Learn.PokerNews Interview: Zachary Elwood, Author of ‘Verbal Poker Tells’
Last week we reviewed Verbal Poker Tells, a new book by Zachary Elwood that focuses in particular on how certain verbal patterns can prove highly revealing as hands play out.
Elwood’s first book, Reading Poker Tells, was well regarded by many in the poker community, earning praise for its contribution to the topic of tells. With Verbal Poker Tells he’s again provided a lot of concrete advice to players looking for help understanding the meaning of what their opponents are doing at the table, in this case particularly focusing on their table talk.
I recently had the opportunity to speak with Elwood about the writing of Verbal Poker Tells and how it builds upon his earlier work.
Learn.PokerNews: After writing Reading Poker Tells, what gave you the idea to write a second book about tells at the table?
Zachary Elwood: After the first book got some good reviews and feedback, I started brainstorming about doing some kind of follow-up. I’d initially thought about doing a video, but decided that would be a little difficult to pull together, and so thought I’d do a second book. Of course, it would need to be unique. I considered how no one had really focused explicitly on verbal tells and decided that might make an interesting topic to explore.
LPN: Tell us about the process of writing the book. Were there any surprises as you got further into the subject of verbal tells?
ZE: Going in I didn’t think the subject would be that complex. But the more I focused on it and found things that were meaningful, the more I realized verbal poker tells was a complicated area to investigate. I took a lot of notes on games I played, watched a ton of televised poker, and also got a lot of hands sent to me from others.
I’m much more proud of this book than the first one. I’m also proud of the work that went into getting all of the transcriptions exact and my descriptions as accurate as possible. I also think the advice is probably a little more practical and helpful than with the first one.
LPN: The examples do a great job hammering home the various points you make about particular verbal patterns — you have a lot of great evidence there to support your observations.
ZE: I thought also the hand descriptions would be entertaining to read even apart from my analysis. I thought even if people didn’t like what I had to say about the hands, people would still find it interesting reading about these players they’ve seen on TV and could draw their own conclusions from the table talk.
LPN: It was fun to read about hands I’d remembered watching — such as that Jamie Gold-Sam Farha aces-versus-kings hand on High Stakes Poker — and also to be shown how the chatter during those hands was revealing and in fact often related to common verbal tells.
ZE: When you really start to study what people are saying, you might have a long stretch of ambiguous language that is hard to decipher. But then in the middle there will be a few specific statements that fit into patterns that many people exhibit. For example, in that Gold-Farha hand they’d go on and on, then one would throw in a goading statement which suddenly narrowed his range to something very strong.
Another one that everyone else talks about is that Daniel Negreanu-Antonio Esfandiari hand from HSP where I found multiple patterns being exhibited. When Negreanu shoves on the flop with second pair and Esfandiari makes a sound and Negreanu says “That was nice to hear... Whew! I wasn’t sure if I had you or not,” it’s such a clue that Negreanu is doing that with a middle-strength hand. It’s so unlikely that someone is doing that in a tricky way.
For those who don't remember the hand, here it is (from Season 1 of High Stakes Poker):
There were several other patterns in there that were interesting. That was probably one of my favorites — I discuss it more than once in the book — because it illustrates so many different verbal tells. There were a lot of interesting hands, though. The original manuscript probably had five times the number of examples for each section, so it was hard to whittle it down to keep the book from being ridiculously long.
LPN: Part of what makes this topic even more fascinating to me is the fact that I have a background studying and teaching literature, so I have always found the process of examining texts and parsing language interesting.
ZE: I feel the same way. I’ve been a writer my whole life and so have a love for language and studying it, too.
LPN: Has writing the book affected your own play?
ZE: Absolutely. I’m picking up so much more from what people are saying. I am still noticing patterns, too, that I didn’t necessarily focus on in the book. For example, when somebody is getting ready to make a bet or raise and without hesitating asks an opponent “How much do you have behind?” or something similar, that’s often a sign of strength. Somebody who is bluffing rarely asks that question. That’s one I’ve been noticing lately, and I think studying the subject so intensely has helped me continue to focus on these kinds of verbal patterns.
LPN: In the introduction you mention one goal of the book was “to establish a system and a terminology for talking about verbal behavior” at the poker table, and you do just that with the categories you create and terminology you employ. How do you think you did in that regard?
ZE: I think I did pretty well. I identify and define things like the “strong-hand statement” and “weak-hand statement,” which I think are fairly unique. Even when I talk about “misdirections,” that’s not a new term but I think I use it and apply it somewhat differently than others have before. I delve a lot more deeply, too, into the specific patterns, going a lot further than the standard “strong means weak” and “weak means strong” generalizations.
LPN: How would you respond to someone picking up a book about verbal tells and considering it too narrow of a topic to explore in such detail?
ZE: It does seem super specific, but in fact being able to understand verbal tells can be very valuable. I think people talk way too much at the table, especially in low-stakes cash games. They talk less in high-stakes games and in tournaments, but even there sometimes they will. I try to keep it friendly and will talk a lot, too, but during a hand I’m very aware of what I say. But most people are not, and they give away clues all the time as to their holdings.
Much thanks to Zachary Elwood for taking the time. You can follow him on Twitter @apokerplayer. Verbal Poker Tells is available in paperback and e-book formats via Elwood's website, or you can pick up a copy through the PokerNews Book Section by clicking here.