Let's finish our focus on fear and anxiety at the poker table by remembering that most of the physical and psychological changes associated with fear are involuntary. You don't consciously increase your heart rate; you don't cause your face to flush when you hit the perfect card on the river. However, most involuntary reactions we have are to a great extent controllable with practice and experience. Physical changes happen including flexing of muscles, chest expansion due to increased breathing which in turn is due to palpitating heart rate, eyes dilate and eyelids narrow. In poker, when someone has a big hand they are typically ready for confrontation and can exhibit some of these characteristics; this is the "fight" response. During a bluff, you might expect a player to be anxious, but if they intend to fold if re-raised they may look quite calm, this is the "flight" response.
Here are the keys to look for in opponents and the responses to learn to control in your own game.
1. Face and Eyes:
Eyes may be the window to the soul but sunglasses conceal most ocular reactions. So instead, look at your opponent's entire face. The much talked about "poker face" is not only difficult to learn to execute; it often vanishes even in the best of players during moments of high stress. Talking to an opponent will often shatter their calm facial expression; if it was that fragile, what does that tell you about their hand?
Facial recognition software breaks down the common human facial expressions into manageable and readable components. You know what sadness looks like and you know what nervousness looks like. If you're not sure, google facial expressions and get yourself some basic knowledge. Also even the sunglass protected eyes cannot cover the turning of the head to look away from the flop or the looking down at the stack or hole cards. Stress, anxiety and fear can make a player look away from the big flop and down to their chips before they have consciously decided to bet. The signs are very subtle both in other players and in you.
2. The Hands:
On the other hand (sorry) most players who have nearly perfected the poker face have no control over their hands. Not only do they shake or nervously scratch, often players will move their hands in completely different ways with a hand as opposed to when they are drawing of bluffing. Be careful, however, of hands shaking; as with most physical manifestations of stress and fear only 'most' people tremble when afraid but a large subset trembles with anticipation of the big hand. You need to pick up the reaction and then have validation of its meaning. Most importantly don't assume because your hands shake when you are afraid that this is true for everyone. Oh and one more thing, one of the most difficult false tells to give out is trembling hands, it is very hard to tremble on command. Go ahead try it.
3. Complete Body Posture.
Your eyes are a component of your face. Your hands are a part of your arm. Your eyes, hands, face and everything else a player can see about you at the table are parts of your body. If you want to take control of your fear as it gives off tells to others players, take control of your body. There are two ways to do this. First, you have to be aware of what you are doing at the table, which means you need a buddy or two to sweat you. You can't 'read' yourself. Once they give you some tips on your potential tells, I suggest a holistic approach. Deal with the psychological reactions to fear and stress by recognizing them and deal with the physical manifestations by relaxing your entire body. It is much easier to relax yourself than to attempt to only lower your heart rate or to slow your nervous eyes.
Some obvious changes in posture based on their cards are shoulders slumping or the opposite sitting up straighter. Then there is the lean forward, which usually means bluff and the easy lean back, which indicates strength. But these are common body reactions to fear and elation, lots of players know this, so they are common false tells.
The best way to overcome reactions to fear at the table is really quite simple. Play more. The more often you encounter big hands, the more often you run risky bluffs, the more routine they become for you, the less stressful they are to you and the less your mind and body react to the anxiety. Experience, in this case, truly is the best teacher.
Ed Note: The best teacher to learn poker is to play online. Sign up today for Paradise Poker and have some fun. Isn't it about time you had some fun?