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Poker in the Courtroom – Tells part 1

by Kenna James

on 22 January, 2016

What if you could read the opposing party’s posture and gestures to know if they had a strong case or were bluffing?

What if you could become aware of your own ‘tells’ – and even learn to shape them to control what you communicate to others?

I’ve won over twenty championships and millions of dollars playing a card game. I’m ranked in the top 100 poker players in the world. But maybe you’re not impressed: what have I got teach you attorneys? After all, I’ve never been to law school, never memorized the minutia of a state’s rules for civil procedures, never Shepardized a case or argued an objection before a judge.

But for the past five years, I have taken my high-stakes Sin City skills from the casinos into the boardrooms and offices of high-powered business professionals. CEOs and entrepreneurs have been seeking me out since then, looking for the real-life techniques no one could show them in business school. I happen to think that most people can benefit from the skills of poker, but perhaps the group that stands to gain the most is yours: attorneys.

This is why:

Like the legal profession, high-stakes poker trains your brain to think in careful and disciplined ways. However, where the brilliant brains of attorneys are largely focused on legal theory and the skills of rhetoric, poker players are masters of observing human interactions. To win, we hone our ability to read verbal and non-verbal communication.

poker tells

There are three “tells” in this clip. Do you know what they mean? Watch the video at the bottom for an explanation.

With every case you take, you attorneys are essentially sitting down at the table with an opponent. You are forced to show some of your cards and able to hide others, trying to guess with each hint whether your opponent is bluffing, who among you has the stronger hand, and whether it’s time to fold or the moment to go all in. So much of what makes or breaks a case is outside the official acts of a legal proceeding, resting in the very realms of nuanced communication which we poker players have had to master.

But I’m betting they don’t teach you this in law school. So that’s where I come in. I’ll be sharing a series of posts and videos with the Filevine folks to reveal skills from my own profession that you can use to radically expand the tools you can use in your practice.

Lesson #1: Tells and Non-verbal Communication

Like attorneys, poker players have ways of discovering information. While I’d love to be able to subject my fellow-players to a deposition, I typically have to go about things with greater subtlety.

This is where the tell comes in.

Tells are involuntary behaviors that reveal what we refuse to speak. Though we think of communication in terms of actual words spoken, but the first lesson from poker is that everything is communication. Even just sitting as you are at your computer, you are communicating volumes. What you wear and how you wear it, your posture, the microexpressions on your face, what you’re doing with your hands – all of this expresses how you’re feeling, what you value, and what you might do next.

A poker player uses tells to gauge whether someone is bluffing or excited about the card they just got. An attorney can use them to determine whether opposing counsel is nervous that they are dumping too many resources into a failing case or they think it’s a slam dunk. This can reveal whether they believe their position is weak or strong, and how long you should spend arguing a specific point.

Some basic knowledge of tells can reveal to you:

  • Points on which opposing counsel feels confidence
  • Spots they fear are weak
  • Whether someone actually believes in what they are saying or doing
  • When someone is bluffing
  • How they may respond to offers and counter-offers

What to Look For: Signs of Strength and Weakness

Though body language can be nuanced, you don’t have to be Sherlock Holmes to read a ‘tell.’ Basic gestures and postures can reveal some of the most crucial information about the levels of confidence or insecurity your opponents are feeling.

Tells of Strength

Here's a person exhibiting confidence through several non-verbal cues. Watch the video below to learn what they are.

Here’s a person exhibiting confidence through several non-verbal cues. Watch the video below to learn what they are.

When someone feels like they are in a position of strength, or are looking to influence you, they are likely to communicate that non-verbally in these ways:

  • Leaning forward and standing over others
  • Touching fingertips together
  • Moving head back, exposing the front of the neck
  • Keeping hands on hips
  • Cracking knuckles

             Tells of Weakness

The opposing counsel won’t come out and tell you where they’re weak, and which spots in their case make them nervous. But you can find them by searching out these bits of body language:

  • Slumping shoulders and posture
  • Lowered head
  • Head tilted to one side, resting on a hand
  • Hands moving to the neck area or collar.
  • Fingers touching nose or covering mouth

 Next Steps: Self-control

Once you begin to hone your observational skills, you can also turn them inward. Become aware of your own gestures and postures to recognize what you’re communicating to others. Then you can deliberately shape your posture and gestures to communicate messages non-verbally to others. When you want others to be convinced of your confidence in the strength of your case, practice some of the strength tells above. At other times, you may wish for others to see you as relatable and non-threatening, and you can even deliberately adopt some of the ‘weakness tells’ shown here.

The key point is sharpening your awareness, and steadily bringing your own subconscious behaviors under control.

When viewing your opposition, it is vital to differentiate between genuine and dramatized behavior. After all, if you can play them with fake tells, they might be playing you as well. We’ll cover that more in a future blog titled “Playing the Player.”

But up next, we’ll unlock another key of non-verbal communication, exploring how the body signals acceptance and rejection. This can be used to gauge how someone is feeling about what we are telling them, helping us to shape our strategies during the process of negotiations.

In the video below, I share details and examples of the most common subconscious tells people have in tense situations.