Poker Book Review: 'Reading Poker Tells' by Zachary Elwood

Zachary Elwood's Reading Poker Tells provides an accessible entry into the often misunderstood and misapplied study of tells.

When one looks at poker's recent history and how the rapid growth of online poker over the last decade largely helped fuel the "boom" in both players and poker books, it perhaps isn't surprising that most recent strategy books have minimized or ignored the topic of reading poker tells in a live setting. Stepping into this relative void, Zachary Elwood's first book, Reading Poker Tells, provides a wealth of insight for those new to live poker as well as experienced live players looking to add to their knowledge of tells and their significance.

A former professional player who now plays part-time to supplement his income, Elwood uses his experience at the tables as well as a keen interest in human psychology to support his many findings regarding poker tells. While humble about his own background as a player as well as about his authority on the topic -- he denies being "a 'guru' or 'expert' on poker tells" -- Elwood well establishes his credibility via a thorough and frequently perceptive treatment of the topic.

As noted, Elwood points out how when it comes to poker strategy books, the topic of poker tells hasn't received nearly the attention he believes it has deserved, with Mike Caro's Book of Poker Tells -- first published way back in 1983 -- continuing to stand for Elwood as the last meaningful study of the subject. (Elwood gives less credit to recent titles by Joe Navarro in which the ex-FBI agent applies to poker knowledge gleaned from interrogations of criminal suspects.)

Reading Poker Tells is well written and highly readable, its 220-plus pages (with a couple dozen photos) full of useful, smartly explained observations. Elwood breaks down specific tells in a clear, concise manner throughout, with the book's organization helpfully contextualizing each particular discussion. The bulk of the material is presented in three sections -- an initial, short discussion of poker tell theory, a longer section on specific tells, and a final one concerning strategies of deception and manipulation.

Understanding Tells in Context

The initial section "Poker Tell Theory" offers a theoretical framework for the more concrete advice provided by the rest of the book. Besides establishing himself as knowledgeable and well read when it comes to human psychology, generally speaking, this section finds Elwood explaining both the relative importance of poker tells and the crucial need for context when interpreting them.

As he does elsewhere in the book, Elwood here emphasizes how "tell-reading is only a small part of playing great live poker." Later he'll note he's "chosen to concentrate on an area of poker that is less important than learning fundamental strategy," and indeed, none of his advice about reading poker tells is going to be of much use to readers who aren't already aware of the many other strategic considerations needed to win at poker.

That said, being able to read poker tells is "a powerful weapon to have in your arsenal" insists the author. The section concludes with an explanation of the different categories of tells Elwood successively tackles in the following section: waiting-for-action tells, during-action tells, and post-bet tells.

Looking for Tells: Before, During, and After Action

Such a method of organization makes sense and distinguishes Elwood's approach from that of Caro and others more apt to list poker tells individually and without necessarily categorizing them. Caro, for instance, does divide his book into "Tells From Those Who Are Unaware" and "Tells From Actors," although within those large sections one finds long lists of tells that can occur at different points in a hand and in wildly various contexts.

By contrast, in Elwood's second long section "Tells" he identifies these primary moments -- before, during, and after an action -- and within each category examines a host of player behaviors. In some cases he further divides categories into tells indicating weakness and those indicating strength, including presenting those tells in an approximate order of importance or likelihood of being genuine.

To give an example, the section "Waiting-for-action tells: Weakness" begins with discussions of players making eye contact or grabbing chips defensively, moves through other tells such as staring at hole cards or the board or other defensive actions, then concludes with less frequently demonstrated tells like shuffling one's cards or making exclamations about board cards.

Also included in the long middle section is a prefatory discussion of "General Poker Psychology" as well as a concluding chapter addressing "General Verbal Tells."

The book's third section, "Deception and Manipulation," then covers various actions that can be used to induce tells from opponents, some of which Elwood admits "could be considered morally questionable, or angle-shooting." These include telegraphing one's action ahead of time to influence others' play, conversational probes and outright lying about one's hand, and false tells. Elwood is careful to present these strategies to deceive and manipulate as of limited use, only to be employed judiciously against certain, vulnerable opponents.

The Need to Correlate

In fact, the book as a whole contains numerous such disclaimers about reading poker tells. Elwood frequently reminds the reader that in a lot of cases tells will be more evident at lower stakes games and/or with less experienced players. Also, Elwood points out the need to correlate tells with other information -- that is, to compare what one observes to how an opponent has acted in similar spots before as well as to relate the tell to strategies suggested by the way a given hand has played out.

Elwood often shows creativity and imagination when explaining certain points, like a teacher who has found interesting ways to connect with students. For example, when talking about a particular tell in which a player who is strong might slouch and look disappointed before making a bet or raise, Elwood suggests we imagine the player's expression in a different context, say, "if you saw them walking down the street or sitting in a coffee shop." Or when talking about players becoming motionless in spots that might correlate with weakness, Elwood points out how becoming still or freezing up is "a psychological response to fear and anxiety: the deer-in-the-headlights reaction that we're all familiar with."

I also like how Elwood acknowledges the complexity of his chosen subject, showing how oftentimes tells are much more subtle than some who have discussed the subject before might lead us to believe. And while Elwood recognizes that reading tells is not of primary importance at the table, he does a good job defending the skill against those who might suggest it is of little or no importance, such as in his response to Dan Harrington's somewhat dismissive chapter on tells in Harrington on Cash Games, Volume II.

Late in the book amid a discussion of verbal tells, Elwood brings up a particular hand involving Jamie Gold from an old Poker After Dark episode to illustrate a point about "verbal trickery." That discussion made me wish there had been more such concrete illustrations throughout the book, although I wouldn't say the book is particularly lacking in that regard. In any case, one can find several examples of such analyses of televised hands at Elwood's blog; for example, take a look at Elwood's engaging discussion of "Pius Heinz' eye-contact tell" from the 2011 WSOP Main Event final table.

Get Started Reading Poker Tells

"Think of the descriptions of the common tells in this book as starting points," Elwood recommends near the conclusion, acknowledging again the need for context and correlation when attempting to read poker tells for their significance. I imagine most readers will find among these "starting points" several items of use in their efforts to read others' table behaviors as well as when monitoring of their own.

If you're an online player looking to jump into some live games -- or even if you're experienced in a live setting and looking for a smart primer on tells more in tune with the current scene than Caro's classic -- Elwood's Reading Poker Tells is certainly a worthy pick-up.

Zachary Elwood's Reading Poker Tells is available via Amazon as well as his own site and blog.

Join Betfair Poker Now.

Elwood points out the need to correlate tells with other information -- that is, to compare what one observes to how an opponent has acted in similar spots before as well as to relate the tell to strategies suggested by the way a given hand has played out.

Prices quoted in copy are correct at time of publication but liable to change.

Discover the latest articles