My last article discussed how a skilled observer can place cards by reading tells. During the discussion, I was asked a follow-up question: How can I reduce the tells I give off while I am playing?
The solution is to develop a poker face that gives off few tells. More accurately, you will need to develop an entire neutral persona so that not just your face, but your hands, manner and table talk have all been tuned to give off few tells.
Why a poker face? Why not give off random tells so others will not know what your tells mean? Two reasons:
Unfortunately, developing a poker face is easier said than done. Tells are driven by emotional reactions. Emotional reactions at bridge occur most often when you are surprised. If you must play to a trick before you are ready, you may feel anxiety that your choice is incorrect and that anxiety may pop up in different ways. When you have an emotional reaction, not only can you show it consciously but almost always you unconsciously display that emotion in facial expression, voice timbre and body posture. You may tighten up when angry or relax when a source of stress is suddenly released. Your voice may go up in pitch when you are frightened.
Developing a poker face means consciously choosing to contain emotional reactions during the auction and the play and developing habits that control the unconscious expression of emotion. The rest of this article looks at techniques for improving your poker face.
For a bridge player, consistency is not the hobgoblin of a small mind. The basis of a poker face is consistent mannerisms. Here are some you can work on during play:
Holding your cards. Hold them in the same hand and spread them the same way every time. Sort them in the same order. If you are fidgety, you might want to hold them under the table where no one can see you fidgeting. Another thought for the fidgety: get a card holder you can keep in your lap. the less you must hold and manipulate the cards, the less you will be tempted to fidget.
Removing and playing a card: Place the card on the table in the same way, at the same angle, and at the same speed every time. Don't flick a card out, or spin it slightly. Don't detach cards early when you know what you will play. Don't play more slow and deliberately after declarer has misguessed. Don't play with a dramatic flourish when you feel triumphant and want to gloat. And most importantly, do not reach for a card before you are certain which one you want. Practice the same routine every time.
Pace. Consciously slow down your automatic plays. If easy plays are slower, then harder plays require shorter breaks in tempo (BITs) or no BITs. As my mom used to say at the dinner table, it is not a race. Slowing down the pace will also relax you and will decrease the unconscious emotional tells that can otherwise appear in your face and body.
Slowing down also provides an extra second or two of thinking time. Sometimes this is the difference between an impulsive play and a clever one. It might let you find that unblock when it looked right to play low, or an unexpected play high as second-hand to prevent an endplay on partner.
BIT at Trick 1. Regardless of whether you initially think you need the time, take at least ten seconds at Trick 1 simply to improve your consistency. Use the time to double-check all the conclusions you thought were "automatic" if you can't see anything better to think about. You may be surprised how often you catch an error as a side effect of trying to give off fewer tells!
Plan Your Play In The Key Suit Early
On many hands there is only one suit where dummy's holding means the defenders must plan their plays carefully. Plan your play in that suit early, while declarer is tanking. Ask yourself questions like, if declarer attacks this suit:
Even if you don't have the defensive skills to plan the entire defensive effort, most players can learn to plan their play(s) in one suit. So look for suits where the play is likely to be key and think through the issues in that suit. If you can choose your play early, you will be relaxed when the moment comes to play in that suit.
Same Page on Signalling
Ever had a partner who, after you just played the card nearest your thumb, was prone to saying, "Why did you play the ♣3? I thought you wanted a diamond?" (I know I have!) Defense is nerve-wracking when you are constantly worried about how your spot cards will be (mis)interpreted and what partner's every spot card means. When defense is nerve-wracking, you give off more tells. Your partnership needs absolute confidence about:
1. Which plays you treat as signalling opportunities
2. In a signalling opportunity, what information the signal conveys--count, suit preference, attitude, or attitude in another suit (Smith)?
Discuss your signalling agreements and write them down. If you use judgment in signalling situations (we give the signal that is "right" in a situation...) then formulate guidelines. For example: "A signal is never count unless count might be needed to allow partner to decide when to win an honor trick in that suit." My example guideline may or may not be wise, but it is unambiguous. When you use a clear, but simple rule like this one, you will eventually encounter a situation where you need to give count that is not covered by your rule.
When that happens, make a note of the situation and discuss it with partner after the hand or session. Decide whether you want to modify your rule to cover the new case, or simply ignore the new case because the damage from not being able to signal count is too small to worry about. The more confidence you and partner have in your signals, the easier it is to defend without tells.
Avoid all conversation after the auction begins until play is complete, other than asking and answering questions and courtesies such as "thank you partner" when dummy is tabled. I recently played against a promising young player:
NV on NV at matchpoints
After the final pass, declarer noted with a little surprise, "No double?" and shrugged. Before we go any further, did you catch the tell? What do you think it means? Most think it suggests declarer is minimum and relieved not to be doubled. In fact, the comment meant the opposite.
As you can see, Declarer held a fine hand. So why was he surprised not to be doubled? The comment probably reflected disappointment that the defense had not doubled 4♣. He knew that at matchpoints, it would often be correct tactics for N/S to double 4♣ to protect their score in a competitive partscore battle like this one. In his tank, he had probably considered his own matchpoint double of 3♥ and whether he was likely to be hurt by our matchpoint double his contract. Concluding that 4♣ rated to make and the defense was likely to hand out a top by doubling, he had bid on.
It was not hard for the defenders to read the tell as indicating confidence in his prospects. With 3 points in dummy, 6 points in responder's hand and a minimum opener facing him, it was clear to South that West must have a big hand for the overcall. The tell didn't provide any useful specific information, but the confidence it betrayed might be enough for a shrewd defender to guess declarer holds ♦AK not ♦AQ or similar.
Avoiding such tells is easy: keep your mouth closed.
Reacting to Dummy
When your partner tables a dummy that has two trumps and 8 HCP fewer than his previous auction showed, it is tempting to let him have it, especially if his misleading auction caused you to overbid and make the final mistake. Giving off fewer tells means tamping these emotional reaction. You must consciously try to say "thank you partner" at the same pace and with the same tone and expression that you do when partner tables a dummy that meets your expectations.
Similarly, when you have nervously bid an iffy slam and partner tables the perfect dummy, though you feel relieved and elated that your slam will make, tamp your emotions and say "thank you partner" with the usual pace, tone, and emotional affect.
Even if the tells you emit when reacting to dummy do not cost tricks, if you don't make that effort to control yourself, you are missing a superb and frequent opportunity for self-training. In other scenarios displaying those same emotional reactions will generate tells that cost tricks. If you can make your plays at a consistent tempo, you can also to make your reactions in a consistent affect. The skill is not that different.
Learn How to Wait
Bridge involves plenty of waiting for others. If you are impatient by nature, your impatient feelings will be triggered. However, impatience won't be triggered in an equal fashion. Suppose declarer leads towards a tenace in dummy and begins to tank. You sit over dummy. If you hold a winner, you may be impatient to win and shift. If you hold small cards, you may be bored and tempted to detach your card early. If you have a holding like Qxx which might win a trick if declarer guesses wrong, you will be engaged, not impatient, hoping that declarer goes wrong. Any and all of these emotions can be written on your face and potentially read by another player. Managing feelings while waiting is a crucial test of your poker face. Here are some suggestions for managing emotions in waiting situations:
1. Admit to yourself that forced waiting engenders emotions for you.
2. Train your mind to relax while waiting. You could practice breathing exercises or simply remind yourself that declarer's choice is out of your control hence there is no point in working yourself up in anticipation of an action you can't control. Save your reaction for after the play is made.
3. Use the time for something useful related to the hand. While declarer is deciding whether to go up with the King or insert the Jack, you can remain engaged counting out his high cards and shape, deciding which shift looks better, deciding whether you need to shift low, or to shift to an honor.
Waiting situations are another excellent opportunity to practice tamping your emotions. What is more, tells while waiting for declarer to play cost tricks quite often.
Trust Your Partner
Lastly, you must trust your partner to make reasonable bids and plays. If you don't trust your partner, you will be constantly second-guessing, and that creates anxiety. If your partner's defense is unreliable, trust may sometimes lead to a bad result, but more often than not partner will make reasonable defensive plays.
If partner makes an unexpected shift, assume he had a reason for it. Contain your reaction when he does not give you your ruff. Maybe he has a singleton in that side suit and wants to score his ruff before giving you yours.
If you always assume partner has a rational reason for his plays, you will react less often, and emit fewer tells.
Managing emotions is a crucial skill if you wish to excel at bridge. Not only will it help you give off fewer tells, but it will also help you make dispassionate decisions and analyze more logically and thoroughly. Fortunately, you can improve both your poker face and your game with the same good habits:
Now go out and practice that poker face!
Plus... it's free!