There are a few cliché sayings in every field that serve no purpose but to piss off beginners.
In golf, it’s “Stay calm.”
In dating, it’s “Be confident.”
In exercise, it’s “Stay motivated.”
And finally, in poker, it’s “You have to be good at reading people.”
What do all of these have in common? They’re all obviously true but give absolutely no help on how to do it. No one tries to lose motivation in the gym and no one intentionally gets pissed off before going to the putting green. You might as well tell a poor person he should try making money for a change.
The good news is that as far as poker is concerned, I have you covered. Learning to read people at the table is a skill that can be developed to a shocking level of accuracy. There are some simple exercises that over a short period of time, will give you uncanny insight into what other players are thinking and planning.
Here is an exercise I call “The Focus Cycle.”
This is ideal for a poker table, but it works in any room with several people. In fact, you’re far better off practicing this when you’re not in a poker game, so you don’t have your money and your cards to think about at the same time.
I’ll tell you first how I came up with this exercise. I was at my office one day and saw a stack of magazines on the table, about seven feet away. One of the magazines of the stack had a picture of Iron-Man on it, and I was a little curious about what the article would be about.
At that moment, my coworker Sandy reached to the pile of magazines (about ten of them), and pulled the exact one I was thinking about and handed it to me. I was stunned. She gave a smug smile and walked away.
Later, I mentioned this to another friend of mine at the office and she said, “Sandy sees EVERYTHING. She can always tell who’s having an affair in the office, who’s up for a promotion, and who’s a few weeks away from getting fired. I don’t know how she does it, but nothing gets past her attention.”
I figured that Sandy wasn’t a psychic and that this unique talent wasn’t in her DNA. Her awareness was impressive, but definitely something I could learn if I put my mind to it. After spending some time with Sandy, I modeled how she looked at the world and came up with this drill to give myself the same ability.
Here’s how the “Focus Cycle” works
Say there’s five people in a room with you. If you’re at a restaurant, just do this with the people at your table. Look at someone in your group and ask yourself:
“What has his attention?”
That’s it. You don’t have to wonder anything else at this point. Just simply find out where his attention is. Maybe it’s on someone speaking, maybe it’s on his iPhone, or maybe it’s half on the clock and half on the birds outside.
Then you move to the next person in the room and ask yourself the same question. Cycle through everyone in the room, multiple times, and you’ll find yourself picking up more and more information with just a quick glance.
Once this becomes easy for you, you can take this even deeper.
If a guy at your table is looking at the waiter telling a story, ask yourself, “What does he think of the person speaking?” “Is he really interested or just pretending to listen, while sneaking glances at the pretty girl nearby?” “Does he agree or disagree with what’s being said?”
Since you’re spending equal time on each person, you will never get “caught” doing this. You may also be pleasantly (or unpleasantly) surprised to find that someone in the group has their attention far more on you than you previously thought.
I think by now you can imagine how this will help you at the poker table.
After you’ve mastered this, how hard do you think it will be to look at someone’s face and guess if he’s happy with the flop on the card table?
Even better, once you get really refined with this, you’ll actually be able to tell which card on the table has the player’s top interest. Suppose the dealer flips the turn and on the table, you have three spades and one heart. If you see the player focused on the heart, you know that this is crucial for his hand. If the player’s all dizzy eyed and has zero actual focus on the cards on the table, there’s a pretty good chance they’re meaningless to him because he’s bluffing.
This is a subtle art to learn that takes time. It’s a “core” skill that will help you not only in poker, but in business (especially negotiation) and social life in general. When people say that the skills in poker are what it takes to succeed in life, this is a perfect example of what they mean.