PokerNews Book Review: Verbal Poker Tells by Zachary Elwood
Over the last couple of years, poker author Zachary Elwood has established himself as a valuable resource for live poker players seeking to learn more about poker tells, thanks in large part to his first, well received book Reading Poker Tells (2012) and a frequently-updated website where he shares more worthwhile advice regarding the topic.
Elwood has returned with a second book building upon the work of his first, Verbal Poker Tells, this time focusing in particular on the significance of table talk. Elwood delves deeply into both the content of players’ speech (what they say) and the manner in which they deliver their statements (how they say it), ultimately providing much insight for those looking for help deciphering the meaning of all of those declarations, questions, and other chatter coming from their opponents during hands.
A Collection of Verbal Patterns
In Reading Poker Tells Elwood began by providing a theoretical framework for the more practical advice that followed, noting in particular the need to put tells in context before acting upon them. There Elwood insisted that “tell-reading is only a small part of playing great live poker” and not as important as understanding fundamental strategy. In other words, when noticing what seems like a tell, it is important to consider the action in relation to what is happening in a given hand.
In his first book Elwood also frequently emphasized the need to correlate tells with previous behaviors in similar spots. “Once you’ve correlated a tell with a specific situation,” explained Elwood, “this enables you to draw conclusions when you see that same tell in the same situation in the future.”
In Verbal Poker Tells, Elwood delivers similar warnings about context, with all of his examples of verbal tells being explained as having emanated from a particular situation within a given hand. Thus when speaking of, say, statements related to hand strength (“weak-hand statements” and “strong-hand statements”), Elwood is careful to note how they signify in relation to different points in a hand. Indeed, one of the many perceptive observations he shares is to note how statements made early in a hand (e.g., before the flop or on the flop in hold’em) are often less meaningful than those that come later in a hand (e.g., on the turn or river), an important contextual point.
While Elwood does explain that “correlation is important” in the introduction to Verbal Poker Tells, he is generally less concerned with delivering that lesson about correlation here than in his first book. That said, he does occasionally note when a particular verbal pattern exhibited by a player can help one’s subsequent reads. For example, when speaking of “defensive statements” — often made by non-aggressors hoping to dissuade opponents from betting — Elwood points out how certain players will still call bets (and not fold) even after making such statements, a tendency that is worth noting, say, when making thin value bets against them.
In other words, Verbal Poker Tells is less concerned with repeating fundamental lessons about reading tells covered previously by Elwood, instead functions more as a kind of encyclopedia of table talk, providing a valuable reference with its comprehensive catalogue and analysis of statements frequently made during poker hands. Such is the way Elwood introduces his book, calling it “a collection of verbal patterns I believe are often predictive of hand strength” and inviting readers to skip around to find sections of greater interest to them as they seek help in understanding particular examples of revealing table talk.
Verbal Tells: Theory and Practice
The book begins with three somewhat theoretical sections providing some fundamental precepts, then concludes with five sections offering more concrete discussion of particular varieties of verbal poker tells. Despite Elwood’s invitation to read the book in whatever order one chooses, it is probably better to start with those initial sections, then perhaps move around within the latter five to find areas of particular interest.
I say that because the initial sections — an “Introduction,” one providing “A General Theory on During-Hand Talking,” and another covering “Deception and Truth-Telling” — do a nice job defining both terms and concepts used throughout the book while also improving the reader’s understanding of certain behavioral tendencies that help clarify players’ motives when talking at the table with an explicit purpose to influence action in a hand.
The introduction runs through various types of table talk, factors affecting verbal behavior, and difficulties of interpretation, the entire subject being presented (like in Reading Poker Tells) with warnings about overemphasizing the importance of verbal tells. The next section’s “general theory” then explores how hand strength and the stage of a hand (early or late) can relate to verbal statements. The discussion of deception in the following section then shares some fascinating observations about human psychology, including exploring how most us prefer not to lie if we can avoid doing so (and how we prefer not to be caught in our lies, too).
Then comes five sections breaking down dozens of types of table talk, categorized as “Misdirections,” “Defensive Statements,” “Significant-Bet Verbal Patterns,” “General Verbal Patterns,” and “Information-Gathering and Manipulation.” These sections are each lengthy and go over much ground, covering what seems like every imaginable type of verbal tell.
For example, the section on verbal tells associated with significant bets includes more than two dozen varieties, ranging from expressions of levity, uncertainty, irritation (with an opponent and with the hand/situation), relief, strength, weakness, and more. Various situations are also specifically presented and addressed, with examples of actual hands punctuating each subsection along the way.
“What Do You Think I Have?”
Hand examples come from Elwood’s own experience, hands he’s witnessed or that have been supplied to him by others, and a number drawn from televised poker from the past decade. From the latter group come many hands devoted watchers of TV poker will recognize, with that sense of familiarity perhaps adding extra enjoyment to reading through the examples as Elwood helps clarify the meaning behind the chatter that entertained us when watching Poker After Dark, High Stakes Poker, Live at the Bike, coverage of the WSOP and EPT, and other shows.
There’s something highly pleasurable in reading these discussions of hands involving intriguing table talkers like Daniel Negreanu, Phil Hellmuth, Antonio Esfandiari, Eli Elezra, and Jamie Gold. While Elwood acknowledges in an appended disclaimer that televised poker sometimes encourages exaggerated behaviors (thus introducing problems when analyzing verbal tells), his use of these examples is nonetheless effective as convincing illustrations of types of verbal tells.
Many familiar speech-related moves are covered here, including favorites like “I’ve got a good hand,” “I’ll show if you fold,” and “What do you think I have?” among many, many others. The copious use of actual hand examples contrasts with Elwood’s first book which included a few memorable hands but more often explained various behaviors and patterns without such specific reference. Here one finds hundreds of hands used as illustrations, a decision that makes sense given the usefulness of actual quotations when discussing, say, statements of impatience, probing questions, comments about board cards, speech errors, expressions of concern, and so on.
As noted above, some may find themselves picking and choosing from these examples which help swell the book to more than 400 pages (nearly twice as long as Elwood’s first), not necessarily reading through all of them once a particular type of verbal tell has been understood.
More Than Meets the Ear
It might seem as though with Verbal Poker Tells the author has found himself burrowing deep into what some might consider a niche within a niche within a niche, having chosen to focus on just part of what is already a narrow area of poker strategy. However, Elwood’s insights regarding both hold’em strategy and human psychology have value that leave a deeper impression than would be the case with a less studied collection of tips about table talk.
By inviting readers to focus in particular on what players say about hands and the manner of their expression, Elwood also allows us to think in constructive ways about actions associated with those statements, thereby fitting his advice within a broader strategic understanding. Both experienced live players and those just starting out with “brick-and-mortar” poker should find much of value in Verbal Poker Tells, making it a worthwhile addition to one’s poker library.
Verbal Poker Tells by Zachary Elwood is available in paperback and e-book formats via Elwood's website. You can also pick up a copy through the PokerNews Book Section by clicking here.