Tuesday, September 04, 2012

Showing Not Telling: ESPN’s “Tells” Segments

ESPN's 'Tells' segmentESPN continues its coverage of the 2012 WSOP Main Event tonight. I believe after showing the bubble bursting last week they’ll be showing more highlights from Day 4 this week.

I’ve been watching off and on over the last few weeks. During last Tuesday night’s episode I was noticing some chatter on Twitter from Daniel Negreanu (@RealKidPoker) regarding the “Tells” segment featuring former FBI interrogator and author Joe Navarro, of which Negreanu doesn’t think too highly.

I believe Navarro’s segment is only coming on once per night -- i.e., just a very brief piece (like half a minute) appearing at some point during the two one-hour episodes. If it’s coming more frequently than that, I’ve missed it.

Last week the segment appeared near the end of the second hour following what was really a mundane three-way hand between Vivek Rajkumar, Anthony Scherer, and Patrick Khayat. If you watched the show last week, you might vaguely remember it as the hand during which Norman Chad and Lon McEachearn made a lot of the fact that all three of the players involved had credentials when it came to higher ed (multiple degrees, one went to MIT, etc.).

In the hand, Rajkumar open-raises with 9s7s, Scherer calls with AcJc, and Khayat calls as well from the blinds with As3s. The flop comes 5h8c3c, it checks to Rajkumar who bets, Scherer raises, and the others fold. “Scherer may have picked up the pot,” then says McEachern, “but if his opponents were watching, they may have picked up some tells.”

Anthony SchererThat’s when Navarro comes on to analyze Scherer’s behavior during the hand. He notes Scherer’s “chest heaving,” although doesn’t say what that indicates. He also points out how Scherer grabs his shirt collar and pulls it up over his mouth “using it like a security blanket, almost to hide in the open by grabbing onto something that is soothing for him.” Navarro doesn’t say what that was supposed to mean, either.

In fact, if you go back and look at the hand, what Navarro’s analyzing all happens before the flop, not after. Scherer actually doesn't grab his collar until after the player to his left has acted. This might be to mask his reaction when the flop comes, although Navarro doesn’t suggest that. Then after the flop -- when Scherer raises -- he’s no longer holding his collar at all. (Here's a link that goes to the beginning of the hand, if you’re curious.)

Tells seem to be only marginally meaningful here, relatively speaking. And whatever meaning they might have, Navarro’s commentary isn’t really clarifying much since he doesn’t say anything about Scherer being strong or weak or whatever.

To be honest, when I watched last week I saw the Navarro bit but didn’t really pay much attention to it. But looking back at it, I can see where Negreanu was coming from when he tweeted “Just watched the Navarro segment and have no clue what he is talking about. Security blanket shirts mean what exactly? He’s strong and weak?”

We might cut Navarro a little bit of slack and say the hand that was selected for analysis was hardly a good one for talking about tells. Then again, it’s not like there’s a paucity of hands from which to choose. And as I say, without any conclusions being drawn about the meaning of the tells, it’s hard to know what to do with the observations he’s sharing.

The previous week’s “Tells” segment went similarly, with Navarro talking about Gregory Milliron being stoic and hiding his tells but not connecting that with the hand we just saw or drawing any conclusions regarding the meaning of his behavior. In fact, the segment was really just saying Milliron had no tells to speak of in the hand we were just shown.

While I come at it with a lot less experience and knowledge than Negreanu, I nonetheless share his confusion about what exactly we’re supposed to be getting from these analyses. For those of you who’ve been watching, what are your thoughts about these Navarro “Tells” segments?

By the way, for more intriguing and useful discussion of tells, check out Zachary Elwood’s recent posts about Guy Laliberte’s behavior during various televised appearances, including the Big One for One Drop. He’s put together three intriguing discussions -- two about Laliberte’s body language (Part 1 and Part 2), and another about his bet timing and habit of leaning back in the chair. Lots of interesting (and enlightening) findings tucked in those posts.

Obviously Elwood has more freedom to elaborate on his observations than does Navarro in a short video segment. But still, the Navarro segments’ lack of a conclusion -- his not offering to tell us what the tells mean -- make them much less useful, not to mention a little frustrating.

Or maybe I’m missing something. Could it be that Navarro is telling us what the tells mean, but non-verbally?

(EDIT [added 7 p.m.]: It appears this week ESPN isn't showing the WSOP tonight, but is instead moving the shows to Wednesday, I suppose to compete against the opening of the NFL season [?].)

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