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Best of Clare Fitzgerald

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"Reading Poker Tells" video training is a researched look at human behavior

22 April 2016

Not too long ago — I won't say exactly when, because you don't need to know how lazy we are — the editorial department here at Casino City was given a review membership for the Reading Poker Tells video training series by Zachary Elwood, author of Reading Poker Tells and Verbal Poker Tells. Since I am the beginningest player in the department and therefore the one that most needs the help, I figured I'd take it.

Patterns and exceptions

The 19 (at the moment) videos in the series are structured pretty consistently, hovering around 13 minutes long apiece. Each starts off with a video clip that features the tell in question, then the clip is replayed and dissected. The footage is mostly from the Windy City Poker Championships, although clips from other televised poker events are also featured. The quality of the footage is not always stellar — especially anything that was aired before HD became a thing — but it's still easy enough to follow. Elwood walks us through what each tell means, the psychology behind it, how reliable it is, the practical applications of noticing the tell, and any major caveats or exceptions to the general pattern. The series doesn't overpromise, which I am inclined to take as a mark of credibility.

While the series focuses on one tell each video, there are several psychological commonalities among the behaviors examined, and I wonder if the videos could be grouped at some point when there are enough of them to warrant additional organization. As it is, they're designed to stand alone, so you can watch whichever ones you have questions about first, if you're so inclined.

I watched the entire series straight through in release order, then went back and watched it all in order again. The second watch-through was important, because while the concepts are broken down clearly to the point of redundancy, there's still a lot of information to absorb.

Watching them in order was helpful, because there is a natural progression in the series' development. The behaviors covered earlier in the series are more general behaviors, are supposedly more reliable, and indicate easily-applicable things like "probably has a strong hand" or "probably has a weak hand." The caveats tend to be commonsense things like "This behavior will be more obvious for less experienced players; more experienced players may be more behaviorally balanced." The later videos in the series start to tend toward less reliable tells with more nuanced meanings, such as "has a strong but not invulnerable hand," and the caveats become things like "This behavior is mostly true for at least somewhat experienced players; inexperienced players are likely to do all kinds of weird stuff instead." So while some patterns carry through the whole series — the "weak means strong; strong means weak" one being the most frequent — their most basic applications are covered first. Some clips crop up more than once, when a player is demonstrating a constellation of related behaviors; I think this is actually pretty useful, since one of the points Elwood stresses is that individual tells may be context- or player-dependent, so you can be more confident if you see multiple related behaviors going on at the same time.

Bring your own attention span

The other reason I had to watch the series twice was that I kept finding myself getting distracted the first time around. While the information is presented straightforwardly and simply, it's not prettied up to be especially engaging.

I am, after a bit of thought, reluctantly OK with this. I'm a pretty firm believer that life is short and the world is big so everything should be 100% entertaining all the time, and my prejudices are supposedly backed up by some science, as prejudices often are. On the other hand, if you can't derive your own enjoyment from watching people try to look carefully neutral at a poker table for three hours, you're probably not the audience for this video series anyway. It's very much an instructional tool, not edutainment. Having an interest in human behavior already helps; I find the inner workings of people to be intrinsically fascinating, but if you're bored by the non-math aspects of poker this is probably not going to be the thing that convinces you psychology is thrilling.

If you're like me — either with a background in media criticism, or just enormously judgmental — you may have a tendency to amuse yourself by noticing elements in the setting that are not strictly relevant to the game, such as "Who let that dude in front of a camera with that hair" and "A Goosebumps T-shirt! I loved those books when I was nine!" In this case, the videos also provide valuable practice in paying attention to the things you need to be paying attention to instead of playing art critic for the universe.

The onscreen text is generally free of typos and grammatical errors, so that is one type of distraction that is blessedly not present, which is not necessarily a given in poker media. I would have been professionally distracted instead of regular distracted had that not been the case.

Time to keep studying

The most important question, of course, is: Did it help? That, I'm afraid, I cannot really answer yet. I could find plenty of parallels between what was being discussed in the videos and times I'd gotten into bad spots in games I've played, but whether that will translate into me being able to apply these concepts correctly in the future is going to require that I play a lot more and, most likely, watch at least some of the videos again.

While the videos are pretty accessible to a little fish like myself, they clearly aren't actually aimed at raw beginners. A little poking around the Internet uncovers some positive reviews from people with a lot more poker experience, so I feel confident that the information actually is good, rather than just sounding reasonable.

Moreover, the information covered here doesn't seem to overlap much, if at all, with the information I'm seeing from other educational(ish) poker material that I've been coming across lately — honestly, it looks like Elwood is basically the only person currently doing a lot of in-depth work on the subject at all so the main competing study materials for strengthening your ability to read opponents in live games would be Elwood's two other books and the seminars he occasionally holds. (While Mike Caro spent decades analyzing and writing about poker tells, he is not nearly as prolific as he once was; Elwood agrees with some of Caro's theories and disagrees with others.) The ability to see real-life examples is certainly one argument for the videos over the books; I'd have to go read the books to find out if they're more in-depth enough to outweigh a lack of visuals. But I will say that I'm pleased enough with the quality of the work here that I am finding myself inclined to go do so — and not just because of my desire to procrastinate learning about math.
Clare Fitzgerald

As Casino City's copy editor, Clare diligently proofs articles, columns and press releases posted on the Casino City family of websites, as well as the entire library of print publications produced by Casino City Press. She has editorial experience in several industries, but gaming is the most fun so far. She graduated from Clark University in 2010 with a degree in English and Creative Writing.
Clare Fitzgerald
As Casino City's copy editor, Clare diligently proofs articles, columns and press releases posted on the Casino City family of websites, as well as the entire library of print publications produced by Casino City Press. She has editorial experience in several industries, but gaming is the most fun so far. She graduated from Clark University in 2010 with a degree in English and Creative Writing.