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STRANGE BUT TRUE: Poker study reveals surprising 'tells'

Arm movements are more of a “tell” in poker than facial expressions.
BY BILL SONES AND RICH SONES, PH.D. For The Oklahoman Modified: February 24, 2014 at 3:26 pm •  Published: February 25, 2014


Q: Do you have a skillful enough “poker face” to help get you through those high-stakes matches?

A: Don't worry about your face at all, since that's not what's likely to betray your hand, says Bruce Bower in Science News magazine. When test subjects viewed video clips of the faces and upper bodies of opponents, they couldn't correctly predict whether the other players held good or bad cards. In other words, the poker faces of experienced players gave away nothing. Quite surprisingly, however, “professional poker players' arm movements enabled untrained observers to decode poker-hand quality,” reported Tufts University graduate student Michael Slepian. What seemed to be the giveaway for good cards was smooth arm movement when players pushed chips forward to make bets. Bluffers, on the other hand, seemed to move their arms somewhat awkwardly. Generally, the way people move hints at what they're thinking, remarked cognitive neuroscientist James Kilner of University College London. In one of his studies, confident marble players moved more quickly and observers of such actions interpreted this speed as signaling greater confidence. In a larger study of college students, those with some poker experience did best at telling weak from strong hands by using players' arm movements as the tip-off.

Q: When you brake your car on an icy road, the goal is to stay on a straight path with no spinout, so it's best not to have the wheels lock. But if it's going to happen, which should you choose to have locked: front or rear?

A: Surprisingly, with the front wheels locked, the car will keep going straight ahead, says Mark Levi in “Why Cats Land on Their Feet, and 76 Other Physical Paradoxes and Puzzles.” By contrast, if the rear wheels lock, the car will turn around and travel with back end forward until it stops (assuming the steering wheel is kept fixed). Think of it another way: An arrow's stabilizing feathers keep its tail from sideslipping, just as with front wheels locked, a car's rolling rear wheels act to keep it going straight.

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