Telling Truth In The Booth

Telling Truth In The Booth

Wednesday, 19 November 2014

Jeff Kimber on bluffing.

Recently, Joe Beevers and I were asked to attend a special event in the City of London as the two experts in the Grosvenor Casino 'Bluffing Booth'.

The challenge for the passing public was to choose three out of ten questions, give truthful answers to two and make up the third answer to try and bluff the poker pros. We were allowed to ask one or two supplementary questions about what they had told us, but if they were astute enough to get their bluff past the two of us, they won anything from a meal in a Grosvenor Casino or a free bottle of wine in the bar and were entered into a draw for a VIP casino night out.

Joe and I went into it thinking it would be a bit of a laugh and not sure it would be much to do with poker, but as they two-day event progressed, we realised that, despite years of playing live poker, we both need to work on our people-reading skills as well as one or two gaps in our knowledge to remain at the top of our game.

We were stationed in a Tardis-like booth in Exchange Square in the City of London, and when the hopefuls were sent in, they’d already written down the answers to three of the 10 questions, such as ‘What is the most unusual food you’ve ever eaten?’, ‘Where is the most exciting place in the world you’ve been?, ‘Who is the most famous person you have ever met?’ and so on. They then had to read us the three statements.

All in all, Joe and I probably had forty people try to bluff us, and straight away we noticed a different approach in each other, allowing us to pick up on traits the other hadn't.

Joe is naturally a more chatty person (and poker player), so straight away he took over vocally. Joe used a clever technique by asking a ‘control’ question as the potential bluffer came in. It was something simple to answer, such as whether they worked nearby or if they were on their lunch hour - something you could rely on them being truthful about, making it easier to spot any differences in the statements that followed. He asked them their name and explained how the game worked, all the time looking for clues as to whether they were telling the truth. I joined in with this later, but was keener to observe their reactions and watch their body language at first.

After three or four ‘victims’ had been in our booth, we took a break and discussed how things were going and how we’d reached our conclusions with each one.

Joe very much had concentrated on the things people said and how they said them, looking for speed of reply, fumbling of words and level of detail, especially added details that hadn’t been asked for.

For example, if someone is bluffing about having been to Thailand, we would ask them which part they went to. It may take them a moment to think if they haven’t actually been there. In itself that isn’t a tell, as it may have been years since they visited and don’t remember the specifics, or they may have traveled round and not have an immediate answer. What Joe did very quickly pick up on though is when people added extra information, it was very rarely a bluff.

If they answered, “I went to Bangkok”, that may or may not be a bluff. If they replied, “I went to Bangkok with my brother Steve and his friend Paul, we stayed there for five nights before getting a bus to Koh Samui,” then it was hardly ever a bluff. People very rarely added this extra stuff into their answer if it wasn’t true, for obvious reasons. If you’re not telling the truth, there’s less to be caught out on if you provide little information.

As I observed the body language, there were some pretty obvious tells. We had one gentleman come in and proudly proclaim that his claim to fame was representing his country at clay pigeon shooting. On paper that could be a bluff, but when they guy told us that, he was expressive with his hands, his body language open and he was excited to tell us, obviously proud of his achievement.

We’d find people who were expressive and open in two of their answers, expressing classic tells on their third answer, when they changed body language, crossed their legs, averted their gaze, and we caught them easily enough.

We also noticed an interesting trait, that we’d find people showing classic signs of bluffing in two of the three statements, but on the third they seemed more natural and truthful.

Even though we were going against the theory, we quickly surmised that the one that was different, no matter how much it seemed to be true, had to be the bluff, and concluded that this was because they were behaving unnaturally while telling the truth (i.e. they were trying to hide the truth from us) and being more natural with their bluff.

Where it became more complicated though was when we came across people with mixed tells. Their body language would tell us that answer two was the bluff, as they behaved the same on numbers one and three, but in delivering three, they’d fumble words, or give very closed answers.

We then had to bring in other factors, like which of the two statements makes most sense, which is most likely to be a bluff, but of course our results on picking the bluff were a lot less consistent with these people. It really reinforced that when we bluff as poker players, we must make the story make sense, but very importantly, we must give off as many confusing signs as possible. Changing the way we sit, where we stare, if and how we answer any questions, how we handle chips, the size of our bets makes it so much harder for opponents to sniff out a bluff.

We also came across those who’d decided they just wanted to make a huge bluff, just to get one over on the poker pros.

Both Joe and I have had players run big bluffs on us in tournaments and show us afterwards, as if to say, ‘You think you’re good do you? Well I can play with you sponsored pros!’ It’s something we both welcome, as more often than not we come out on top. But we didn’t expect to come across people like that in our Bluffing Booth, and as a result, we let the first one or two get away with it before realising it was the same here.

One guy said his proudest moment was rescuing a child from a burning house. I mean, would anyone really make that up as their bluff against professionals? It makes no sense to spin a yarn so obviously clichéd. He did though, and he got it past us.

A girl told us that Vegas was the most exciting place she’d been, and that the MGM Grand was her favourite hotel there. As nice as the MGM is, surely the Wynn, the Aria or the Venetian would be your favourite? Why would you bluff poker players, who you know must have spent a lot of time in Vegas, about a trip there if you’d never been? Well, she did, and we fell for it hook, line and sinker. We underestimated just how many times people make random bluffs, ones that are far too risky and there’s no need to run, and quickly realised we’d probably been letting too many random bluffs get past us at the poker table too.

The main reminder we got, though, was how much easier it is to bluff if you are basically telling the truth by using an actual past event to base your story on.

You may never have been to Australia, but your sister might have been and told you all about it. So you bluff that Australia is the most exciting place you’ve been, and can list the cities you went to, just by reciting your sister’s trip. You can describe beautiful places and how long you were there by describing your sister’s photos and her itinerary, almost believing your own bluff yourself.

In poker this is much easier, as we’ve all been in a million situations where we want the call because we’ve got it, and a million others where we don’t want the call as we have nothing.

If you can convince yourself that you have the nuts, and act accordingly, relaxed, genuine, then it’s far less likely someone will pick up on your bluff.

As Joe told me, if ever you rob a bank and the police call at your door and ask what your alibi is, it’s far more plausible to recount a true story from a different day, when you and your mate were down in Brighton at the beach for example, than to make up something completely random. Then all you have to do, if anyone asks, is to tell your mate to tell people that the day you were at Brighton beach was actually on the new date. Everything else stays the same; how you got there, where you ate, what time you left and all the rest of it.

I got a good few reminders of tells in the Grosvenor Bluffing Booth that will help me at the poker table. As a bonus, if they don’t work, I've also got a rock solid alibi if I ever rob a bank!

Tags: Jeff Kimber, strategy