On the 21st of February, Zach Elwood, author of the critically acclaimed book: Reading Poker Tells, participated in the latest in the FTR series of “Ask Me Anything.”
We also gave away 3 copies of Zach’s book, and these went to TheLongGrind, rong, and JKDS, who were randomly selected from those who asked a question.
The event started at 17:30ET, and Zach gave us some very interesting answers:
Why did you write the book?
Zach: I wrote the book because I thought I could write a much better book than the ones out there. For the record, I don’t think of myself as some kind of poker behavior guru; it’s more just the fact that I’ve played a lot and knew a good amount of stuff I’d never seen written down before.
Who is Zach Elwood?
Zach: Good question.
Answer: Nobody special. There’s no real reason to have heard of him, aside from this book.
I played for a living, from 2004 to 2007, and I’ve played pretty frequently since then (although not very much these days). I’ve taken poker seriously since around 2000, when I was setting up games in college.
Like I say in the book, I’ve never played many tournaments and I’ve never played super-high. Mostly $2-5/$5-10 NL and $15-30/$20-40 fixed limit.
I don’t claim to be a poker genius by any means. I’m just a guy who’s done well at poker and knew a good amount of stuff regarding poker tells that I’d never seen anyone else talk about. A lot of the stuff I talk about in the book is stuff I think a lot of experienced live players know, but for some reason nobody’s ever written much about.
I have some questions.
What is the most memorable hand or winning hand of your life?
What is the best advice you received while learning poker that stands out to you to this day?
Where is your favorite place to play poker at? Either private or casino.
Zach: Most memorable hand was probably when I folded pocket 2’s on the river for no bet in $5-10 PLO. It was a $1,000 pot against 2 opponents who’d called my flop and turn bet, and I never figured there was a chance in hell I was good. All I had to do was turn my cards over but I mucked. They both had flush and straight draws w/ no pair. Valuable lesson for me; never assume you’re beat. And never fold for no bet.
As for advice; I’m always remembering the mantra to be looking for “edge”, as indefinable as that is sometimes. But if I’m in spots where I don’t feel I have an edge, however I can define it in that moment, I don’t want to be in that spot. Whether that spot is a specific hand or a table or game or whatever.
I don’t play much anymore but I want to play more bigger buy-in tournaments starting this year.
Do you have any background in psychology?
Zach: No. Other than my higher-than-average interest in it and personal study of it.
I assume most poker tells vary depending on the person, but is there one general tell that you see over and over that you can share with us that can help live players?
Zach: I’ve seen a lot of people ask about the most common or most useful tells. Here are my thoughts on the most useful poker tells:
Eye contact behavior after betting: the patterns people have with how much they look at someone after betting can tell you a lot. Some people will make more eye contact after bluffing, while other people will make less eye contact after bluffing. You just need to study someone in significant spots and try to see if you notice a pattern with this. For some people, they will have a reliable tendency one way or another. But it is very much a player-specific tendency and you have to study it before basing decisions on it.
Defensive chip handling tells: how people handle their chips when waiting for you to act. Some people who don’t want you to bet will subtly hold their chips or just place their hands on their chips in a way that can be interpreted as “defensive”, not wanting you to bet. There are many subtle ways that can appear, but it usually is quite useful if you can spot people who do it.
Freeze-up tells in bluffing: some people get much stiller when bluffing than they are when they value-bet. This can be pretty subtle, too; it might just be the small looseness or stillness visible in how they move their fingers, or how they move their eyes around, or if they make small facial movements. So, like everything, you need to get some baseline behavior first.
(as a response to above): Funny you mention this, I hold my chips or rattle them when I do not want a person to bet.
People love to steal my blinds since I am a rock and am in very few hands. Is there any tells you notice on whether a blindstealer has a good hand or if he is just trying to steal my blinds?
Zach: People who are stealing blinds in late position often have this tendency:
Because they are ready to steal blinds before the action gets to them, they are more likely to put in a fairly immediate raise, whereas if they actually had a strong hand, they’d think about it a few seconds, trying to feign weakness. I use this tendency a good amount in late stages of tournaments to make up my decision to 3-bet resteal.
Keep in mind this won’t apply to everyone, nor will it apply 100% to one player. But it can be statistically significant enough, if you’ve observed it a few times, to make it a good spot to call with a decent hand or 3-bet bluff.
Are there any spots where having a tell on a certain type of player doesn’t really help? I saw something on your twitter about having reads on a Station doesn’t really help, could you explain this?
Zach: 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.
OK, how about this. Could you generalize tells? Maybe for example, why do they exist and how are they supposed to reveal something? If you can throw some science in here… Thanks
Zach: 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.
Hey Zach, same Danny who wrote you the long email. BTW for anyone reading this thread I thought the book was totally awesome.
Any stories of reading physical tells allowed you to make a sick bluff or call? Also, any stories where you thought you were reading a physical tell and made a big call or bluff off of it where it was horribly wrong?
Zach: Yes, I definitely have some stories. I’m actually kind of sad I didn’t write down more stories from when I played more frequently. One of my bigger regrets. Just recently I played in a $100 tourney where I called basically a triple-barrel shove for a large amount by a guy on the river with a pair of 6’s, mainly based on his demeanor. He was the most aggressive player at the table and I’d been studying him the whole tournament, and I noticed he was much more still and avoided eye contact when he was bluffing. So after he makes his large bet, I watch him for a few seconds and see that he doesn’t look at me at all, and is also much more still than he usually was when he had hands.
I have been in that situation a lot.
Not too long ago, I made a very bad move when I read a guy for weak based on a small smile he had, and I shoved all-in pre-flop for $1,600 after he made a $400 pf raise. He had AA. Like all of my worst reads, though, that one was based on me not observing him long enough. He had just sat down and I tried a “cold-read”, which I don’t recommend in my book. As it turned out, he was a player who smiled slightly every time he got involved in a pot, basically.
That drives home the point I make in the book, and which I almost always adhere to; not to try to read people without studying them for a little while first. Everyone is different.
Do you play much online poker? Is it harder for you to read souls when you can’t see the whites of their eyes?
Zach: I’ve never enjoyed online poker as much as live poker, which isn’t surprising considering my interest in psychology. I’m also self-aware to know that my fundamentals aren’t that great, and that I’m outmatched fundamentally by a lot of players online, while that’s not true live. I used to play fixed limit a good amount back in the easy days of Party Poker, but I also have found that I have much more serious tilt issues online than live. Not sure why that is, but I’m pretty much immune to tilt in a live setting, whereas online I can get really tilty really quickly. Something about less attachment to the money I guess. I do tend to err on the too-agressive side of things, so that plays into it I guess.
Okay so here’s my question after looking through your book:
How has your experience with working towards being unreadable affected how you behave in other aspects of life?
Zach: I’m not sure, to be honest. Sometimes I feel like I’m kind of autistic in some ways, and I’m not sure if that’s due to playing a lot of poker or if I’d be like that anyway. I feel as if most of the physical movements I take are very planned-out, and not spontaneous, so that may be due to some influence of thinking about such things in poker. But I’ve always suffered from anxiety/depression issues, so I mostly think those kinds of issues would be there regardless of poker.
Some days I feel like I’d be happier if I’d never played poker at all. Other days I feel it was a great salvation for someone like me, giving me confidence in something, something I could take a lifelong interest in, etc.
Zach, do you think you would write another book, and if so, what do you think would interest you next?
Zach: I probably won’t write another book. But I may have one more in me related to poker.
What are the main differences between reading a woman and a man?
Zach: Nothing really to speak of that I’ve noticed. But that might be because I’ve encountered so few women poker players that nothing much has stood out to me over time.
When online poker is legalized in the USA do you think it will create a second poker boom? What poker book has helped you the most? What casino do you play the most at?
Zach: I don’t think there will be a second poker boom, no. I think the poker boom was a strange point in time, influenced by several factors all happening at the same time. I think the poker economy could be sustainable in the U.S., but not nearly as many people playing as at the height of the boom. Most people are smarter now and realize that 1) poker takes a lot of skill, and 2) that they do not have that skill.
I don’t play much anymore. I do play the occasional higher buy-in tourney, but not often. I plan on playing more tournaments this year though.
Omigodomigod what am I going to wear?
Zach: your profile pic is terrfying
What’s the most important thing(s) someone should take from reading your book?
Zach: Probably the most important take-away is to never base a decision on a perceived tell unless you’ve got a good reason to believe that tell is accurate. Don’t try to “cold-read” people based on general tells that you’ve heard about or read about. Observe first, then act.
Whats the basic idea behind using tells? Do you treat it as just one of very many interchangeable different tools for narrowing an opponents range, or is it more accurate to say that tells provide a mountain of an advantage to one using them properly?
Follow up: Who do you think is the best player at using an analyzing poker tells?
Zach: 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 is the best way(s) to determine if someone is showing you a tell vs someone pretending to have a tell?
Zach: If I think someone’s clever enough to show me a false tell, I would be tempted to not base decisions on perceived tells. I think it’s very important to observe a player’s tendencies for a while first; this will help cut down on the chance that a player is fooling you with some one-off false tell.
Also, as Caro points out in his book, if a behavior seems more “on display”, then it might be because a player is consciously doing it. Honestly, though, it is pretty rare that I see someone pulling a decent false tell. I recommend in my book against them for several reasons. Good players will just not often get involved doing stuff like that, and it would only be the good players who might do a convincing job of a false tell.
In a lot of cases, a player who thinks he is giving a false tell is actually just giving a tell. For example, a player who’s got a very strong hand and decides to suddenly get creative and act like he’s weak may be giving away his strength to an observant player, just because whatever act he is putting on is different from his usual behavior he would usually have without a strong hand. So for example, a player who is acting all timid with AA (or whatever he believes faking weakness looks like) appears different than the previous spots where he didn’t have AA. If he had been stoic in previous hands and then all of a sudden he’s acting in some weird way, his attempt at a false tell has, in this case, become just another tell.
What advise would you give to some one who plays online but has never played live? (aside from a few home games)
Zach: Don’t be afraid of it. If you’re a winning player online you’ll most assuredly be a winning player live. Or even if you’re not a winning player online you probably will be live
Tells are no reason to get nervous. Most people aren’t observant at all or don’t know what they’re looking for. And like I said, tells are only going to add a small % to your winrate anyway, so don’t stress out about them.
I will say the higher stakes you play, the more important hiding your own tells becomes. That is very important IMO.
did you ever use live poker tells to check whether your spouse/friends were lying to you?
Zach: I think I’m pretty good at reading people’s intentions. But that’s not really related to my poker tell knowledge; I think I’d be good at that regardless of playing poker. So, basically, no. There are some correlations between general human behavior and behavior at the poker table, but for the most part I think the poker table is a pretty unique arena.
what are the 5 most reliable tells you’ve found? are strength tells typically more reliable than weakness tells or vice-versa?
Zach: See the three tells I mention earlier. I’d say the anxiety-related tells are generally more apparent, but really it’s the difference between when a player is relaxed versus when they’re anxious. You’re not looking for just one behavior; you’re trying to find both sides of that coin and see how they compare. They may not have much difference, or there may be a lot of difference. It’s up to you to compare those spots, though.
What do you think about the interpretation of microexpressions through Facial Action Coding System and body language seen in the American crime drama television series Lie to Me ?
Zach: I’ve never seen it but want to. I know some of it is based on the studies of Paul Ekman, who I recommended earlier for his books about body language and facial expressions. He’s very highly regarded and if you’re interested in that stuff I recommend his books.
What do you think of the classic “Mike Caro’s Book of poker Tells,” and how does your book compare, in both content and style?
Zach: I like Caro’s book a lot. I think it is definitely a classic, considering the lack of other good information on the subject. I also think it’s outdated, primarily because it concentrates on the very obvious tells of very amateur players, which you don’t see much these days due to people being more experienced. I also think he painted a too-simplistic portrait of using tells, when the reality calls for a much more discerning treatment. I would be doing a disservice to everyone if I acted like this stuff was easy or that this knowledge alone would turn you into a winner.
To what extent are tells individualized, and to what extent are they applicable to all players? (For simplicity, assume no one is acting?)
Zach: There are many types of tells that apply to a wide population. Those are the ones I go into in the book; a lot of them are already known by many people, although I think I’ve added to the general knowledge a bit with some that I’ve never seen written about before.
But I also think you need to first observe a player and see if they are giving off those common tells. Even though everyone is indeed different, the benefit of having an internal catalogue of common behavior lets you more easily and quickly check a player for that behavior, to see if they have those types of tells. If they don’t, you can stop studying them and concentrate on something else. If they seem to have imbalanced behavior, then keep studying them and see where the imbalance is coming from.
So while everyone is different, many people will have a common tell or two, or three.
What are some ways to ensure that you yourself are not displaying any tells? Does a conscious effort need to be made at the table to practice this?
Zach: It definitely takes a conscious effort. Unless you’re a robot. I’ve probably learned the most about tells just studying my own tendencies and trying to figure out why I was doing whatever it was. Similar to improving our own fundamental strategy, it takes honesty and self-awareness to study ourselves.
For example, next time you are value-betting, try to be conscious of how exactly you are acting. Where are you looking? How fast are you betting? How are you setting your chips down? Are you moving your body much? Are you sitting up straight or slumped? Are you making eye contact with your opponent or avoiding it? Try to remember all these things and compare them to the next time you’re making a significant bluff. What has changed and why?
I think the top-notch players have made very conscious efforts to become unreadable. For me, it takes a very conscious effort.
The saving grace is that most people, by and large, aren’t paying attention to this stuff, so nobody should be getting too stressed out about it. If you’re playing pretty high, that’s when you should be maybe getting worried about it.
What 5 items would you have if you got stuck on a desert island?
zach: Five copies of my book Reading Poker Tells.
I like the way you broke up waiting for action and post bet – the two most important categories. When did you decide to organize the book this way?
I could have sworn Caro or someone said that a player moving his knee up and down might be on a draw. I think he said to be wary if the movement stops on the turn or river card. How do we reconcile this with the quote above? I guess part of it is our definition of anxious and part of it is timing – the quote above is under waiting for action.
Zach: I knew that I needed some situational organization to the book; that was mainly, to me, what was lacking in previous treatments of the subject. I started with the post-bet category, as that was the most important for me personally, and then I added the others as I started working on the book. I think it really helps organize the tells in your head and helps study them.
I don’t know much about that Caro quote. That sounds a little too weirdly specific to be accurate, though. I don’t remember reading that in his book. I think it’s best to assume what I said until you observe a player doing otherwise. Better yet, you shouldn’t assume anything until you’ve observed a player’s tendencies at least a couple times.
In the book you argue with Harrington’s view on tells, which is basically that tells are hard to spot, it’s hard to know if they’re accurate, and only give you a fraction of a percent increase on your winrate. I think your arguments are solid, but if you were able to, what % do you feel being able to spot tells really adds to your winrate?
Obviously you feel it’s substatial enough to write a book on but are you able to actually quantify how much it helps?
Zach: Agree it’s hard to quantify. I say in the book that it adds between 10 and 30% to your winrate. That’s obviously very rough. For me, personally, I feel it’s probably around 20%, but I would have a hard time backing that up with facts. Keep in mind that these %s are only for people who are quite experienced at poker and also experienced at reading people. I don’t think many casual players who read my book will meet both of those criteria.
But I also believe those numbers are potentially higher than what I’ve estimated if someone is very skilled and playing with regulars who are full of tells.
Do you feel tells can be used in online games? Obviously any physical tells would go unnoticed but what about betting patterns and such?
Zach: I have a fairly short section in the book about bet-timing, which is the only thing that could apply to online. I think it’s a tough subject, though, because bet-timing is one of the few areas that are likely to be consciously controlled. So you’ll see a lot of variation in it.
I’ve recently had some more clear thoughts on bet-timing, though, and think if I were to write my book again today I’d write a better section. Keep an eye on my blog because I want to write about my thoughts on that soon.
With this answer, the AMA was brought to a close. We thank Zach for spending so much time with our community