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Reading Poker Tells

Reading Poker Tells

by Zachary Elwood

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16 Mar 2015


It’s been 30 years since Mike Caro, the “Mad Professor” of poker published what was at the time one of the definitive books on poker psychology.

Mike Caro’s Book of Poker Tells was the psychological equivalent of Doyle Brunson’s Super/System; a tome full of tips and strategies on picking up tells from your opponents – those subtle physical tics and body movements that can give away the strength (or weakness) of an opponent’s hand.

In Caro’s book, for the first time the various shrugs, sighs and pupil dilations were laid bare for Hold’em players to use in their live game arsenal.

Successors have come since, most notably ex-FBI agent Joe Navarro with his ‘Read ‘Em And Reap’ book, but the subject is always worth an update.

The New Master of Poker Tells

Zachary Elwood – a columnist, coach, and former poker pro, (he helped train 2013 WSOP Main Event final tablist, Amir Lehavot) – has collated some of the most popular tells and tips for spotting them in ‘Reading Poker Tells’ (Via Regia, 2012).

While Elwood’s later ‘Verbal Poker Tells’ is an ultimately better read, especially in its use of real-life examples from poker TV shows, ‘Reading…’ is a perfectly acceptable ’round-up’ for beginners.

And, as the author says, he might not be the best player in the world, but there literally isn’t anyone better right now talking about tells.

Elwood’s Poker Tell Types

  • Waiting-for-action tells are signals given off by opponents when they’re waiting for an opponent to act.
  • During-action tells are – as you’d expect – signals given off when it’s your turn to act. These include betting motions, announcing your bet, speeches, trembling hands, and exaggerated actions.
  • Post-bet tells are the body language tics given off after a player has made his bet. They can include avoiding eye contact (if a player has bluffed with a poor hand, or conversely, raised with the nuts), staring at the table after betting, fidgeting, and pulling defensive moves like covering the mouth.

A Revolutionary Way of Thinking

Packed with practical info from Elwood’s eight-year career playing live poker (although not much about why he quit the professional game), Reading Poker Tells starts off with a mission statement: the author is out to present a new way of thinking about tells.

And that he does. Unlike other tell books, Elwood sorts the various tells into three distinct groups: ‘Waiting-for-action tells’, ‘During-action tells’, and ‘Post-bet tells’. See the box below for a breakdown of these groups.

There’s also a section on Post-bet tells for strength as well as weakness, such as your opponent staring straight at you, breaking into real smiles, becoming chatty, and loosening their grip on their cards.

This grouping together of various tells differs markedly from the way Mike Caro presented his theories in Book of Poker Tells. In that book, Caro puts a big emphasis on whether tells were from “actors” or “non-actors”.

Where Caro argues that players who act weak are usually strong (and vice versa), that only helps you if you are up against bad players. What, indeed, if you are playing against very good players? Most players in the mid-high stakes, Elwood counters, are pretty decent poker players whose most common tells come from accidentally giving off their true feelings.

What makes Elwood’s book so accomplished is that he’s quite happy to go over well-known tells (shaking hands, eye contact, defensive postures, etc) but also provide a structural framework for using your new-found knowledge.

There’s also a star chapter on ‘Deception and Manipulation’ which begins to touch on bluffs, false tells, and image-building. And to complete the round-up, Elwood throws in some of the most common verbal tells you’ll come across at the poker table. (While helpful, the author expands on these in much greater details in his follow-up, Verbal Poker Tells).

Elwood’s tips on becoming “unreadable” are useful; first by recognizing that at lower limits most players aren’t paying much attention to you, but as your competition gets tougher, learning to alter your bet-timing to throw off observant opponents, feign eye contact tells, and assessing your own habits when moving in with chips.

Make it a trilogy?

The big problem for a book written in 2012 is that there is so little on online tells. I’m being generous when I say “little”; there’s nothing. But perhaps vol.3 of Elwood’s trilogy will be all about spotting the guy who’s constantly over-betting a marginal hand at that $0.25/$0.50 cash game you’ve desperately been trying to crush.

At 230 pages, Elwood has managed to come up with an easy-to-read summary of live poker tells that are as prevalent today as they were when the Mad Professor was penning his little book of poker psychology. It’s perfect for beginners and improving players alike. I certainly found the section on Manipulation ideal prior to a little trip to my local casino for a friendly £25 Hold’em tournament.

All we need now is Zach Elwood’s Book of Online Tells and he’ll have completed the trilogy.