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Staring down the barrel of the gun can make you a hero, but be careful it doesn’t go off in your face

There’s some debate in poker about whether fixing your opponent with a steely gaze has any real value in terms of making you a more successful player. If we’re to believe fictional portrayals of poker games (think Bond vs Le Chiffre in Casino Royale), a stare-down with a rival will either lead to the hero spotting a vital ‘tell’, which allows them to win a vast quantity of cash (and to triumph over evil!), or intimidate their foe into folding their (usually winning) hand.

However, watching pro poker players on TV shows us something very different: many of them are reluctant to engage in a staring match, preferring not to hold the gaze of an opponent for fear of giving something away. So, is the ‘stare-down’ really of any use?

As a general rule, in the course of normal polite conversation with another person (though it may vary depending on how well we know them), we spend about 60 percent of the time looking at them (usually in bursts of about three seconds), although direct eye contact with the other person only occurs about 30 percent of the time (lasting, on average, for about one second).

From a psychological perspective, engaging in intense and direct eye contact (a stare-down) with another person sends out very specific messages: on one level it signals that we think we are the dominant person in the communication, and on another level it signals our aggressive intent.

Staring contest

If you’re employing a stare- down to try to intimidate an opponent, its effects will depend to a great extent on the nature of your opponent. If they’re naturally aggressive, they may see it as a challenge (think red rag to a bull) and you can expect them to target their aggression specifically towards you in return (which could extend to the remainder of the game).

In this scenario you’re in real danger of gaining their enmity and run the risk of putting yourself in their line of fire. If so, make sure you’re really equipped to deal with the consequences.

However, if they’re more passive (or perhaps just more polite), they may feel uncomfortable from your stare and will be more likely to break eye contact first. This will probably have the effect of making them wary of you and keeping them out of your way in the future (except when they have a monster hand, of course).

On the other hand, if the stare-down is an attempt to pick up a ‘tell’ on your opponent, there are many things that you need to consider. For example, how good a player and actor they are. That is, do they know the signs that you’re looking for and are they able to fake them? If you rate them highly, then you should be wary of any tells that you think you’ve spotted. Also, how closely have you been paying attention to your opponent?

One of the things to look for is any change from their normal behaviour. But if you don’t know how they act normally, then looking for tells isn’t very useful. A final thing to consider is how sensitive a person they are. For example, you’re giving them your best ‘stare’ and you notice that their finger starts to tap on the table; can you really be sure this is a ‘tell’ that they have a weak hand, or is it simply a nervous reaction to your close scrutiny?

The joker

One tell that sometimes appears as a result of a stare-down is a smile. Now, if you can spot the difference between a genuine smile (they are confident that they have you beat) and a fake smile (they are showing false bravado and you probably have them beat), it could mean the difference between doubling up or crashing out of a tournament.

Basically, a genuine smile will engage the zygomatic major muscle, which causes ‘crow’s feet’ wrinkles at the corner of the eyes and bagged skin below the eyes. In addition, it pulls up the corners of the lips towards the cheekbones and, in turn, the cheeks also rise slightly. A fake smile will rarely show these features.

Naturally, there may be occasions when you find yourself on the wrong end of a stare-down and you may be able to use this to your advantage. For example, if you want to be called, it might be useful to casually move your hand to your face, just briefly, and then quickly withdraw it as if you’ve been burnt.

The reason for this is that many people have a powerful stereotype where they believe that a liar will touch their face in an unconscious attempt to stop the lies from coming out of their mouth. Use this to signal to your opponent that you are bluffing (when you really have a monster) and watch them push their chips into the middle.

In conclusion, the overall message is that the stare- down can be both a boon and a bane – so use it wisely, and not too often (Mr Bond).

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