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How Useful are Live Tells?

We had Zach Elwood, author of the critically acclaimed book “Reading Poker Tells” answering questions from the forum recently, and we thought we’d condense his gems of wisdom into some sections.

“Tells exist because poker is a game that naturally gets people’s emotions going. Even in low-stakes games, where the money doesn’t mean anything to people, it’s a naturally competitive game that brings out people’s spirit of competition. And I think everyone would agree that there are differences in physical measurements based on emotional changes. We blush when we get nervous; our heartbeat speeds up when we get excited; we might try to look bigger or more intimidating when threatened physically, or maybe make ourselves look smaller. My point is that there are definite changes the human body unconsciously does in reaction to emotions and feelings. Poker is like anything else. This is not to say that I think it’s an exact science, or that we can always know what’s going on in any situation. But it does mean I believe that many players will have strong, statistically-significant tendencies. Far from all; but enough to make it worthwhile to study. If you’d like more scientific study into this area, I recommend Paul Ekman’s books; he’s a noted scientist who has studied the facial expressions and body language associated with emotions.”

When asked “Are there any spots where having a tell on a certain type of player doesn’t really help?” Zach came back with:

“That was mainly applying to the main types of tells, which are the ones differentiating a player’s behavior when bluffing from when he’s betting a strong hand. I think there are other tells that come into play (for example, defensive chip handling) for passive players. But many players are never going to make significant bluffs; if you know that about them, it doesn’t make much sense to be looking for the kinds of bluff vs. value-bet kinds of tells. I think that was the point I was trying to make. But yeah, against players who play really passively and obviously, tells are not as useful as they could be. Those types of players make their hands pretty face-up anyway. And against players who call too much, even when they shouldn’t, even having a reliable tell that the player doesn’t like his hand may not mean much, if he’s going to call your bluff anyway. Like everything in poker, it’s all about looking for patterns. Tells aren’t going to help you out very often – maybe a few times a session. But when you’ve found people that have reliable tells – those are profitable players to play against.”

“I say in the book that tells are much less important than fundamental strategy (by which I mean every consideration you might make in poker aside from physical tells). I say that reading tells well can add between 10% to 30% to your winrate, assuming you’re a winning player already. So they are just a tool to use in certain spots against players who have reliable tells; they can help you narrow ranges, yes. For some players they can be very effective; for some players, barely effective; for some players, they won’t be effective at all.I have no idea who the best is at reading tells. I’m sure Phil Ivey is very good. I also think Phil Hellmuth is probably very good at reading weak players; this would account for his big MTT wins versus mostly very unskilled opponents, despite being perceived as fundamentally weak when playing against really tough competition.”

What do you think about Zach’s ideas on tells? When do you think they don’t enter into the equation? Are there ever times that a tell overrides Game Theory Optimal play? Which Pro is the best at reading tells at the Poker Table?

Get involved in the discussion, and give us your views.