Zachary Elwood is known in the poker world for his valuable contributions on the subject of poker tells. He is the creator of the Reading Poker Tells Video Series, an ever-growing library of poker tells video content. He is the author of the books: Reading Poker Tells, Verbal Poker Tells, Exploiting Poker Tells, and the e-book Poker Tells in $1/$2 No Limit Cash Games, which are regarded as the best books on poker tells by amateur and professional poker players. Elwood is also a poker behavioral-consultant whose clients include World Series of Poker Main Event final tableists.
How did you get into writing books on poker tells? Did you play poker as research for these books? Or were you a player first?
I was playing way before I thought of the books. From about 2003-2006 I was playing for a living. Before that, I just played for fun. Even though I did not publish my first book till 2012, I had the idea years before it.
Where did the idea come from?
I didn’t think there were that many good books out there pertaining to poker tells, and I thought I could write a better book using what I know and what I talk to other players about. I felt that nobody gave poker tells the examination that it could, and that nobody had really delved into it the way I thought I could. So, that was the first book idea. But, I always thought some famous player from the poker-boom would write a book like this. When years later nobody did, I decided to give it a shot.
What research did you do to prepare for your books?
My books are based on my experiences as well as my talks with other experienced players along the way, and my take on all of it. I’ve read other poker tells books out there as well. Mike Caro’s book is great, but it’s old. A lot of players think it’s out-dated and also meant for inexperienced beginner-level players. Many of his tells seem simplistic. And, I don’t think Caro’s book had much for the high level, tougher games.
What about Joe Navarro’s book on tells?
I didn’t like it because he doesn’t play poker, and it comes across in how he writes about it. He’s more of a general behaviorist.
If you want to tell if your spouse is cheating on you, you should go read Navarro’s books, but if you want to get better at the poker table, read your books?
[laughs] Yeah, or if you kidnap someone and want to get the truth out of them, Navarro’s book might be a good one.
[moment of laughter]
How useful are poker tells when compared to other aspects of poker such as psychology, mathematics, etc?
Tells are a small part of poker, and I think anybody knowledgable of the game would say the same. When people first play poker, they have this romantic idea of tells being the most important, like it’s the movie Rounders. They think tells are magical. But, when you are playing against great players, it’s a much harder thing to make use of. For the most part, you will gather small clues here and there and hope to use them to make better decisions.
What about when players purposely give off fake tells? How do you know if the tell is real?
Yeah, it can be scary. It definitely is not an easy thing to try to make use of. Sometimes I’ll see a player and go, “No way, that seems too easy. That can’t be an accurate tell.” But, nine times out of ten, it really is that easy for some players. False tells do happen, but they aren’t as common as people think. But, the best players are trying not to give away anything. They’re trying to be as stoic as possible.
Is it easier for you to pick up tells from opponents you play with regularly or from players you have never seen before?
My best use of tells has been with people I’ve played with regularly. The card room I play in, I see the same group of players all the time. So, I’ll see the same people doing the same behavior patterns. Some of it is very player-specific. So, because I’ve seen them do certain things over the course of many hands, it becomes more valuable. I think that’s where the value lies.
How do you feel about disguises at the poker table such as sunglasses, hoodies, etc?
I have nothing against people that wear them. I do think it is more interesting and more personal when players don’t wear sunglasses. It is more fun to try to read peoples’ eyes.
Do poker players treat you differently because of who you are and the books you’ve written?
Most of them don’t know. [laughs] I’ve done a good job at keeping it secret.
Nice! Just keep doing interviews with no-names like us! [laughs]
[laughs] But the players who do know about it, they’re cool about it. It does create some interesting dynamics at times. If I’m just acting normal, they might read into it too much and think I’m up to something. But, I just try to be as readless as possible.
Players like Greg Raymer told us how people try to not knock him out of tournaments just so they can say they knocked him out. Does that sort of stuff make it tougher on you?
People who know I wrote the books will mess with me and want to outplay me. They’ll be like, “Oooooh you couldn’t read me there, could ya?!” [laughs]
Oh yeah, I’m sure they’re like, “Ha! I beat the “poker-tells-book-guy!” [laughs]
Right [laughs] But, so what if they beat me in a hand. I don’t care. This kind of thing does tell you a lot about how a player like Phil Hellmuth has been so successful because there are so many amateur players who always want to take a shot at Hellmuth.
Do you think poker tells are evolving the way the game of poker is constantly evolving?
It’s evolving in that players are becoming better at being more stoic. Players today are more aware of how their behvaior can leak, so they are more aware at the poker table, making them more cautious of their movements. Compared to long ago, players might have been joking around, drinking, laughing, etc. Whereas nowadays, players are more still and serious. At the highest level, it’s a long shot, but if you do find a tell, it can be very valuable.
Written by: DAVID GAVRI