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Last night on The Colbert Report, Dr. Stephen T. Colbert (DFA) noted that John McCain was doing something peculiar with his tongue. The upshot of the joke was that McCain was repeatedly sticking his tongue out like a reptile.

Colbert Screenshot


While the late-night laughanistas were having their fun, as a professional poker player I instantly recognized an increasingly well-known poker tell that I’ve been able to use to my advantage at the table.

Retired FBI agent Joe Navarro, a Bluff Magazine columnist and author of Read ‘Em and Reap, a book on poker tells culled from his professional interrogation experience, has written about the “tongue jut,” which is exactly what McCain was doing in the Colbert debate clips. Its significance?

Tongue-jutting behavior is a gesture used by people who think they have gotten away with something or are “caught” doing something. I have seen this behavior in flea markets both in the United States and in Russia, among street vendors in Lower Manhattan, at poker tables in Las Vegas, and in business meetings. In each case, the person made the gesture – tongue between the teeth without touching the lips – at the conclusion of some sort of a deal or as a final nonverbal statement. This behavior has several meanings – depending on specific situations – but is usually associated with one of these: I got caught (taking candy from a drawer), gleeful excitement (look at what I just did, Mom), I got away with something (and I didn’t get caught), I did something foolish, or I am naughty.

Naturally, this made me curious as to what exactly McCain was saying when his tongue jutted. So, today, I watched a replay of the whole debate tape.

A few examples:

“Greed is rewarded. Excess is rewarded.”
“I have a fundamental belief in the goodness and strength of the American worker.”
“I don’t believe we’re gonna go back to the Cold War. I am sure that that will not happen”
“… loss of all the fragile sacrifice that we’ve made of American blood and treasure which grieves us all.”

Take a look:

What can we conclude from this? I’m not a trained psychologist, but I have used observation of this particular tell in the past to my financial advantage. Usually when I’m observing two players are in a hand against each other, one decides to make a laydown, and the other tongue juts when that happens, I’ll mentally capture their entire body language during the hand in my memory bank, and when I see it again, I’ll assign greater likelihood that the opponent is bluffing. I’ve profited from this tell.

Does that mean McCain is getting away with something he knows he shouldn’t? Not necessarily — he could be excited to be scoring points — but Navarro’s long FBI experience tells us this unconscious reptile-brain mimic is in that ballpark. Perhaps trained body language experts will see the clips and make more definitive conclusions about what McCain is doing here.

Looked at as a composite body of jut-work, I notice these are definitely moments when McCain is feeling pretty good about himself and the points he’s making. McCain partisans may even like this clip being out there, because, juts or no juts, they’re a lot of the comments he wanted to get in. Every mention of General Petraeus seems to be something McCain feels good about, for example.

Or he could just have a really hilarious tic and it could mean nothing.

[PS – the other day I heard a crazy rumor about Dr. Stephen T. Colbert (DFA)’s future programming. Now I can’t remember what it was. Maybe I’ll recall by Tuesday of next week. Thanks to our intrepid photographer Brett for editing the clips together, he’s very excited about the MNF-style donkey-elephant smashup.]

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