What do poker legends Phil Ivey, Stephen Chidwick, Mike McDonald, and pop princess Lady Gaga have in common? They all have an iconic poker face!
The term poker face is used in everyday life, even by people far removed from this glorious game. When at the negotiating table, people are often told to keep a good poker face, meaning they should appear to have their emotions in check on the outside even if adrenaline is coursing through their veins and their hearts are beating through their chests.
The term poker face became more mainstream in 2008 when pop sensation Lady Gaga enjoyed a smash hit with song entitled Poker Face. Millions of people sang along to lyrics packed with sexual innuendoes, believing the song was simply about poker and having a good poker face.
If you get the chance after reading this article about the importance of having a good poker table when playing Texas Hold’em, Omaha Poker, or any other poker game, make sure you look into the meaning of Lady Gaga’s Poker Face in addition to the true expletive-heaving true lyrics! You may be surprised, if not shocked!
Poker Face Meaning
Stephen Chidwick is a master of the stare down
Fire up your favorite search ending and type in poker face definition, and “an impassive expression that hides one’s true feelings” is returned as the term’s meaning. Purely in a poker sense of the term, the meaning of a poker face is keeping your face void of expression regardless of if you are holding the stone-cold nuts or are praying to the poker gods that your opponent will fold because you have a trash hand.
Instead of asking yourself what is a poker face, you should deviate slightly and consider what is a good poker face. Poker players’ minds naturally go to a default image when they think of someone trying their utmost to look emotionless. You are doing it now: you are imagining someone with a stoic impression, perhaps one tinged with anger that is quite intimidating because the player is staring you down!
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However, a poker face can be whatever you want it to be. You can sit there smiling like the cat that got the cream or look like you are about to burst into tears. Your goal is to not give away any indication of how you are feeling or the strength of your hand. Developing a good, consistent poker face, meaning your face is unreadable to opponents, is a crucial skill to have as a live poker player, and standard practice in any good live poker training course.
Why is a Poker Face Important?
Poker is a game played with incomplete information because our hole cards are only ever revealed in specific situations. This means that in order to win a pot, we have to make assumptions about our opponent’s hand based on factors including the playing tendencies, their bet sizing, and any other little snippets of information we can gather from how they act, move, and look.
Poker players unwillingly give away information through their body language. These poker tells are sometimes obvious – here’s looking at you Teddy KGB and your obsession with Oreos – or far more subtle, such as a wry smile, diverting their eyes from the community cards or their opponent. Some poker tells are difficult to conceal because they are automatic responses by the human body. Often, a player’s pupils will briefly dilate when they have a big hand because their body is genuinely excited that they are about to win a large pot.
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In addition, it is sometimes possible to see a player’s carotid artery pumping in their neck when their heart rate increases. Those are two examples of poker tells that are difficult to control, but you can cover them up, and you have total control of your poker pace.
You may be wondering why to keep a poker face at all. Why not just act “normally” during every hand? That is all well and good, but at some point, you will act differently when your hand is strong or you are bluffing, and the better, more observant opponents will pick up on this and act according. By getting into the habit of adopting the same poker face whenever you are active in a hand, you vastly reduce the chances of your face giving off tells.
How to Get and Keep a Good Poker Face
Christoph Vogelsang mucks to the stare down of Mike McDonald
Many players’ hands shake when having a winning hand, which easily tips off fellow players that they indeed have a good hand. Keeping the anonymity of your hands helps you psychologically gain an advantage over your other players, whether you have pocket Aces or seven-deuce offsuit.
Poker pro Michael Mizrachi, affectionately known as “The Grinder”, has made millions off reading people’s (poorly kept) poker faces. Mizrachi is a classic example of having a strong poker face, having the ability to calm under pressure, and having a sharp mind to read other people’s emotional changes, all while thinking about how to best make money off it.
Getting a Good Poker Face
Anyone can get a good poker face, but it does take some practice on your behalf. When you’re someone that usually plays online poker with friends, putting on your poker face may seem unnatural at first, especially if you try it in front of the mirror. Truth be told, you may even burst out laughing the first few times you try looking stoic.
However, like everything in poker and in most walks of life, practice makes perfect, and the following tips will have you sporting a poker face the pros will be proud of in next to no time.
Avoid Giving Off Tells
We have already touched on how a poker face can help reduce tells, but we cannot stress the importance of doing everything in your power to prevent giving off poker tells that could completely change the course of a hand.
The slightest involuntary facial twitch can be the difference between a skilled opponent calling your value bet or mucking their hand and you leaving valuable chips on the table. Conversely, your darting eyes, a quick like of your lips, or a simple touch of your face could be enough to convince your foe to call your elaborate bluff.
There are some poker players that are highly adept at picking up on poker tells. Taking them on at the tables without your best poker face on display is asking for trouble, especially if you’re looking to keep your poker bankroll intact!
In the movie Maverick, there’s a fantastic scene on why you should avoid giving off tells. The character of Maverick played by Mel Gibson sits down at a poker table and sweet-talks his way into a seat by promising to lose for an hour. During that hour, however, he was able to ascertain the other poker player’s tells, either twirling their hair like Jodie Foster’s character, one licking their lips, the other purses them with a winning hand, shuffling the order of their cards, etc.
Fedor Holz stares down Dario Sammartino
A poker face is an unnatural look because it removes all emotion and expression from the main thing that humans use to display emotion, expression, and feelings! Most players adopt a poker face by relaxing their facial muscles so as not to smile or frown. They then remain motionless until it is their turn to act.
It is important to realize a good poker face is not only how you look, but also how you act. For example, try to blink naturally because you may find yourself blinking too much or staring too much. Furthermore, fidgeting in your seat is a big no-no, as is any movement that you are not prepared to replicate each time you enter a pot.
Got an itch on your cheek? Really, do not dare to scratch it. Getting bored or worried about the length of time you are waiting? You had better not start moving your tongue around your mouth, swallow harder than usual, or lick your lips, or divert your eyes to your opponent, or anywhere else for that matter. The slightest deviation can make your poker face ineffective, which will especially be picked up by hungry sharks.
Sitting perfectly still, with a blank expression on your face really is a solid foundation on which to build your award-winning poker face. Imagine you are playing “Simon Says” and Simon has said freeze, and you will not go too far wrong.
It is common for an opponent to stare down someone who has acted and deployed their best poker face. They stare intently, not only to try and pick up on any read or tell they can, but to make you feel uncomfortable to such a degree that you break and give them some information.
Stephen Chidwick and Mike McDonald, mentioned at the start of this article, are experts at this; their fierce stares are the stuff of legend. Keeping your cool when someone’s eyes are burning into you is a challenging task. It is only natural to feel uneasy when someone is staring at you. Just remember that they cannot stare at you forever.
It is best to completely avoid eye contact and focus on the table in front of you or a spot in the distance. Breathe naturally, and your opponent will eventually have to act.
How To Keep a Good Poker Face
Some players take an extraordinary time to make a decision once you have put them to the test, so expect to have to maintain your poker face for several minutes at a time. It is vitally important that you do not break out from having your poker face on until the moment your opponent acts, otherwise, it is pointless trying in the first place.
One way to practice your poker face and to see if you give off any tells is to stare at yourself in a mirror, as ridiculous as that sounds. You can practice your best poker face even if you primarily play online poker on mobile poker sites. Pretend you are in a live poker room and put your poker face on when you would have to in a live setting. Sure, the online game plays out much faster than in a brick-and-mortar venue, and there is nobody staring you down, but it is good practice nonetheless.
Expect some opponents to try and talk you into breaking out of your poker face “pose.” They will ask you questions, pass comments on how the hand has played out, and more. Ignore them and concentrate on not making any deviations, movements, or facial expressions. You will find your own way of achieving this, maybe count in your head, sing a song, go to a happy place, whatever suits you best, just do not let them talk you out of your poker face.
It is in your interests not to wear sunglasses to hide your eyes, or rely on listening to music to drown out any speech play because most major live poker tournaments make players remove their headphones once the event reaches a specific stage, usually on the bubble or after it pops.
Businessman Bill Klein used his poker face to pull off a six-figure bluff
Ready to Play Poker?
Online poker and live poker go hand in hand, which is why the biggest online poker sites often run poker satellites or even poker freerolls to prestigious live poker tournaments. PokerStars has the European Poker Tour (EPT) as its flagship tour, GGPoker runs World Series of Poker (WSOP) satellites, while PartyPoker, 888poker, and Unibet Poker each have their own branded events they host around the globe.
The online poker world is the perfect place for honing your poker skills and gaining some valuable experience in this crazy game. Once you have developed those skills and that knowledge, you can concentrate on trying out your poker face in real life with no other distractions.
Poker Face FAQs
Why is it called a poker face?
It’s called a poker face because poker players have adopted having a deadpan or emotionless expression on their face while playing poker.
Is it good to have a poker face?
Yes, it’s good, even essential to have a poker face while playing poker. This way you’re able to school your expression and fool your opponents into believing exactly what you want them to believe.
Q; What is meant by having a poker face?
A: A face not showing any emotion or change in expression.
How do you do a poker face?
One great example of a poker face is Phil Ivey. He has no expression with his eyes boring into your soul, no smile, only a deadpan expression. Some players put a hand on their opposing arm, keeping their body immobile while another player might be staring them down in order to elicit some information.
Is having a poker face bad?
Having a poker face is a great quality while playing poker. If you’re standing at your wedding with a poker face, maybe not the best time to have one.
What does a poker face look like?
A poker face has a complete lack of expression or physicality, giving no tells as to what hand you might have.
Christina is a Las Vegas-based freelance writer who discovered poker at the age of twelve. She’s been a contributor to PokerNews since 2022.