What's A Good Poker Face?


What kind of poker face works best? According to a recent study, it may not be the one you expect. Today on the blog Alex Titkov explains.


In many senses, gambling is a reflection, a metaphor at times for our daily lives. A general glance at gambling psychology research will indeed reflect topics such as risk-taking, decision-making, and responses to gains and losses. Evolutionary speaking, it’s been stated that risk-taking for example has been an intrinsic part of our species. As much as it may have been dangerous to cross a croc infested river, it may have also been as risky to avoid risk all together; your ancestor spending an extra hour finding shelter from a storm in a cave on a cliff-face could be the very reason you and your genetics are here today.

What's An Effective Poker Face?

In a recent article titled Human Wagering Behavior Depends On Opponent's Faces published July 21st in PLOS One—an open-access peer-reviewed journal— a few researchers conducted a study regarding not only the behavioural gambling aspects of playing a simple game of poker but also the human emotional aspects that affect behaviour. This study dealt with (no pun intended) the classic “poker face” amongst 14 novice gamblers (age range: 19 – 36) who played a simplified version of Texas Hold ‘Em on a computer screen.

On the computer screen, the participants could see their hand (consisting of 2 cards), their simulated virtual opponents’ faces (a total of 100 different faces with 3 variations of each), and knew that their own bet was worth 100 chips while their opponents—5,000. In this simple version, the players could only fold or call; folding would lead to losing the 100 chips while calling would potentially lead to winning the opponent’s 5,000 chips.

Poker Face

The modified variable in this study was the variations of each opposing opponents face. The three types of faces were altered via a scale of trustworthiness: untrustworthy, neutral, and trustworthy. The results revealed that the gambling behaviour of the participants (novice gamblers) that consistently led to increased folding, longer deliberation, and an increase in making mistakes were affected when the participant faced a “trustworthy” face or those that appeared happy, attractive, and friendly.

Why Is It So?

The researchers believe this could be due to a few different reasons. Given that the participants were novice poker players, a more friendly face could have affected an emotional response leading them to play more conservatively. A positive looking opponent may also lead a novice player to infer that a more trustworthy opponent may have a better hand which in-turn would pressure an individual to fold more often. This was also seen on the opposite spectrum of the trustworthiness scale. Opponents who were seen as untrustworthy or aggressive led to participants reacting much more aggressively in turn and calling.

Again, it’s important to note (and the researchers note as well) that the conditions in this study were not fully relatable to an actual game of poker. Rules and betting were restricted, the participants were novice gamblers, and faced computer opponents; opponents who were not influenced by seeing. Though it may be an interesting strategy to take for an individual playing against friends or against novice opponents by appearing much more positive or trustworthy, this strategy would mostly likely not be as effective against more experienced gamblers. Mostly, this study observed first-impression responses in a relatively short time span in a risk-based scenario.

The lead researcher, psychologist Erik Schlicht, is currently looking into an fMRI study into the differences between novice and expert players which should reveal some further interesting insights. It would also be interesting to see if other studies could alter the reactions of a computer opponent based on the facial expressions of the participants. One thing I also think is important to point out is that all of the participants were American. Facial and body language also has different and opposite meanings depending on where you are socially and culturally. Therefore future studies should look into social and cultural differences in betting or in risk-taking response scenarios.

Concluding Thoughts

In closing, humans typically have a greater attraction or relation to events with great gains or losses regardless of how small the chances are statistically; think million dollar lottery winners or plane crashes. As a big proponent of focusing and living in-the-moment, it’s as useful a motto for gambling situations if one has inklings about “winning it all back in the next hand”. It’s not a bad way to go by keeping these things in mind before you go “invest” your kids’ college tuition on 22 black.



Follow Alex on Twitter: @alextitkov

And read more of his work at the EMSEP Sport and Exercise Psychology Blog

Double M.S. in Sport and Exercise Psychology from Lund University. Sport science specialist, editor, writer, and footballer.