how you the sun might be blinding you. Basically what you will be doing is trying to block the sun out by squinting. If the light ever became too extreme, you might close your eyes completely. But when the situation is less intense, squinting is what we all do.
Precisely, squinting is a display where we close our eyes to block something that we don’t like or something that threatens us. In the case of intense sunlight, we squint because keeping our eyes open might result in the sun burning our retina. Not good.
In social situations, we tend to squint because there’s something around that we feel is a “danger” to us. We’re trying to block out something that we don’t like. It could be something physical. It could be something verbal also. And strangely enough, it doesn’t have to be something that you see. It could be something that you hear and your reaction is to squint. You are trying to block out the images, words or sounds that you’re hearing or seeing. By squinting, you are “blocking” access to your brain.
When we are kids, our blocking reflexes are usually more drastic. Look at this kid below:
He is blocking out something that’s got him scared. And he’s using both hands to do this. You can also bet that his eyes are closed as well. Later in life, we don’t rely on such displays very often – only in very extreme situations – like when witnessing a big accident. As adults, we squint. Essentially the same intent, the same reason, but in a much more subtle fashion.
So whenever you see this at the table, it’s usually a sign that someone has a marginal hand or at least isn’t really comfortable about the way that the hand is being played out. You will see this eye shift when, for example, when players have bet and their opponents are deliberating about calling or if they’ve bet and their opponents are raising them. You will also catch squinting when the community cards don’t exactly fit their hand. In almost all cases, squinting is associated with a marginal hand.
Squinting is also one of those tells that you can easily miss if you are not paying attention. It comes and goes very quickly. I've written in the past that as a player you should focus on the face when trying to pick up tells. This is a good example of why. Facial displays like squinting, but also tells like microexpressions are very subtle whereas body shifts such as arms and hand tells tend to be more obvious. I've also told you that to properly hide your own tells you should consider wearing sunglasses to hide any eye related tell. Squinting is much much harder to catch if you do that.
So let's get down with business and check out a few hands from two well known poker pros displaying squinting.
Gus Hansen on the World Poker Tour
Watch the hand first, and try to catch Gus Hansen squinting.
On this hand, Gus raises pre-flop and John Juanda moves all in.
As soon as the camera cuts to Gus (at 0:16 of the clip), you can see him squinting and then after, he stops. Go ahead and watch it again. You can see that his eyes are not in their usual position. He squints and then he starts to relax. One way to confirm that a player is squinting is to note the amount of white of the eyes that you see. The less you can see, the more the player is squinting.
Oh and by the way, did you happen to catch the microexpression of disgust? If you missed my previous article on disgust microexpressions in poker, I suggest you read it. At exactly 0:19, you can catch a beautiful and classic disgust microexpression.
So just to recap, we can see that Gus flashes disgust and squints in a matter of seconds, triggered by John Juanda’s all in. Gus is definitely not happy with the situation at this point.
David Oppenheim at the WSOP
Let’s watch another poker clip – and you might want to forward it to the 4:45 mark.
David Oppenheim actually squints twice here.
The flop comes Ah 3h 5d and David holds 7h6h: a pretty strong draw. The Grinder checks, and David checks behind. From 4:45 to 5:05 not much happens. Look at his eyes, no squinting whatsoever.
Then, the turn card is tabled and Grinder bets. Watch very carefully David’s eyes at 5:17. See how his eyes close down ever so slightly? So he squints. Even when the camera cuts away you can still see him squinting. At this point, I believe David regrets his check on the flop and now feels that he misplayed the hand.
The second time David squints is at 5:29 of the clip. Same display again, slight closing of the eyes as he realizes he missed his draw. Happens real fast, but definitely a tell you have to look for.
Poker players will squint for a wide range of reason, but it’s almost always because the hand is not being played to their liking. They squint because you are calling their bets, raising them, of because the flop missed them. Squinting is also a good “after the fact” tell you can look for when the hand has concluded. For example, say your opponent bets the river and you fold. Now he squints. Clearly the hand is over, so why could he be displaying this tell? Well, chances are that he isn’t very happy with your fold. So even when the action is over, you can still look for tells and get extra, often very useful, information you can use against your opponents after.
If you've been following this column for the past year, you know how much I recommend you wear sunglasses when you play. Squinting is a great example of a tell you can hide if you block access to your eyes. So go bananas with the shades and you'll be much better off next time you sit down and play.