Tuesday, April 13, 2010

Read 'Em And Reap

So I finally got around to buying (thank you Amazon.com!) and reading the poker tells book "Read 'Em and Reap", which is sort of co-written by Phil Hellmuth and a well-known FBI interrogator type who teaches the reader all about things like high confidence mannerisms, pacifying behaviors and limbic responses as applied to reading people in live poker games. I actually feel about it very similarly to how I feel about Mike Caro's Big Book of Poker Tells, in that both were very interesting reads and each presents a ton of information that, at least theoretically, should be useable at the poker table by just about everyone. The problem I end up having with even the truly good poker tells books out on the market today is that ultimately I feel like they present tells in a far too recognizable way, making them largely inapplicable in actual practice IMO.

For example, "Read 'Em and Reap" has a great discussion of micro-movements, which the author explains as automatic and fairly immediate responses hardwired into the human brain's limbic systems, which generally cause human beings to flee from bad events, while silmutaneously causing us to physically get closer to good ones. Thus, when the flop is turned up and a player's eyes immediately are averted for a millisecond before returning to the table, this player generally was not helped by the flop. Whereas, the guy who immediately becomes more alert and even starts leaning ever so slightly more forward, towards the middle of the table, is the guy to be afraid of on that flop. This all makes good sense and the discussion of the genesis of this automatic human response is pretty good in the book I think, but ultimately my issue with this -- and with many of the tells touched on specifically in this book as well as Caro's -- is how often do people at the poker table really exhibit this tell? Theoretically it sounds great and all, but does it work more in interrogations because of the pressure situations, or maybe I'm just not seeing as well as I should or something, but I barely ever see this particular tell exhibited in practice, nor do I believe I myself am micro-gazing away from the table every time I see a bad flop. I would tend to put this in the category of very rarely seen, although I do believe in the reliability of this particular tell.

Shortly after reading this particular passage of the book, I was actually at a casino playing in a live poker tournament, and I literally saw this look-away move happen in live practice (but it's probably the only time I've recognized it a great many live sessions). It was early in the Foxwoods $1500 buyin event I played last month, and the player two seats to my left open-raised preflop from middle position, getting called by the calling station in the small blind. The flop came raggy -- 973 or something, no flush or straight draws worth worrying about -- and the initial raiser to my left bet out around 2/3 the size of the pot. The station -- of course -- quickly called. The turn was an offsuit 6, and the guy to my left led out again for around 2/3 the size of the current pot. The small blind hesitated briefly, and then called again. When the river brought a non-threatening Queen, the guy to my left very clearly looked clear to the left side of his vision for a second as soon as the Queen fell, and then he quickly regained his composure and led out again for a nice big bet. The station called him down with pocket Jacks and took the pot, with the initial raiser showing AK. I figured as soon as I saw that look-away that this guy was weak, and I surely knew Mr. Station didn't have it in him to fold to another river bet, and when the guy bet out I knew I would have called him down with a medium pair in that spot. So I have definitely seen this one in practice and I tend to believe it if it is immediate and quick -- as described in the book, this is the way the human limbic system works -- whereas a longer or slower look-away tends to be more likely acting and likely indicative of a stronger rather than weaker hand.

"Read 'Em and Reap" does not spend the long period of time focusing on "weak means strong, and strong means weak" like Mike Caro (absolutely correctly) does, because it's just not quite that kind of book. Instead, the discussion in this book focuses more on physical tells, like the one I mentioned above, although the author covers bodily tells literally from head to toe. Another interesting point made in the book is that the trustworthiness of a particular physical tell generally decreases as you get closer to the head. So, for example, the author argues that foot tells are the most reliable there are. Then he gives examples like if the feet go to a "ready" position, or suddenly start bouncing or are elevated in any way after something happens (the flop falls, a player looks at his hole cards, etc.), the player likely has a good hand. Similarly, if the player makes a bet but then hooks his feet around the legs of his chair, he may be bluffing. After foot tells, the next most reliable body parts are the leg -- bouncing, stretching, etc. -- followed by the hands and the arms. The face, argues the author, is simultaneous the most richly expressive and yet the least reliable part of the body when it comes to trusting in physical tells that you may pick up.

In all, "Read 'Em and Reap" was in my view a pretty interesting book and I'm not unhappy I read it. Whereas Mike Caro focuses mainly on example after example in support of his "Strong means weak, weak means strong" overarching theory of tells, this author's overarching theory is more the hardwiring of the evolved human brain and the many, many things it makes us do when we become either highly confident or very unconfident about something. The examples are robust, and just like Caro they come with specific photo illustrations of each type of movement being discussed, but ultimately I still believe that both books are really of limited actual poker application. I find many of those tells to be fairly reliable ones -- mostly because I believe in the overarching theory of both authors of the two poker tells books I have mentioned in this post -- that most physical tells you see at a poker table are either hardwired autoresponses that are largely involuntary, or acting designed to get you to do exactly what your opponent wants you to do. But in the end, and despite my one example above from Foxwoods, I just don't tend to see these sorts of physical mannerisms nearly so often in actual practice to make it a significant part of what I do when I play live poker. Sure, I get tells all the time whenever I play live poker from everybody around me. But my tells are more of the empathic type I have mentioned here previously -- trying to get in the other person's head, discerning the timing of their bets, the size of their bets, their betting patterns, and their general demeanor during the hand to figure out exactly what they're thinking. And I suspect ultimately this is what most other successful poker players do as well, despite "Read 'Em and Reap" being an enjoyable read.

Just skip every single shaded box where Phil Hellmuth weighs in with a story, each of which is a complete and total waste of time, each its own self-serving made-up brag post. It would be difficult to imagine a bigger horse's ass than the Poker Brat.

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Blogger OES said...

the doctor school/piss story was pretty cool.

8:26 PM  
Blogger Thorn said...

Nice post, a lowly poker student like myself is always on the lookout for good poker books.

Interesting title, too. "Ream" 'em and weep, eh? I didn't know you were that kinda guy...

12:45 AM  
Blogger Mike Watkins said...

I read the same book, and had about he same thought. Interesting reading (sort of), but not going to really help in a live game with good players.

3:00 AM  
Blogger MooDotSki said...

Long time lurker, love reading your blog. Your tourney reports are superb quality and I look forward to reading more of them.

The reason I'm posting is to wholeheartedly agree with your summary of this book. I did read Hellmuth's comments, but mostly didn't pay much attention to them. I have seen little bits of tells with some of the low level players I play with, so they are useful, but not to the point where it's game breaking. Donkeys will still call (and hit) with their draws!

Keep up the great work here!

4:58 PM  
Blogger BigPirate said...

When I was reading it, I kept wondering how I was supposed to see everybody's feet.

8:55 PM  

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