If a regularly employed poker dealer works at his/her job for long enough, they see thousands upon thousands of Texas Hold’Em hands, and from their observation many can’t help but become better at reading everyone at the table… even if they can’t see the players’ cards unless the hands are shown down after the river. A lot of these dealers, after a while, can tell you who has what hand by the river of most pots, despite not seeing anyone’s cards, just based on how they played the hand… similar to how legendary poker star Daniel Negreanu can tell opponents what cards they have despite not seeing them.
Those dealers watch the same betting and playing patterns play out so many times that it’s akin to Mick Napier watching improv students or auditionees get a suggestion, and knowing exactly what they’re going to say or do to open a scene.
This isn’t some psychic or mentalist skill, so much as it’s the development of understanding the one thing common to all humanity: Behavior patterns. Whether we are conscious of it or not, we tend to follow similar behavior patterns in similar situations. Even when we deviate from the norm, we still fall into some sets of behavior patterns. And from learning those patterns, we also recognize deviations from those patterns, and can clue in to what they indicate.
What does this have to do with improv? Obviously, with poker, a deviation from a player’s normal pattern of betting, checking or folding can indicate a difference in the strength of one’s hand. It can indicate a bluff, or a monster hand, and an astute player can read into this observation and either call down a bluff or weak hand… or fold and avoid losing money to a stronger hand.
In improv, the benefit of watching a high volume of shows is that you recognize the patterns players fall into, what happens to the show when those patterns are followed, and can read into whether deviating from those patterns can benefit or harm the show. I’ve practiced a lot of improv, but I’ve also watched a lot of improv. I’ve heard of students who took time off and just watched shows without any expectation of participating… then came back to improv much better performers. Having seen time and again what works and what doesn’t, the player (even if rusty) has a better sense of what drives a fun and entertaining scene.
I’m not about to say that an experienced poker dealer can walk into the World Series of Poker and crush it, any more than a long time compulsive improv viewer can walk into Second City and kill it on the Mainstage. You still must practice and gain practical experience and ability, then work on demonstrating improvement.
But the road to get better becomes easier to follow when you spend extended time watching how others get there.