Andre Agassi: ‘How poker skill helped me beat arch rival Boris Becker’

  • Agassi lost first three matches against Becker
  • American reveals how he read body language to beat rival
  • After discovering poker-style tell, Agassi won 10 of next 11 matches with Becker

They say that success is 99% perspiration and 1% inspiration, which may well be true, but sometimes that 1% can go an awful long way. Tennis legend Andre Agassi has revealed how he used body language analysis and intuitive inspiration to read his long-time rival Boris Becker’s poker tells and come out on top against the big-serving German.

What is a ‘tell’?

In poker (and other card games), a tell is a perceptible changing in behaviour or demeanour which can reveal clues about the strength of a player’s hand. This can take the form of altered betting patterns, or something more immediately obvious, such as an involuntary twitch or tic.

By recognising and analysing a player’s tells, his opponent can tailor his approach to increase the chances of victory.

With that in mind, a poker face is not just a chart-topping smash by Lady Gaga; it’s originally the name given to successfully hiding these tells from your opponent. Unfortunately for six-time major champion Becker, it seems he’s more suited to serving aces in tennis than hiding he has them when playing cards.

The tell-tale tongue

In an interview with Unscriptd, Agassi reveals how he noticed Becker’s own particular tell and used it to his own advantage. After losing the first three head-to-heads between the pair, Agassi struggled for a way to deal with Becker’s powerful serve, and found an unlikely solution written on the German’s face.

Agassi recognised that Becker stuck his tongue out every time he was about to serve. If the tongue was in the middle of his mouth, he’d serve towards the body; if it was at the side, he’d serve out wide. Not only did Agassi have enough poker savvy to notice this crucial tell, he was also smart enough not to reveal his knowledge.

This involved intentionally not capitalising on his inside info on the majority of points, so he could leverage it when it mattered most – with poor old Boris none the wiser.

Poker the all-important difference

Years later after the pair were retired, Agassi revealed his trick to his old rival – who apparently fell off his chair in response. At the time, the German had been convinced that Agassi could read his mind, but now he simply laughs it off as Agassi being obsessed with his tongue.

Despite the joke, however, this amusing anecdote reveals the real power of poker tells. Between two athletes who were so evenly matched on the court, the margin of error was miniscule. By exploiting Boris’ poker deficiencies, Agassi was able to stretch out his winning record over the German to a convincing 10-4.

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