Stress Poker Tell: Rubbing of the Neck

In this article, we are going to look at stress and excitement at the poker table. Some of the most common and reliable poker tells are displayed when players put in a big bluff or when they hold a monster hand and are trying to keep a poker face. Well guess what. The perfect poker face simply does not exist. Everyone has a tell. And usually, there will come a time in the course of a session or in a tournament where your opponent is going to feel the heat because he has bluffed in a big pot, or because he has a huge hand.

When we are under stress or excited about something, and especially when we are surrounded by other people, we tend to want to restrain ourselves. But even with the most valiant effort, we will usually display some kind of gesture that is meant to calm ourselves. Gestures meant to relieve stress are called adapters or pacifiers. Think of a pacifier that we give to a crying baby to soothe him.

When we grow up, we still feel the need to pacify and usually resort to some sort of self-touching or self-massaging, like wringing the hands together, massaging our forearms, or, in the case of this article, rubbing the neck. It’s really the same way a massage makes us feel good. And in the case of the neck, because it is a very sensitive area of our body, it is a very common display to rub, massage or scratch the back of the neck in order to soothe ourselves.

When you watch other players at the table, try to establish a pacifying baseline for a specific individual. That way you can note any increase and/or intensity in that person’s pacifiers and play accordingly.

When you see a player display a pacifying gesture, stop and ask yourself, “What caused him to do that?” Has the person bet or raised? Has the flop hit his hand big? Understand that pacifying behaviors almost always are used to calm a person after a stressful event occurs. Thus, as a general principle, you can assume that if an individual is engaged in pacifying, some stressful event or stimulus has preceded it and caused it to happen. Find out what is likely to have caused the person to pacify, and you’ll be able to play accordingly against him or her.

And always remember that pacifiers are linked to stress and excitement, meaning that they can be displayed when a person is bluffing or when they have gin. You really need to observe each opponent to figure out how they pacify in each situations.

In this article, we’ll be looking at three clips. In the first two, the players are weak, and in the third, the player is actually strong.

Chris Moneymaker at the WSOP

Watch the video here first:

In this first video, we can see Chris Moneymaker attempting a bluff on the river with T high. Notice that his baseline left hand position (the position of his hand when he is calm – like just after the river card hits) remains constant, resting on his cheek before he bets, as he bets, and after he figures out his opponent has not called right away (he is less stressed after a few seconds). However, in the moments after bluffing and putting the chips in, he displays a pacifier by rubbing the back of his neck (look for it at 0:28 in the video clip). He is essentially experiencing a higher level of stress, and resorts to rubbing / scratching his neck to soothe himself. This is totally unconscious. In this case, it is associated to being stressed out because of a bluff.

Amateur Player Alex Micheals

Watch the video here first:

In this video, notice again amateur player Alex Micheals' baseline position having his left hand behind his head. This seems to be the way he sits when he feels relaxed and wants to be comfortable. So Micheals puts in a raise preflop with junk cards and then the action is on Havad Khan. When Khan actually stares at him at 0:13, Alex Micheals feels the heat, and begins pacifying by scratching the back of his neck. Notice also that as soon as Havad stops staring and actually reraises him, he stops scratching, as he has probably decided to fold and there is no more suspense and pressure in this hand.

Rory Liffey at the EPT

Watch the video here first:

I thought it was important to show a clip of this tell when the player is strong. In this clip, Rory Liffey is playing an EPT event. When he rivers a set, you can see him scratch the back of his neck at 2:01 and then again when he puts in a raise at 2:20. Now obviously he is not stressed because of a bluff, he's actually excited about his hand. But he still pacifies to calm himself down, trying to keep a poker face the best he can. And again this is totally unconscious.

As I've said above, pacifying gestures are displays meant to calm us down when we experience stress or excitement. Your job as an observer is to figure out how a specific player pacifies when he is strong, and how he does it when he is weak.
Very often, we display different tells under different situations. Some players will scratch their necks when weak, and rub their fingers together when they are strong. Both are pacifiers, but they are used in different contexts.

So, as a poker player, it is imperative that you understand that pacifying does not mean that a player is bluffing, It means he is under a higher level of stress, anxiety or excitement. Now, very often if a player is bluffing in a big pot he will be stressed out and will pacify. However, as we've seen above in the Liffey clip, we also pacify when we are strong. But you must always ask yourself what the reason for the pacifying is. What caused the player to pacify?

Is the player weak, or strong? Which one is it? You've observing your opponents from the moment you sat down, haven’t you? 🙂

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