Ex-FBI Spy Catcher Uses Skills to Decode Poker Faces
NEW YORK – As an FBI spy catcher, Joseph Navarro could identify traitors through their subtle behavioral tics — even something as simple as a squint could be a giveaway.
These days, Navarro brings his investigator's eye to the poker table, where a bite of the lip or tilt of the head can signal a straight flush or a stone bluff. Navarro shares his decoding techniques with players eager for an edge in the world of professional poker.
"Poker players lie all the time," Navarro says. "They pretend they are strong when they are weak or weak when they are strong. The truth is they can all be read. You can have a poker face, but I've yet to see someone with a poker body."
In the poker world, the giveaways are called "tells" — gestures that signal a player's confidence or discomfort. Navarro's first career made him uniquely qualified for his current job as an instructor at the World Series of Poker Academy.
While working espionage cases with the FBI for more than a quarter-century, he became a world-renowned expert in non-verbal behavior. He participated in virtually every U.S. spy investigation between 1993 and 2003, including those of notorious moles Aldrich Ames and Robert Hansen.
The 58-year-old was eight when he fled Cuba with his family following the 1961 Bay of Pigs invasion. They settled in Florida, and he became an American citizen at 18.
Navarro retired from the FBI in 2003, although he continues to train FBI and CIA agents on interrogation and on habits of spies and terrorists.
Navarro says his skill at deciphering body language in spies is easily applied to poker. Both are games of subterfuge and raw, primitive passion. A poker player, like a spy, telegraphs self-assurance or self-doubt through subconscious body language, he notes.
"When you are feeling good — or have a monster hand — your body will manifest what it feels," he says. "You get happy feet. Your feet begin to bounce up and down like a kid going to Disney World."
And the opposite: negativity comes out through pursed lips, a crinkled nose, squinty eyes. "We squint at things we don't like," Navarro says, referencing Clint Eastwood's taciturn gunslinger from his spaghetti Western phase.
Navarro says he can size up anyone — even professional card sharks — by observing their behavior for mere minutes.
Players often try to conceal their emotions with sunglasses, silence, a hooded sweatshirt. Navarro says the cover-ups don't work, even for professionals like Phil "The Unabomber" Laak — renowned for hiding his visage behind shades and a hoodie.
"The involuntary non-verbal mannerisms dictated by the brain will always betray the strength or weakness of a player's hand," Navarro says.
A card player dealt a royal flush — the best hand in poker — instinctively treats the cards as a treasure. A bad hand is treated as something less than an heirloom, he says. Posture is another clue.
"If your boss asks at a meeting, `Who is not pulling their weight?', the shoulders will rise on those who are not confident," he says. "It's called `The Turtle Effect.' You are trying to hide your head inside your shoulders."
On the contrary, a person whose fingertips meet like a church steeple with the thumb pointed up indicates a winning hand.
Navarro teaches players to observe and collect behavioral information from the minute they sit at the card table. When players are confident, they tend to use their hands more and claim more territory at the table. When they have good hands, they generally look down at their chips.
Phil Helmuth, considered one of the best Texas Hold 'Em players in history, is among Navarro's students.
"He's taught me a few tricks," said Helmuth, winner of 10 World Series of Poker bracelets. "I took three pages of notes at his seminar."
Women display different gestures than men, but are generally not harder to read, according to Navarro.
For example, women who lack confidence will play with their hair to calm themselves down or will tend to touch their throats. Men touch their necks more aggressively or put their hands on their face.
Navarro says he was only duped once in his spycatching career.
Kelly Warren, a female U.S. Army clerk based in Germany during the Cold War, was selling secrets to the Hungarians in the late '80s. She convinced Navarro that her husband was the sole spy in the family — but only temporarily.
Navarro soon unraveled her lies, leading to a 25-year sentence for espionage.
Navarro's techniques, while effective in reading opponents, can also be used to mislead other players. Deliberately telegraphed signs can convince opponents that a lousy hand is good, or vice versa.
"While you can't control the cards you are dealt," Navarro says, "you can make them win."