“Exploiting Poker Tells” Review

[LL] “Following Reading Poker Tells (2012) and Verbal Poker Tells (2014),” Leroy the Lion began, “Zachary Elwood’s third book, Exploiting Poker Tells, came out in 2017 in response to readers’ requests for more examples, which make up the bulk of this book.”

[RR] “Please tell me all about it”, Roderick the Rock requested.

[LL] “Having previously written 666 pages on poker tells, you’d think Elwood would be out of material, but various new tips appear throughout, while discussions on tells with several poker pros add a different perspective. Mostly though, while the two earlier books focused on spotting and deciphering tells, Exploiting Poker Tells tries to show you what to do once you have, with examples from over 130 live poker hands from Elwood’s own play, other players’ recollections, and televised events. No-Limit Hold ‘Em dominates the examples with some Omaha mixed in. The events range from low buyin amateur cash games to $25,000 WPT Championship hands between top pros and cover a wide variety of tells, organized into Pre-Flop, Flop and Turn, and River sections. The Flop and Turn section is about as long as the other two put together not only because it covers two streets but because those streets are more interesting tells-wise. Pre-flop tends to be more straightforward, while the river involves bigger bets but no longer has draws to deal with.

Elwood, who consulted for Amir Lehavot and Max Steinberg during their WSOP Main Event final table runs in 2013 and 2015 respectively, is a former cash game pro who has become the poker tells guy, belatedly replacing Mike Caro a generation later. Even so, he concedes that tells aren’t 100% reliable and usually affect only a few hands per session, less than once per hour, even for an expert like him. Tells are more prevalent in lower stakes games with weaker players and in cash games, where players tend to be more relaxed than in tournaments. The quantity of tells in the book definitely makes it seem like they’re frequently useful, but these have been collected from years worth of play. Actionable tells can sometimes be more frequent if a particular player has a regular, blatant tell though.

Elwood states, ‘An opponent’s behavior should only infrequently sway your decision. For the most part, your decisions should be based on fundamental strategy.’1 He also stresses that most tells are player-specific. In the same exact situation the same tell may mean one thing with one player and the opposite for another, so it’s important to keep track of how each player behaves.

Elwood’s nuggets of wisdom include this river advice: ‘This is a spot where I know I’m calling but I think there can be value in waiting a few seconds and observing an opponent before calling. It’s a chance to observe a player’s behavior when you know you’ll get to see their hand.2

On the other hand, the biggest flaw in some of the sample hands is that Elwood never finds out what his opponent has, so his analysis remains pure speculation. Removing these hands would have increased the overall quality of the book, which is pretty high nevertheless.”

[RR] “I can tell you liked the book.”

[LL] “Yes, but not as much as his first two, which were more organized and thorough. This format can be more educational depending on your learning style, and the material is certainly less dry.

This is really a book where you won’t learn much from highlights or a summary; you really need to go through all of the examples, as there’s something in practically every hand that may be useful to you.”

The last section is a 57-question quiz, which is probably easier to take as an online quiz, since the scoring is done for you. The downside is that for answers you get wrong, you’ll need to look at the answers in the book for the page numbers where the topic is covered (an odd omission for the online quiz). If you don’t have the book, you can still take the quiz, and your score will reveal if you’d benefit from reading it.

Elwood claims that this is his final poker tells book, as he’s shifted focus to videos, which can be a better medium for learning tells. Exploiting Poker Tells, like the other two books in the trilogy, doesn’t have photos (let alone audio or video), which is unfortunate.”

Title Exploiting Poker Tells
Author Zachary Elwood
Year 2017
Skill Level any
Pros Explains how to use tells with many real-life examples. Ends with a long quiz that will reveal whether you need to reread this book (and maybe his earlier ones as well).
Cons Not as educational as his first two books. In several hands, he never finds out what cards his opponent holds, destroying the value of those examples. No pictures or videos to show what the tells look and sound like.
Rating 3.5

Footnotes:

  1. Page 14. “Some inexperienced poker players can have an inflated, unrealistic sense of what is possible with tells. So I want to reiterate: tells are a minor part of plying strong live poker.
  2. Page 173. “You might notice something that may be useful later on. It’s a chance to build a read.”
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“Beyond Traps” Review

[LL] “Another year, another book”, Leroy the Lion continued. “James McKenna followed up Beyond Tells (2005) and Beyond Bluffs (2006) with Beyond Traps in 2007. This is at least one book beyond how many he should have written, and it’s beyond me why he thought a trilogy was necessary.”

[RR] “I suppose you aren’t beyond words though?”, Roderick the Rock suggested.

[LL] “That was probably going to be the name of his fourth book, to keep the clever naming consistent. Unfortunately, McKenna is consistently awkward; he refers to ‘table bracelets’ (what the rest of the world calls WSOP bracelets) and the ‘national championship’, which is actually the World Series of Poker Main Event. He denigrates Mike Matusow, who ‘has never won a bracelet at a winning table’.2 What does that even mean? The Mouth had already won two WSOP bracelets between the time the book was written and published and has added two more since.

My favorite parts of the book are the ones that had nothing to do with poker. He relates inspirational sports stories about miler Glen Cunningham, long distance runner Emil Zatopek, diver Greg Louganis, and speedskater Joey Cheek.”

[RR] “But why are they even in the book?”

[LL] “Maybe because he couldn’t shoehorn then in to either of the first two? Actually, they fit in with the sections that belong in a self-help book: ‘Nine Characteristics of Winners’, ‘Heads of Winners’, ‘Shoulders of Winners’, ‘Bodies of Winners’, and ‘Foundations of Winners’. But this isn’t even a decent psychology book that happens to mention poker. I know my own writing isn’t beyond reproach, but it’s beyond question that you can safely skip this book and not worry that you missed anything.”

[RR] “Beyond doubt.”

Title Beyond Traps
Author James McKenna
Year 2007
Skill Level any
Pros Some interesting applications of psychology to poker if you haven’t read either of the two previous books in the series.
Cons Not much value added over his first two books. Often awkward or inaccurate when talking about actual poker hands.3
Rating 2.0

Footnotes:

  1. Star Trek: Beyond didn’t come out until 2016.
  2. See page 9.
  3. For example, on page 39 McKenna discusses having a $5,400 stack with blinds at $2,000 and $4,000, a state in which you should never find yourself except in the rare case of losing an all-in to a very slightly smaller stack. And on page 49, he refers to King-Four as having a bad kicker despite the board having given the player two pairs.
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“Beyond Bluffs” Review

[LL] “Just one year after publishing Beyond Tells,” Leroy the Lion began, “James McKenna thought the poker-playing public was ready for a sequel.”

[RR] “I take it we weren’t”, Roderick the Rock inferred.

[LL] “No, but it wouldn’t have mattered if he’d waited a decade. Beyond Tells was already fairly repetitious, so when Beyond Bluffs repeats what’s in the first book, the tedium is painful. ‘Response-Able’ playing and ‘Bluffing Styles’ both reappear, although the latter gets much more coverage. The 27 tells from Caro’s Book of Poker Tells appear in both books, this time listing the bluff counterparts.

On the plus side, most of his examples have changed from Seven-Card Stud to Hold ‘Em, albeit mostly Limit Hold ‘Em. Unfortunately, McKenna’s grasp of Hold ‘Em is significantly weaker. He repeatedly uses terminology awkwardly or incorrectly, like calling the river the ‘Hold ‘Em Card’, labeling a short-stack’s preflop shove of King-Queen a ‘bluff’, and describing being a ‘Calling Station’ as a ‘technique’.”

[RR] “Well, technically it is bad technique.”

[LL] “If you can ignore the pure poker parts of the book though, McKenna’s expertise in psychology does come through. He takes the four poker player quadrants (Reserved vs. Responsive crossed with Receptive vs. Aggressive) from his first book and applies them to both sides of the bluffing equation. He explains what types of bluffs each type of player is likely to try, and what types of bluffs each type is most susceptible to. This is by far the most useful part of the book and makes it worth reading.

Forced to choose, you should read this book over McKenna’s first one,1 but if the two books could be combined into one and reduced to about a third of the total pages, that book would merit four stars.”

Title Beyond Bluffs
Author James McKenna
Year 2006
Skill Level any
Pros Decent if you haven’t read McKenna’s first book, adding useful information comparing player types to bluff types.
Cons Fairly repetitive of his first book. Often awkward when talking about actual poker hands.
Rating 2.5

[LL] “But wait, there’s more…”

Footnotes:

  1. I nevertheless rated the first book higher, assuming that you would read the books in order.
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“The Poker Tournament Formula 2” Review

[LL] “In 2008, Arnold Snyder followed up with The Poker Tournament Formula 2, one of the most controversial poker books ever written”, Leroy the Lion opened. “Where The Poker Tournament Formula focused mostly on fast-paced tournaments, PTF2 turns to longer, slower events (40+ minute blind levels). The central premise of PTF2 is that in poker tournaments, each chip you gain is worth more than the one before it.”

[RR] “Wait, isn’t that exactly the opposite of what guys like Sklansky and Harrington say?” Roderick the Rock contested.

[LL] “It is. Snyder’s Fundamental Law of Chip Utility is: ‘The more chips you have, the more each of your chips is worth.’ (Corollary: ‘The fewer chips you have, the less each of your chips is worth.’) Unfortunately for Snyder, his ‘law’ fails at the edge case. It’s undeniable that having one chip is worth infinitely more than having zero chips.”

[RR] “A chip and a chair.”

[LL] “But otherwise, Snyder’s logic mostly makes sense given the top-heavy payout structure of most tournaments. He wants you to build your stack at the expense of busting out more frequently.1

Snyder himself stoked the flames of the controversy by posting several articles online, but the reality is that the combatants can mostly just be viewed as the Loose Aggressive camp (Snyder) vs. the Tight Aggressive (Sklansky, Malmuth, Harrington, et al.) camps. A decade later, Snyder’s style is certainly more popular, but both are still completely playable.”

[RR] “I thought you were supposed to mix up how you play. Not that I know from personal experience.”

[LL] “There’s plenty of room for both Harringbots like you and Snyderites like Carlos the Crazy to succeed, but yes, it might be ideal to be a chameleon and tighten up just when your opponents think you’re loose (and vice versa). But you’ve only played in small, fast tournaments, which is not what Chip Utility really applies to. Snyder believes that you need to have over 100 big blinds for ‘Full Utility’. The range goes down to 15, under which you have ‘No Utility’.

Utility Chip Stack % Utility
Full Utility Over 100 BB 100% Utility
Competitive Utility 60-100 BB 75% Utility2
Moderate Utility 30-60 BB 50% Utility
Low Utility 15-30 BB 10-15% Utility
No Utility Under 15 BB 0% Utility

Your first goal is to have Full Utility. But beyond that, you strive for ‘Dominant Utility’, which is when your Full Utility stack is also double the second biggest stack at your table and at least four times the average. Then you can bully the table.”

[RR] “You don’t even start our tournaments with Full Utility, so I guess I’d have to try this out somewhere else.”

[LL] “The second major section of TPF2 gives a formula for the Tournament Utility Factor, which is the Patience Factor (see TPF1) times the Starting Competitive Factor, which is your starting stack divided by the initial big blind divided by 60. This lets your rate tournaments on how deep they are:

Tournament Utility Factor Rank Notes
0 to 5 Rank 0 Crapshoot
6 to 20 Rank 1 Need to build big stack early or bust trying; crapshoot by midpoint
21 to 40 Rank 2 Full Utility allows Small Ball early only
41 to 60 Rank 3 Small Ball early but ideal for Long Ball
61 to 100 Rank 4 Deep stacked, speeding up about halfway through
101 to 200 Rank 5 Full Utility; Small Ball until final table
201+ Rank 6 Full Utility throughout.”

[RR] “So our tournaments are about… Rank 2?”

[LL] “Yes, that’s what I calculated. It’s not bad for an evening tournament, since we can’t play all night…, at least most of you can’t.”

[LL] “The other main section of the book is ‘Five Phases of a Poker Tournament’, which shows you how to apply his utility factor to the Stack Building, Minefield, Bubble, Money, and Final Table parts of long tournaments. It’s a very long section because for each of the five phases he covers what you should be trying to do with various stack sizes. In summary though, try to get back to full utility or die trying!

[RR] “I take it you liked the book though.”

[LL] “Yes, I think it’ll be good for my game. The main weakness of PTF2 though is that Snyder didn’t put enough into the mathematical foundation of his system. He might have found a way around its zero-chip paradox and come up with a more accurate way to calculate utility. Otherwise, it’s a lot of interesting material to think about. It would certainly help you open up your game a couple notches.”

Title The Poker Tournament Formula 2
Author Arnold Snyder
Year 2008
Skill Level Advanced
Pros Thought-provoking, alternative view on how to play deep-stacked tournaments.
Cons Controversial premise. If you agree with it, this is a great book. If not, you should still read the book to see how some of your opponents might be thinking. Not mathematically grounded with few hand examples.
Rating 3.5

Footnotes:

  1. Snyder strongly believes that quadrupling your stack early in a tournament is worth busting out three out of four times for. This is one of his many points in his rebuttal of his critics.
  2. This number is interpolated. Snyder’s numbers in general are vague. He adjusts his utility percent up or down by as much as 25% for circumstances like having an aggressive player on his left or a weak player on his right.

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