Joe Navarro: Poker tells of the neck

Joe NavarroRe-published courtesy of our content partner Ante Up Magazine.

As I often say there are poker faces, but there is no such thing as a poker body. Somewhere on our body we reflect precisely and in real time what we think, feel, desire or intend. The neck is such an area for poker players, full of clues as to whether a player is strong, marginal or weak.

Seven years ago, when I first started writing about poker tells (Read ’em and Reap), the feet were not on the radar screen. Here was an area of the body unrecognized in the poker world. Since then many players have wisely folded in time when seeing “happy feet” on their opponents who had monster hands. To a certain extent, like the feet, behaviors of the neck also have been off the radar screen to many players, so let me shed some light on this often-ignored area of the body.

The neck is critical for survival (it’s architecturally necessary for food, water, air, chemical and electrical signals) and as such, the brain treats the neck differently than the rest of the body. Because it’s such a vital area, whenever we feel threatened or insecure the brain compels us to do certain things to protect or pacify the neck.
Watch any tournament and you’ll see players when they’re having doubts or feel some action on the board will hurt them begin to touch or rub their neck. This is an accurate indicator that something is bothering them. This is a legacy behavior from when humans routinely saw large felines bring down prey by biting down on their necks. Though large threats don’t remain, we still do this behavior when things bother us.

Neck touching is probably one of the most often used behaviors to calm us. Some people rub the back of their neck with their fingers; others stroke the sides of their neck or just under the chin above the Adam’s apple, tugging at the fleshy area of the neck.This area is rich with nerve endings that, when stroked, reduce blood pressure, lower the heart rate and calm the individual. This action usually is seen when players are marginal or weak and are deliberating their next move.

Typically, men are more robust in how they touch or massage the neck. They also tend to pull on their shirt collars a la Rodney Dangerfield, when they feel insecure, stressed or worried.
Women, as I noted in What Every Body is Saying, pacify the neck differently.They usually go to the neck dimple (supra-sternal notch) with their pointed fingers or the palm of the hand and just hold it there.

Or, for example, they will touch, twist or otherwise manipulate a necklace covering the same area. This is a universal behavior when women feel stressed, insecure, threatened, fearful, uncomfortable or anxious.Interestingly, when a woman is pregnant, she will move toward her neck but at the last moment will divert to her belly, as if to cover the fetus.

We not only touch our necks or massage our necks when there is an issue, we also do other interesting behaviors that communicate our discomfort or insecurity. Men will ventilate their shirts at the neck or sometimes by pulling at the ends of their collar.Women ventilate by stroking the back of the neck upward lifting their hair. In both cases it means the same thing. Obviously you may see these behaviors on a hot day, but when someone is dealing with something stressful or they’re asked a question that’s bothersome, you may see this behavior as a reaction.

You may also see the neck disappear as someone lacks confidence or they are troubled by something. I used to see it in interviews where the shoulders would rise toward the ears causing the neck to seemingly disappear. Look for players to sink down as their shoulders come up, usually an accurate tell that says I’m weak or have doubts.

When we are extremely comfortable we tend to relax our necks, even tilting them much as lovers do as they stare at each other. At the table, women who have a strong hand tend to tilt their head more often than men. Conversely, a neck that suddenly stiffens upon a flop may indicate something is wrong.

There are many things to keep an eye on at the table and the neck should be one of them. Neck behaviors are extremely accurate and communicate effectively across all cultures what we feel, think or fear. The next time you’re playing keep an eye on the obvious yet elusive neck.

— Joe Navarro is the author of 200 Poker Tells, available on See his tcher blog site and follow him on Twitter (@navarrotells).