Shifts in Behavior – Poker and Life

It’s been said many times that how you carry yourself in life is how you play poker. There’s something much deeper than the generic thinking that “if you are a bully in life then you are a bully at the table or if you are weak in life then you are an easy target in poker.” Yes, there is something much more important and revealing about people in life and poker… It’s shifts in behavior, body language and all sorts of non-verbal communication. That’s right, I said it! Very key tells are equally apparent in life as they are at the poker table. Once you know when and what to look for, you wont look at people the same again.
Before I reveal a few “tells”, you need to be aware of when a tell is accurate. For instance, if you see a girl next to you at a bar with her arms crossed, does that mean she is uninterested in you? Who knows? You first have to notice how she was standing prior to you approaching her. Perhaps she was cold, upset at some issues in life, conscious about a bad bra or uncomfortable with her arms hanging at her sides. The real secret to tells is noticing shifts in behavior! See, if she was standing with her arms at her side then they shifted to this closed off position when you said something, now you have learned something much more accurate. In this case, it was clearly something you did or said (or any immediate induces stress) that caused the change. This concept of shifts in behavior is key. Another important element, especially in poker, is the difference between acting out a tell and a subconscious, natural and accurate tell. An example of this in real life might be when you are talking to someone you are attracted to at a party and they act uninterested. However, if their body is facing you, their legs are open toward you and their palms are up (among many other tells) they are into you too – regardless that they are “acting” uninterested with attitude and their face. On the contrary, if someone is acting nice and appears interested but they slightly turn their midsection away, their legs close up and their hand retreat, they are not into you and are simply being nice. Does that make sense? Acting and the subconscious signs are often the opposite of each other! 
Let’s get into some straight forward poker examples. The most common and obvious tell is when someone is dealt a monster hand and they act like it’s a difficult decision to bet or not. They will smack their mouth with an “Oh, well. Let’s try… I guess I’ll bet…” type behavior and acting. All the while, the highly trained body language at the table watched as this same person was dealt their cards. The expert noticed that the moment the cards where looked at that the person sat a little higher in their chair (a strong subconscious sign of engagement), glanced quickly at their chip (a strong subconscious sign that they are committed to betting big already) and proceeded to cover their cards more than previous hands (a strong sign of subconscious protecting of what is valuable). The acting, combined with the subconscious behaviors, make it clear to an expert that this person has premium cards and a winning hand. This simple series of events is an example of how you need to look for shifts in behaviors and not just behaviors by themselves.  
Now that you are aware of the timing between acting and the truth of subconscious tells, lets reveal a series of wonderful behaviors that are equally useful in life or poker. One of the most revealing tells are “pacifying behaviors”. These are signs that someone is under stress. In this picture, the girl is rubbing her neck. 

If I was betting following her in a game of poker, I’d likely be able to bet very large to get her to fold due to the fact that I’m seeing an honest stress. It should be apparent that she is torn on what to do. Meaning, a strong push in one way or the other by you will give the results you want! The pacifying behavior could have easily been one of many things such as rubbing the fingers, stroking the hair or holding the chest.

Another side to tells are the signs of guilt. Again, in life, business or poker, signs of guilt reveal themselves subconsciously. In this picture, notice the fingers curled over the mouth.

This is a classic sign that this girl just got away with something. To me, based on nothing else, I might have a strong feeling that she is bluffing and trying to steal the pot. Based on other observations, I’d likely come far over the top and then watch her act for a while as if she pretends it’s a tough decision to fold! 

I have spoken to many business people about body language in sales and it is amazing how similar poker is. For instance, when I first shake someone’s hand in business, I look for certain behaviors. Does the person squeeze unnecessarily hard? Do they turn my hand up so they have the upper hand? Do they decide when we let go? These are all simple behaviors that let me know that the person has a dominating, aggressive type personality. Knowing this ahead of a poker hand or sales opportunity truly gives me the upper hand! If I was playing poker with this person and was on the fence about a move, I just might decide to bet knowing that they are cocky and bully their way through life. Isn’t it amazing how one’s behaviors in life will reveal itself on the battle field of a poker table?

Let me leave you with one more real world example of a very strong tell.  All the acting in the world often leave the feet telling the truth. That’s right, the feet! Profiler experts use this type of tell to get to the truth in crimes because the feet never lie. Specific to poker, the general idea is that a person with a confident hand will have feet that shift forward (a subconscious sign of strength). A person with a weak hand will shift their feet back in retreat even though they may look and act strong otherwise. Notice the girls legs have pulled back (assuming they were in a normal position prior to the introduced stress) which clearly shows a string sign of weakness and retreat.

Again, it is important to point out that you need to have noticed if the feet were positioned differently before a particular introduction of stimulus. If, as in this example, the feet where shifted back the entire game, then it means very little about a weak or strong hand. However, you might know that, in general, this person is in a constant state of retreat and might be easily bullied at the poker table.

Tells are powerful in tough situations if you pay attention to the details. Beware of those who like to act out those subconscious tells. You can tell the difference because acting comes after the fact and tells that are truly subconscious happen the instant some stimulus or stress is introduced. You are really interested in those short, honest moments when someone is first introduced to a thought. What comes next is acting. An interesting phenomenon to me is the fact that obvious acting reveals something too. If you have nothing else to go on, just do the opposite of what they are trying to convince you of.

I’ve used real world examples to reveal that poker is not a unique place for tells. Rather, it’s a place that has many opportunities to observe a lot in a short time. I’ve spoken at business meetings about handshake meanings, traveled around the world with Full Tilt Poker sharing tells and lectured to magicians about psychology. In every case, it truly comes down to one simple word. Shifts. If you can watch for shifts in behavior, you will see another level of non-verbal communication that’s been staring you right in the face for years. Good luck shifting your observation and shifting some money from their side of the table to yours!

In the magic community, there are a few resources, magic clubs and organizations that most magicians are part of. The International Brotherhood of Magicians (I.B.M.) Linking Ring is our monthly magazine for full time entertainers and hobbyists which is packed with club information, products, articles and much more.

This month, yours truly was featured in an article pertaining to a unique perspective of the magical arts. Enjoy!

Thanks to Cliff Bumgardner for taking the time to put together this story.

Here’s a rough transcript of the article if viewing the pictures is problematic:

The Power of Observation
An Interview with Rich Ferguson

Rich Ferguson is a full-time professional magician who is in constant demand by high-profile clients across the country. His magic has been featured on multiple television shows and specials, including The Ellen Degeneres Show and NBC’s Phenomenon. Inside the magic community he’s known as the very clever creator of effects such as “Serial Biller” and “Tagged,” which was named the Trick of the Year in 2008.

What’s the secret to Rich’s creativity? Much of it is due to his unique and unorthodox approach to magic – a style he developed as a result of his difficult, at times even tumultuous childhood.

“I was born in Salinas, California to a family involved with heavy drug trafficking,” Rich says. “My dad went to jail when I was one year old and is still serving multiple life sentences in Texas. My mom was killed when I was about five years old. My grandparents were then given custody of me, and my daily observations were drug abuse, physical abuse, and police raids – among many other things a child should not have to see.”

Rich’s troublesome surroundings as forced him to develop keen observational skills – skills that would later define his entire approach to magic. He now says, “I was a kid that that was wired from day one to be on his toes and keep a step ahead of people. Adding to that, I didn’t know how to read, so my skills for survival had to be highly enhanced. Observation was all I had to get by on. I learned to live off my wits and common sense.”

When he was eleven years old, Rich was removed from his family and put into child protective services. He was adopted a short time later, allowing him to begin his life anew. And though many things changed dramatically, he never left behind one gift given to him by his past: “I always seemed to be the person who could answer common sense problems. I was always the guy who could remember details such as where someone else left their keys. I never thought I was special, I just felt like others lacked the concentration to remember what they saw or experienced. It was–and still is–a little frustrating to have the distraction of knowing details that really should be someone else’s responsibility. It took me until college to really understand that most people don’t see everything and don’t take on the brain-taxing responsibility to analyze everything around them and calculate the repercussions.”

As a young man, Rich began using his observational skills to create experiments in human behavior. He would do things such as attempt to take an object from someone just to see if he could get away with it, or move something to see if anyone would notice. Rich didn’t realize it at the time, but he was actually dabbling in some of the foundational techniques of magic – something that would not become clear to him for several more years.

These experiments led to Rich creating little tricks and pieces simply for his own interest and amusement. But it wasn’t until Rich was asked to perform at a friend’s party that it became evident he could use what he had created as a vehicle for entertainment. “I realized that night I had discovered something very special,” he says. “This way of connecting with people was amazing, and within a year I quit my job and became a full-time entertainer.”

It still took several years of being a professional performer for Rich to associate his style of entertainment with magic. Having never even read a magic book or watched a video, Rich nervously joined The Magic Castle, where he first saw how magicians were using skills very much like his own to create magical experiences for their audience. That was all it took; he had been bitten by the magic bug.

Rich then started studying more traditional magic concepts, always looking for ways to make them his own using observational techniques and knowledge of humor behavior. He says this has become not only his approach to magic, but the very essence of the experience he tries to share with his audience. “It not only carries my show from a method or approach standpoint, but it helps me reveal techniques about human behavior that keep sophisticated crowds interested in me. The premise and execution of even the most gimmicky effect I do is altered by some form of human behavior when I’m done with it. Without a keen sense of observation, my act would be reduced to simple tricks and I would likely not be an entertainer at all.

“In addition to the magic, human behavior also helps in the relationships and business of what I do. It’s no secret that I’m having a great time performing at parties all over the globe. My client relationships are wonderful and my business is doing very well. I believe that besides hard work, there is certainly a tie to reading folks and adjusting accordingly.”

As difficult as it was, Rich credits his childhood as the backbone for who he is and all that he has accomplished. “I’ve come to realize that the survival instincts I developed very early on give me an advantage in life and business. When you master something from trial and error and survival, you really understand it. As far as where I’d be in my non-magical life, if I had a ‘normal’ childhood, I imagine I’d be a different person. What would you be like today if you were raised the way I was? You just don’t know. I do know that most kids do not make it out of the world I came from, and I just have to be grateful to have what I now have.”

But even with Rich’s great success, he has never forgotten his roots, or the importance of giving back. His work as a spokesperson for Dream for Kids led to him be the subject of the Telly Award-winning documentary, Rags to Riches. He also works with organizations such as Big Brothers Big Sisters, Adoption Council, and Social Services. He says he loves the opportunity to influence children’s lives in a positive way and teach them that anything is possible.

Rich believes that all magicians can use behavioral techniques to take their magic to the next level. “For those who want to try to take magic beyond the steps of the tricks and be more flexible and improvisational,” he says, “the sky is the limit. But for those who avoid it, they are missing out on a deep psychological connection with their spectators.”

Like the documentary bearing his name, Rich’s life is a true rags-to-riches story that is nothing short of inspirational. His is a lesson in using every skill you have at your disposal, and reveals what can be accomplished when we as magicians stop worrying about our tricks and instead focus on the people we are trying to entertain. So please, put this magazine down, and take the time to simply look around your world. You may find it is a far more magical place than you ever thought possible.

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