How We Code the Nonverbal Behaviors of Poker Players
The amount of movement at a poker table is extensive. Every single second, multiple players are blinking, smiling, raising and more.
The whole purpose of Beyond Tells is to teach players to navigate this information and in order do this effectively we first need to creates systems for measuring behavior at the poker table.
Below is an overview of our coding process and how we deal with measuring movement at the poker table.
Step 1 - Code Every Contextual Action at the Table
Before we even take a look at behavior we start with coding all the actions that occur at the table. This process starts with coding every action, meaning every single bet, check, raise, flop, turn, river and the exact second it occured. We use an overhead camera angle to mark the time and details (bet size, cards, etc) of every single event using an amazing tool called frame.io.
Step 2: Code Specific Behaviors Based on Frequency
Frequency-based coding involves marking when specific behavioral events happen. This process doesn’t include the properties of that behavior. So for example, smiles are hard to classify because there are so many different ways you can smile so just looking at the frequency at which someone smiles isn’t really the most effective way to analyze that type of behavior. However, a blink is fairly straightforward in terms of coding. We are just looking to identify when the blink actually occurred. In Beyond Tells we Manually Marked Every Single Moment a Player Blinked. A team of 40+ people manually marked over 560,023 blinks. While this is a very labor intensive process that took hundreds of hours, the actual coding of a blink is fairly straightforward. For example, we can define a blink as when the eyelids fully shut and open again in under 0.5 seconds.
So what happens is someone watches the behavior and they literally mark every single time someone blinks by placing a comment of “B” when the lids of the eyes close in a product called Frame.io. This tool is great great for data integrity reasons because we can have more senior analysts physically spot check work to see if they are being coded correctly by just clicking each of these moments and making sure the eyes are fully closed. This helps improve our coding standards and helps establish a high level of inter-rater reliability. And yes, a team of 40 plus people typed B on a keyboard well over half a million times. Now some of you might be asking, “Blake why did you not use automated facial coding software?” The short answer is we tried and I wasn’t 100% confident with the results we were getting so we did manually. Now it’s very important to note that quantitative measurement at the table is a fairly straightforward process but it’s not the most useful method when it comes to evolving the game of poker.
Step 3: QUALITATIVE CODING
When it comes to observing behavior at the poker table. Qualitative coding methods are without a doubt the most powerful method when it comes to actually understanding how a player’s behavior gives off information. However, establishing standards for qualitatively recording behavior is a challenging process. For example, take a look at this behavior below.
HOW WOULD YOU DESCRIBE THIS BEHAVIOR?
Do we say that this bet was a toss or a flick? Do you account for the 2 brief hesitations before executing the bet? There are so many ways to articulate it and here is the problem. If we classify this as a flick, and we classify a very similar behavior as a toss, the behaviors are different and we can’t draw the same conclusions. These types of behaviors need to be defined to a level that is useful.
The different ways a player can bet is absolutely insane. They can toss, throw, place, and do these all at different speeds and with different styles. Due to this diversity of behavior we need a practical method for classifying the behavior. When it comes to betting we use a two label classification system that includes speed and style. Speed is used to describe the speed at which the action took place or how long it took for a player to touch a chip and execute the bet. Style refers to the way in which an action is executed. For example, I call this a cavalier call (Video Below). It’s when a player throws out a bet in a nonchalant, less intentional manner, and translates to “sure why not”. However, this player will even have deeper changes in the way he executes a cavalier call.
When you watch the video this behavior is easier to understand but when you have to operationally define that behavior, it becomes a little bit more complex. Qualitative coding can be applied to facial expressions, vocal statements, concealment strategies, postural shifts and a lot more. However, the real value of qualitative coding is when we look at our next step.
Step 4: PLAYER RELATIVE Qualitative CODING
Our goal is to find behavior that is actually useful at the poker table. The most powerful method for this is what I call Player Relative Qualitative Coding. The thing about behavior at the poker table that I want to make sure every poker player understands is that the usefulness of a style of bet or the way someone bets is really only recognized when compared relatively to that player. There are certain trends that you see, but ultimately if someone bets quickly it means nothing. However, when a player never bets quickly and now they are operating 4x times quicker, and we see other behaviors along with it, we have something meaningful. The usefulness of behavior at the poker table is truly unlocked when you learn how to almost “code” in real time, meaning you describe movement at the table in a way where you can actually notice a difference. If I were to go back and redo the Beyond Tells study again, I would dedicate significantly more resources towards player relative coding. It’s the best approach from a practical perspective and provides us with a very deep understanding of how a player’s movement gives off information that poker players would deem useful.
Player Relative Qualitative Coding allows you to:
- Notice the difference in the speed and style of a players bet.
- Determine how they conceal their behavior when they bluffing or have the nuts.
- Understand how they handle stress and physiological arousal at the table.
- Determine how specific strings of behaviors are connected to portions of their range.
- Reveal how deviations in attention and focus lead to moments where they reveal more information.
- and a lot more.
Player Relative Qualitative Coding is essential what unlocks all the useful information at the table. Academics and people heavily involved in research will love the pure quantiative data because its easier to analyze. However, unlocking the practical value of behavior at the table is discovered using this method.
Some final notes
Coding the behavior of poker players is something we are constantly improving and it’s definitely an evolving process. Make sure you check out How We Soul Read and Do A Full Analysis of a Poker Player to learn exactly what we do with that behavior.
If you are interested in coding methods of nonverbal behavior, I strongly recommended. New Handbook of Methods in Nonverbal Behavior Research (Series in Affective Science) 1st Edition. It’s a collection of some the best journal articles on coding behavior and a lot of my ideas were built off the research in this great book.
Finally, if you have any questions about coding nonverbal behaviors of want to do a thesis or dissertation using our dataset. Reach out and let us know.
Note this is just exposing you to the research side of behavior if you are interested in actually transforming your game. Please check out beyondtells.com/training