Talking About Tells: An Interview with Zachary Elwood

  • Dr. Tricia CardnerDr. Tricia Cardner
Zachary Elwood

Over recent years Zachary Elwood has become known for his valuable contributions regarding the subject of “tells” in poker — that is, actions both physical and verbal that can potentially provide information about a player’s hand in addition to what might be suggested by their checks, calls, bets, and raises.

Elwood has written two books on the subject, both of which have been especially well received by the poker community — Reading Poker Tells (2012) and Verbal Poker Tells (2014) — and he’s contributed a chapter to Jonathan Little’s new Excelling in No-Limit Hold’em due out next month.

I sat down with Elwood to discuss further the topic of tells and his interest in the subject, as well as other projects with which he’s currently involved.

PokerNews: What initially spurred your interest in the study of tells?

Zachary Elwood: I started playing poker seriously in 2000, and then I played for a living from 2003-2006. I was always interested in the psychological side of poker, plus I was interested in psychology in general. I used to read psychology books my Dad left laying around the house. He was a book indexer, so I got to read some Freud and some other scholarly psychology books as a kid.

When I started played for a living, I was always taking notes on my opponents. I got to wondering why there wasn’t much written on the behavioral psychology of poker players and especially tells.

I like Mike Caro’s book (Caro’s Book of Poker Tells), but it surprised me that more hadn’t been written on tells over the last 20 years. I was always expecting a better, more advanced book on tells to come out — especially with the poker boom. When one never showed up, I thought maybe I’d take a stab at it. I knew I could write a useful book, so that’s what led to Reading Poker Tells, and later Verbal Poker Tells.

What did you think of former FBI agent Joe Navarro’s work on poker tells?

Not to denigrate Navarro, but he’s not a poker player and I felt like his books were basic human behavior books. I’ve written an article about this actually — there are so many instances where behavioral experts are wrong in their assumptions and conclusions about poker players.

Many general behavioral principles don’t apply to poker players. An interrogation is not the same as a playing a hand of poker. There are many different motivations involved. I respect Navarro, but I felt like he was trying to branch out into poker without knowing the ways the behavioral stuff was different.

How did you develop your system of collecting and analyzing information about tells?

It was from experience and from thinking about how to best think about tells. It’s always evolving, of course, but I knew I had to come up with a way to categorize tells and the behaviors that make up those tells. In my first book, I came up with idea of categorizing tells by situations — especially around post-bet situations. This struck me as a very obvious way of categorizing behaviors because there are certain motivations and feelings that arise from making a bet.

Then I looked at situational tells related to waiting for someone else to bet. I’ve been thinking more about these categories and I actually think there’s a better way to do it, because there’s some overlap in those categories. Someone who has made a bet can also be waiting on someone else to act, so they are not perfectly distinct categories.

My goal was to draw attention to the situation when examining tells, because the situation is very important. Behaviors can look very similar but mean completely different things depending on the situation. You’ve got to take into account the situation, otherwise the information can be very ambiguous. Ideally, when you compare tells you want to compare tells across similar situations.

Tells are complicated because there are so many factors to consider.

Exactly — that’s why it’s so hard to talk about tells at all! That’s a major reason why experience is such a huge part of it. Think about Phil Ivey and his ability to judge behaviors and tells. He is so much better than someone who has only been playing just a couple years. The more you play and the more you think about tells, the more you can break down the many relevant factors and figure out the meaning behind a player’s tells.

How important are tells for the beginning player versus a more experienced player?

For a beginner, the main thing is to be knowledgeable about how to hide your own tells. It’s not as important to understand others’ tells because when you’re just starting out, so much of winning poker is strategy. You’ve got have a winning strategy, so that’s what beginning players should focus on. They should work on limiting their own tells because that’s one way they can be exploited and it will cost them money.

When you become a stronger, strategically sound player, I think tells become more important because you are looking for ways to add to your win rate and your goal should be to optimize those win rates. Also, as you become more experienced you understand the situational factors better and can figure out what behaviors might mean.

Talk about your contribution to Excelling at No-Limit Hold’em.

Talking About Tells: An Interview with Zachary Elwood 101
"Excelling at No-Limit Hold'em," due June 2015

I am pretty proud of it because I’ve changed my thinking some since I wrote Reading Poker Tells. This is a more up-to-date version of my work. My chapter presents a good, short synopsis of the major tells to look for in others and to be aware of in yourself.

I think the way I phrased things in this chapter is updated from the way I phrased them in my previous books. Also, when I wrote Verbal Poker Tells I became aware that sometimes verbal tells impact physical tells and vice-versa, and so I’ve started to come up with better ways to think about all that stuff together. I think the chapter a really good summary of the most valuable things that I wrote in my previous two books.

Isn’t it amazing how over the course of a couple of years your thinking on a topic can dramatically change?

For sure. There’s a good amount from the first book that I would write about differently now. I would definitely describe certain things differently.

Do you feel like the psychological side of poker is the “final frontier” (so to speak), especially as it pertains to no-limit hold’em?

It is the last area that most players look into, and it is kind of ambiguous as well, so it’s hard to grasp. But it is definitely an area more players should explore. Once you’ve got the strategy down, you have to look for more ways to get small edges and this is one way to do that.

Besides your books, do you have any other products for players looking to improve their reading abilities?

I just came out with something I’m calling the Poker Tells Video Guide that accompanies a one-hour section of some televised tournament footage. Buyers of the guide get access to the video footage in which I walk people through the behavioral cues in the hands shown. It’s very practical. Essentially, I go through and say “here’s what this behavior could practically mean” and “here’s what you might do if you see it.” I also point out other things worth watching out for. I break down the tells and the audience can see what I’m talking about and draw their own conclusions.

Tells are subjective and there’s not a single, correct way to approach them, but I’m drawing your attention to things that are theoretically meaningful. Lately my main focus has been on the practical applications of tells.

It’s been great chatting with you about tells and poker psychology. Before you go, where can people find out more about you and your books?

They can check out my website — Reading Poker Tells — and Excelling at No-Limit Hold’em will be released in mid-June.

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