Learning from Zach Elwood

Zach Elwood

This blog post initially appeared as a guest post on Zach Elwood’s blog at ReadingPokerTells.com. For the best information about poker tells, check it out.


Whenever I am in the middle of any sort of significant downswing, I make a point to study the technical aspects of the game as much as possible while also seeing if anything else is going wrong with my game.

In this blog post, I will discuss how poker tells helped me claw out of my biggest downswing to date and also list ways you can use tells to improve your game.

About a year ago, I was down almost $400,000 from my highest career profit peak. While this sort of downswing should be expected when playing $10,000 tournaments on a regular basis, I was not happy about it.

I made a point to brush up on some of the fundamentals (I suppose it is worth mentioning that “fundamentals” for me likely means something different than what it means for the majority of players) and decided to start working on actively paying attention to physical tells at the table. I tried to focus on studying my opponents diligently but eventually I lost interest when nothing really came of it.

True genius. © CardPlayer

True genius.
© CardPlayer

Recently I did a webinar with Phil Hellmuth, who simply must be one of the best readers of tells. He seems to instinctively know how to react to the tells as well as how to induce his opponents to do what he wants. In our webinar, he discussed using physical reads to his advantage when winning the 2012 WSOPE. This got me thinking a bit more about physical tells. I knew I was going to run a series of live seminars during the WSOP and I wanted to find a tells expert to present with me, mainly so I could learn from him. I had read “Reading Poker Tells” by Zach Elwood in the past and I was confident he was the man for the job.

Everything came together and recently I did my first seminar with Zach and Elliot Roe, a hypnotherapist who works with numerous high stakes poker players to essentially keep them sane both at and away from the table. Take it from me, staying sane is DIFFICULT. Anyway, I made a point to learn as much as possible from both Zach’s and Elliot’s presentations. I am still, and will always remain, a student at heart.


The next day, I was set to play a $1,500 WSOP event. While all tournaments are important to me, in the grand scheme of things a $1,500 event isn’t too relevant to my overall results. I decided to approach that tournament with one goal in mind. I was going to find and exploit a physical tell. The first part of the difficulty I have in finding tells is that I have constantly struggled with actively paying attention at the poker table. I have no problem following the action but quite often, I will “wake up” at the end of a hand and have no clue what happened. Other times, I will watch a person without actively quantifying in my head what I am seeing. This also leads to poor results. I have found that when I vocalize in my head what I am seeing at the table, I both spot more differences in my opponents’ physical mannerisms and I remember them better.

On this particular day, I was playing with two players whom I perceived as “excellent” and one player who was blatantly bad in an overly aggressive way. I decided to spend most of my conscious mental energy finding tells on each of them. Against one of the good players, whom I knew to be fairly loose and aggressive from playing with him in the past, I noticed he typically threw in his bets like this:

Figure A

Figure A

I will call this Figure” A”.

After around an hour of play, I noticed him throw his chips in like this:

Figure B

Figure B

I will call this “Figure B”.

While I was not sure what the difference meant, it likely meant something. A little while later, his chips went in the pot again in the Figure B manner and he showed up with A-A. This, of course, led me to believe that Figure B betting was likely a premium hand. I decided to test this out by reraising him as soon as he put out a Figure A bet, which happened an orbit later. His snap fold to my reraise provided me infinite giddiness.

Over the next few hours, I witnessed him display this same chip pattern over and over. Finally, when everyone got short stacked, which is guaranteed to happen in fast-structured small buy-in WSOP events, a loose, aggressive kid raised to 2 big blinds from middle position and the guy on whom I had the tell reraised Figure B style to 5 big blinds from middle position. I looked down at my cards and found the beautiful Ah-Qh, which is normally a premium hand, given I only had 15 big blinds. Without much thought, my Ah-Qh quickly found a home in the muck. Luckily my read was justified when both players got all-in, with the guy who was “obviously strong” in my mind scooping a nice pot with K-K. Paying attention at the table and learning from Zach just saved me about $1,500 in equity, which is WAY more than the $499 cost of the seminar. I fully expect to see returns much larger than that in the long run.


Since that day, I have been making a point to focus on tells with a decent amount of success. I recently cashed for around $14,000 in the $5,000 WSOP PLO event thanks to making a few (what were hopefully correct) big folds and one hugely optimistic call for a ton of chips with a marginal made hand on the river when I was correctly confident that my opponent had a hand he thought was weak. Despite these successes, I still have a major problem focusing. I have found these three tips help me pay attention to the actions that matters:

1. Keep my phone in my pocket. Although I have a ton of business things going on at all hours of the day, I must keep my phone in my pocket when I am at the poker table. The real world can wait. If you are constantly on your phone, watching TV or reading a book, you are guaranteed to miss important action.

Zach's book. Check it out!

Zach’s book. Check it out!

2. Silence the music. I have a difficult time keeping my eyes turned on while I am listening to music. When listening to podcasts or audio books, I might as well have my eyes closed. It is amazing how, at least for me, using my ears turns off my eyes to some degree. The music also makes it difficult for me to actively quantify what to do with the information I observe.

3. Stay still. I have found that when I shuffle my chips, my brain turns off. Although shuffling chips is strongly ingrained in me as something “I always do” at the poker table, I have been making a point to stop. So far, when I am using my mind to watch the poker instead of play with my chips, I pick up more reads.

All of this is to say that the information Zach gives is invaluable. I am excited to continue learning from him and applying what he teaches. While I can’t read people as well as Phil Hellmuth yet, with diligent practice, I hope to become as good as him some day.




  • Emma Goldman says:

    Jon, hi, I love betting tells. Thanks for your great piece. I try to regiment how I bet. I never throw chips as most do. I routinely place them. Last night I flopped a flush. My O checked to me. I made a single-chip bet into a small pot. But I tossed it. Not thinking. It was a move to telegraph indifference to the board. Anyone paying attention could see it was utterly out of character for how I bet and was in fact a huge tell. I didn’t even realize it myself 🙂

  • Mannes says:

    I play plenty of low stakes, live tournaments ($50-$150 buyin). At this level, there is so much free information given by the players, that physical tells are almost secondary. For example, most of the players are chatterboxes, either showing hands or telling everybody what they had post-play. Some players flash their cards to their neighbor before folding (clearly breaking the show one show all rule). Others vary their betting amounts by hand strength in a consistent and predictable pattern.

    But nevertheless, I usually make an effort to pay attention and see if I can get physical tells. No phone or music is my default practice. I have now started to follow every hand and try to range each player based upon the action and tells. I’m finding that as a result, these tournaments are getting easier for me to decipher, and that I’m cashing at a much higher rate. Following this blog, I’ll start looking at chip placement style – this is an interesting concept.

    Another thing I’ve started to do is use a cap and hoodie. I’ve never used sunglasses (my vision is bad), so this helps me craft a consistent look, hiding any eye movement tells I give off – since when I lower my head, most opponents can’t see my eyes. Of course, I have to do this consistently and control other body movements.

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