ZE: It varies. I’d say, in general, they’re a small part of playing good live poker. It’s definitely a minor part of the game. Figuring out your strategy is much more important. Tells are like the icing on the cake. Against good players tells are not usually going to be a big deal but then you might play against some inexperienced players, even a the higher stakes, where they’re usually giving away a lot at the table. So there’s a range of it going from a small thing that could be a mind-maker-upper in one subtle spot to having someone who’s super obvious. It varies but, in general, it’s a small helper in adding to your win rate.
Q: I’ve always found that interesting about you. Most people who delve into a subject like you have really want to pump up their efforts, their work, and claim that it’s the most important material in the world. You’ve always said tells are a minor part of the game, that players should focus on the fundamentals and the math first?
ZE: I have never wanted to give an unrealistic view of them. I think that’s what a lot of people who talk about tells do wrong, they come at it from a marketing angle. I think it’s just as important for people to have a realistic view about tells, otherwise you get unrealistic expectations and write off tells altogether.
Q: You have a trained eye in this area, tells, when and why did you become fascinated with them?
ZE: I played for a living, for three years poker was my only source of income, and I’ve always been interested in psychology. I read psychology books when I was a kid and found them interesting, so I’ve always had that basic interest in psychology. It always fascinated me when I played poker as a kid, of course when you’re young you have romantic ideas of tells being very important. Once you start playing more you start to become realistic about their role in the game. I’ve just always been interested in psychology, studying people, and I think this is the natural outgrowth of that.
Q: Do they only happen at the table? I mean theoretically, the game continues during breaks, the dinner break of tournaments and people are always going outside for a smoke in the cash games. Are the tells the kind of thing that can be spotted before play even starts?
ZE: I think there is a limit as to how much you can get off someone just by looking at them or by watching their off-table behaviour. You can definitely draw some conclusions as to how experienced someone is just by how they talk about non poker stuff or when they talk about the game in general. If you know they’re a professional in some other field you might be able to draw some conclusions about them. I think there is a limit to that and you just have to watch people and pay attention to them at the poker table, where the majority of the information comes into play.
Q: Your latest book Exploiting Poker Tells, third in a fabulous trilogy The testimonials are incredible and they come from some of the biggest names in the industry. How does this continue along from your first two books, Reading Poker Tells & Verbal Poker Tells?
ZE: This book focusses on physical behaviours. I was very proud of Verbal Poker Tells for the verbal part of it and this is an update, going more into the physical stuff. I think my first book was really good at breaking down high-level behaviours into categories but the new book is meant to delve into actual hands. There are 140 hand histories and they go into details about what factors players should be taking into account and what factors and behaviours should be ignored. It’s a much more practical hand history based book, it’s all hands, with a framework of how to think about high level behaviour patterns.
Q: You have some interviews in there with pros, detailed analysis, even a quiz. Can you outline a behaviour that should be ignored?
ZE: Yes, there was one I broke down into a couple of different spots in the book. Generally, when someone does uncertain behaviours when they’re betting, like shrugging their shoulders, it’s going to indicate strength or relaxation because bluffers don’t like to indicate those kinds of things. One instance it would be wrong to draw much conclusion is when someone goes all-in and somebody asks them, ‘How much do you have?’ If they make a shrugging gesture, like indicating they don’t know how much they have, or they’re acting uncertain, that’s not a spot it would be smart to draw much information from because people with both strong hands and weak hands are capable of shrugging in that spot. I’ve heard people try to analyze that spot before but I don’t think you can give much meaning to it because you can easily imagine both bluffers and those betting strong hands acting cavalier in that spot. You know, ‘I don’t know how much I have, you count it.’ I haven’t seen any correlation to meaning here. If someone went all-in on the river and they held their hands palm up, giving a shrugging gesture, it’s more likely they’re strong and relaxed. If they did the same thing right after someone asked them how big their stack is I wouldn't give it much credence just because of the situation. The book talks about not making the mistake of reading into things and outlines why.
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Q: Talk about the need for a third book on the subject? You’ve been doing this for a long time and you’ve delved into the subject with all your heart. Just like poker strategy is always changing, are the physical and verbal tells ever changing as well?
ZE: The main way they change, and where you see variety, is when high level, experienced players play each other, when they both know they’re experienced, and they do little reverse tells. One thing I’ve seen a lot more of in the past few years, in a good player versus good player spot, is when they bluff all-in and they call the clock on an opponent. It’s the ‘Goading’ behaviour, which if it’s an inexperienced player, an amateur player, it’s almost always going to be relaxation. Bluffers don’t generally want to call the clock and possibly frustrate an opponent. I’ve seen that more and more with good players versus good players. They understand it’s usually going to be interpreted as relaxation and they’re using it as a second level tell. Once a behaviour or a tell become more understood, good players are more willing to use it as a reverse tell against another good player.
Q: Help me with this one. When I’m playing in a cash game I generally have an easy time spotting tells when it’s a hand involving two other players, a hand that I’m not involved in. Sometimes when I’m in the hand I’ll struggle with that. Why is that?
ZE: I have the same issue. It’s much easier to spot stuff when you’re out of the hand. You’re more objective for one but also it’s just a matter of watching the person. When I’m in a hand I’m not staring at the person the entire time. I don’t want to seem weird, it’s uncomfortable, so I might miss some stuff I’d see if I was out of the hand and more willing to just watch someone. I don’t like to stare at someone the entire time, it’s just not in my MO. I like to sneak glances and look at someone out of the corner of my eye. Mainly it’s that you’re more objective. When you’re in a hand you’re bandwidth is more focussed on what you have and how you should play it and not as much on the other person. It’s just natural. Again, that’s where experience comes into play because the more you have your strategy mapped out the more you can focus on the subtler things at the table like behaviour.
Q: Safe to say most people are not aware of their own tells?
ZE: Yes, I would agree. It’s something you have to work at and you’ll still notice things you’re doing that are tells. Even after years of playing I still catch myself. After a hand I’ll ask myself, ‘Would I have done that if I was bluffing?’ You can always find things, clues, that show you’re relaxed. So there can be many blind spots and I definitely think there are many inexperienced players who are unaware of all the ways information can leak out. That’s why tells are valuable because there are a lot of blind spots.
Q: What are your thoughts on false tells?
ZE: They can occasionally be a good idea but the situation has to be quite right. I generally advise people not to do them unless you’re absolutely sure they’re a good idea. It’s hard to know what an opponent will draw from whatever behaviour you’re doing, hard to know how they’ll interpret that behaviour, so you’re either muddying the waters or you’re running the risk of your opponents being able to read what you’re doing. If there’s a spot, against a good player, where you’re sure a tell will be perceived in a certain way you might be able to getaway with using a common tell as a reverse tell. Most times though it presents danger because you just don't know how your opponent is going to read that false tell. Some people are just looking for any reason to call and your false tell might actually be a tell. I generally advise against them. Have you ever seen the Beth Shak Phil Hellmuth hand at the WSOP? the one with Brett Richey? Aces versus aces versus kings? That was a perfect example of this. She was acting all nervous and then went all-in. It was obvious what she had.
Zachary Elwood Thank-you!
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Zachary Elwood Interview
Author, Exploiting Poker Tells
Full audio of this interview HERE
Alright High Rollers, thrilled today to have this guy back on the show. We’ve had him on a few time before, the author of Reading Poker Tells, Verbal Poker Tells, and now Exploiting Poker Tells, the third book in his epic trilogy on tells and poker psychology. One of the most respected guys in the game, with his video series, his blog, his books of course, he’s also coached some of the biggest names in poker. He's @apokerplayer on twitter, his website is readingpokertells.com and he's with us now. Zachary Elwood, welcome back to the show, thanks for being a high roller today.
ZE: Thank-you. It's nice to be back.
Q: Before we talk about your books, again Exploiting Poker Tells your latest offering. Can you give us a sense of tells in general? Are they everywhere, pervasive, just permeating all around you at the poker table? Are they just there and most don’t spot them?
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Zachary Elwood Interview
High Roller Radio has interviewed some of the greatest gamblers, casino insiders, sports bettors, authors and poker players in the world. Here is our Q&A with Zachary Elwood, author of Reading Poker Tells, Verbal Poker Tells and now, his latest offering, Exploiting Poker Tells, about poker psychology and physical behaviours to watch for at the poker table.
Q: So how do you exploit poker tells…how do you tai the information before you and apply it to crushing souls?
ZE: It definitely takes experience and, to be honest, I think it’ll be hard for a lot of people to make use of the stuff in my books just because you have to have a certain level of experience to understand it and apply it at the table. My material speeds up that process of getting experience because it keys you in to all the things you’ve been missing before. Above all there is no substitute for the experience of putting in the time, like a year or so, of playing full-time poker, even if that’s spread out over a few years.