Zachary Elwood is kind of the new Mike Caro, generally regarded as the go-to guy for poker tells today. He’s been writing about the subject for some time now, both in his two books Reading Poker Tells (2009) and Verbal Poker Tells (2012) and in articles for several media outlets, including a two-year stint with BLUFF. Recently, he’s begun producing a series of training videos based on his books; this format is of course more popular with a lot of new players these days, but video is also particularly well-suited for lessons on interpreting poker tells, since it allows for the inclusion of real-life examples.
As someone just recently making the transition from online poker to live tournaments, I was pleased when Zach got in touch with me over Twitter to offer me a free copy of his videos to review. There are twelve of them at the moment, although Zach plans on adding more in future. How did I like them? Read on.
One of the first things you notice about Zach’s videos, and one of their strongest aspects, is that they focus as much on the psychology behind poker tells in general as they do on specific actions. A lot of the time, when you read about tells, what you see is mostly just lists of behaviors and whether each one is likely strong or weak; stacking chips and pushing them into the pot might be seen as strong, for instance, while tossing them might be weak. The trouble with this approach is both that doesn’t help you to determine when the tell in question may or may not apply, and also that it gives you little basis on which to judge other, similar behaviors.
By contrast, with Zach’s approach, after watching a few videos, you begin to feel confident that you’ll be able to guess what other actions mean. For instance, in the third video, you learn that a player taking a long look at his hole cards preflop before raising or limping is likely to have a marginal hand. Zach explains this by saying that players with premium holdings tend to want to avoid calling attention to themselves or their cards, so will tend to put them down quickly, while players with marginal holdings don’t have that same instinct. Having grasped that, other sorts of preflop behaviors become easier to interpret as well; for instance, video #6 has to do with people commenting or joking preflop, but if you’ve just watched video #3, then you’re already expecting that this too will mean weakness, and the video merely confirms that for you.
The videos are also well-structured. They’re all of similar length, and put together in a consistent way, and all using footage pulled with permission from the Windy City Poker Championship. Each video begins with one such example of the behavior, followed by an explanation of its general meaning. Zach then explains the basic psychology before going into more specifics about exactly what sorts of hands might be – or not be – in the player’s range when you observe that behavior. After this, he provides additional video examples of the basic behavior, followed by examples from more specific or unusual situations, and usually some counter-examples as well. Finally, he finishes up with some pointers for taking advantage of the tell in actual play, and some warnings about how you can go wrong if you put too much stock in it.
Finally, it’s also nice that the videos are designed to be watched in any order, although this also causes some problems that I’ll mention later. You could watch the entire series in less than three hours, but if you don’t have time to do so, it’s good that you can jump to a specific behavior, if it’s something you’ve recently seen in a tournament and were wondering about it.
For me, the biggest takeaway from the series is just how many tells are the result not of players letting something slip, but the result of players overcompensating in their attempts not to let something slip. Some of this I’m familiar with from online play – for instance, that snap decisions early in a hand indicate weakness – but some of the body language stuff is not what I would have expected. It’s also not what other, less experienced writers on the subject often assume; Zach has pointed out in interviews that a lot of things which indicate actual weakness or dishonesty in real life mean the opposite in poker because players are so conscious of them.
I think that awareness of this is going to help me avoid giving away tells as much as it will help me pick up on others’. For instance, having watched the videos, I can’t help but recall with a bit of embarrassment a tournament I played at Playground Poker a while back in which I got caught bluffing with a whiffed AK by an opponent who had bottom pair. Following my river bet he whipped off his sunglasses and stared at me intently. Instinctively, I held his gaze because I didn’t want to appear intimidated, but in retrospect this was likely what helped him make the call and I shouldn’t even have been looking in his direction in the first place. I realized it right after the hand and adjusted accordingly for the rest of the tournament, but if I’d had the benefit of watching these videos before that tournament, I would have been less likely to commit that error to begin with.
The trouble with the videos is that they quickly become repetitive for exactly the reasons I’ve just stated. The underlying psychology is similar for most of the behaviors he looks at, so after the first few videos, it becomes pretty easy to guess what you’re going to learn from the next one just by reading the title.
This is only made worse by the rigid structure of the videos. What seems like a rigorous, logical structure when you’re watching the first couple of videos quickly becomes a test of patience, because the information given is so similar each time around. This is also partly due to Zach’s decision to make the videos watchable in any order, and in his attempts to keep them all of similar length. It’s also not helped by the fact that outside of the example footage, the videos are put together like a PowerPoint presentation, nor that Zach has a tendency to speak in a monotone.
I think that it would be less of a problem if you were watching his videos at a pace of, say, one per week, as then it might be helpful to be reminded continually of the fundamentals. Watching them all in rapid succession, however, I found myself frequently struggling against the urge to skip ahead whenever he began explaining the same concepts in almost exactly the same words that I’d just heard in the previous video.
I’m also not convinced that structuring the series on a tell-by-tell basis was the best decision. After all, what I first said I liked about Zach’s approach was that he gives the underlying psychology as much attention as the behaviors themselves. Perhaps that would have been a better way to structure the series as a whole, examining one psychological principle in each video, with multiple different examples of how it might express itself, rather than looking at one specific behavior each time.
I say that partly because it would avoid some of the repetition, but also because it would make the footage more useful as practice for the viewer. As it is, if the title of the video is “Early-Hand Laughing and Smiling,” then whenever a clip comes up, you know that you’re watching for someone laughing and/or smiling, which makes it pretty trivial to spot the tell. Looking for an unspecified manifestation of a specific psychological principle would much more closely resemble the act of looking for tells at an actual poker table: For instance, “Who in this video is not concerned about whether they attract others’ attention?” For the same reason, it might also have been better if Zach had blotted out the players’ hole cards until after pointing out the tell and running the clip a second time, in order to force the viewer to look at the players as they would look at opponents at their own table.
While I can’t recommend the videos very highly from an entertainment perspective, the information they contain is invaluable. I think that everyone interested in taking live poker seriously should expose themselves to Zach’s take on tells in some form or another, whether it’s through his videos or his books. Even if you’re not willing or able to maintain the focus necessary to pick up others’ tells, it is, as I said, hugely useful to understand how pros pick up tells on you, if only to avoid giving things away through the very behaviors that you think you’re using to keep your strength or weakness a secret.
That said, I don’t think the video format is being used to its full potential. For most of the behaviors being looked at, the verbal explanation is just as good as the video examples. I already know what someone smiling looks like, for instance, and I can tell the difference between someone taking a quick glance vs. a long look at their hole cards without needing to be shown a half-dozen examples. If you’re considering purchasing or renting the videos mostly for the examples, I’m not sure it’s worth it.
Now, I have to admit that I haven’t read Reading Poker Tells yet, but I imagine, based on the shared title that there’s significant overlap in terms of content. Since I didn’t find that many of the video examples provided much more insight than I could have gleaned just from listening to Zach’s explanations, my recommendation would be to choose between his books and his videos based on which format appeals more to you in general. If you’re a reader, like me, I would skip the videos and buy his books instead, but if you prefer to watch and listen, then go for the videos.
Alex Weldon (@benefactumgames) is a freelance writer, game designer and semipro poker player from Montreal, Quebec, Canada.