TAMPA — If you're a poker player, or if you just like the game on TV, you probably know the name Joe Navarro.
In the past few years, he has become the poker world's leading expert on "tells," the unconscious, silent signs all poker players display that can provide clues about what cards they're holding. The top players in the game pay him big money for advice. Players of all levels have read his first poker book, Read 'Em and Reap. His second poker book, 200 Poker Tells, was released in January.
What a lot of people don't realize is that Navarro, a former FBI agent who lives in Tampa, doesn't know anything about poker. He'll occasionally play with friends, but he doesn't especially enjoy the game.
"I'll be sitting there not saying anything, and they'll think I'm planning something," Navarro said. "But really I'm trying to remember if a straight beats a flush."
He doesn't know cards, but that doesn't matter. He knows people. This season, Navarro has become a commentator on ESPN's broadcasts of the World Series of Poker. He analyzes players' body language. When a guy arches his hands over his cards, it means his hand is strong. When a woman fiddles with her necklace, it means her hand is weak.
Poker has made Navarro famous, but he doesn't consider it a big part of his life.
"Poker is maybe 6 percent of what I do," he said. "But it's what gets all the attention."
During his years with the FBI, Navarro became the bureau's expert on nonverbal communication. He still teaches new FBI and CIA agents about how to interpret body language.
About five or six years ago, he stumbled into the poker world. He appeared on a Discovery Channel program that aimed to see who could best tell if someone was being truthful. It was Navarro, poker pro Annie Duke, a polygraph and a psychic. Navarro and Duke both did better than the lie detector, which did better than the psychic. Duke was so impressed with Navarro that she introduced him to her poker buddies.
His effect on the game was immediate. Duke wrote in a magazine article that Navarro had "revolutionized" the game.
There's even a position called the "Navarro perch," made famous by Phil Hellmuth, one of the best poker players in history. When Navarro first watched him play, Hellmuth had a habit of hugging himself when he was bluffing. Hellmuth didn't even realize it. Navarro advised Hellmuth to sit with his hands clasped in front of his mouth. That keeps his hands still and covers the neck and lips, which give away a lot of information to observant opponents. The pose has become Hellmuth's trademark, although many other players now use it, too.
Navarro also writes a column for Psychology Today, teaching his techniques to business people. He lectures at Harvard Business School.
"Whether it's in the poker room or the board room, it's all the same stuff," Navarro said.
One thing that sets Navarro's books apart from other texts on nonverbal communication is that he has studied the science, whereas others, especially in the poker world, have been anecdotal. It's impossible to control all your poker tells, he says, because many of them are based in instinctive, pre-evolutionary behaviors. That's one reason the feet are the most telling part of your body.
Read 'Em and Reap explained all the biological mechanisms behind the tells. As significant as the book has become in professional poker, Navarro found that poker players didn't need to know that stuff. They wanted to know what it meant if an opponent spread his fingers apart. They didn't care why. They wanted more meat and less potatoes.
In his new offering, Navarro distilled all that information into a pocket-sized book that players can consult at the table. The tells are categorized by body part. An entry in the section on hands, for example, explains that spreading the fingers indicates confidence.
He has another new book in the same format, but not aimed at poker players. Clues to Deceit details many of the same kind of "tells," but it's designed more for people conducting criminal investigations.
Navarro was born in Cuba and came to Miami with his family while he was still young. He went to Brigham Young University on a football scholarship, but never played the game. The summer before college, he chased and fought with a man who had robbed a store. The man stabbed Navarro, ending his football career before it began. BYU honored the scholarship anyway.
He joined the FBI shortly after college and worked on high-profile terrorism cases, including the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001.
He recently moved with his family from Brandon to a community in Tampa that has security. He prefers not to say which one.
"I have to worry about some of the people I put in jail," he said.
He was recently in a business meeting and received an anonymous text message. It read, "I'm going to find you and kill you."
Marty Clear can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.