Marvin Karlins has had a long career as a business professor, a consultant and trainer for airline companies, and a writer and cowriter of numerous books and articles, many related to gambling and/or psychology. In the poker world, his biggest claim to fame is that he was the author of the book Read ‘Em and Reap, along with his co-writers Joe Navarro and Phil Hellmuth.
I talked to Marvin recently about his experiences writing that book, and a few other things. This is an edited transcript of our talk.
Elwood: How’d you get into the gambling/poker world?
Karlins: I started out as a craps degenerate. I got a Vegas divorce in 1971, and ended up staying out there for a while. I say I got screwed twice; once by my wife, once by lady luck. I was playing a lot of craps. I wrote a lot of articles for Gambling Times. [You can read one of Marvin’s old articles here.]
I got into playing tournaments for fun when I started losing too much money at craps. Poker had the appeal; it had excitement; it had the potential for a large cash. You could put down $300 or $1000, and unless you had a bad beat, you could have five to six hours of play and be assured of a limited loss. So it was a defensive thing so I could still enjoy gambling and not lose my bankroll.
I’ve always loved the social aspect of the game. I was playing poker at Derby Lane, in Florida. I sat down at a $5-10 cash game; for me that was a small game compared to my usual craps game; it wasn’t a big deal. The guys were so nice to me. As soon as they’d see me, they’d be very friendly. I thought, “These guys really like me.” But it turned out; I was giving them 1099s at the end of the year. I was basically their food source.
Elwood: How’d you get contacted for working on Navarro’s Read ‘Em And Reap book?
Karlins: It was a group in Canada, a publishing company called Post Oak Bluff. They were interviewing me and some other writers. They told me, ‘You’re hired’. They didn’t know I happened to live in the same city as Joe. So we got together. My job was to translate what Joe knew from doing forensic work in the FBI and apply it to poker. He’s a very bright guy, sharp guy, and he picked up on it real quick. We were a good team. I’d played poker long enough to understand basic concepts.
Joe was not a poker player. He hadn’t played poker. But he knew behavior, and that’s universal. When you’re interrogating someone, you’re trying to find out the truth and what they’re trying to hide. And that’s what you’re trying to do at the poker table.
Joe provided the information and I translated it into poker. Like if someone was talking in French and I translated it into English. Some ideas were mine. But mostly it was Joe; he was providing the input based on how he would tell whether someone was lying or telling the truth. When you look at a person and you ask if he was bluffing or did he hit his hand, that’s really what it comes down to.
At that time, I would always joke; “This was Mike Caro on steroids.” There were certain great things that came out of this book. I liked the way Joe linked it all together with the limbic system. Poker players are pretty cerebral. I think they liked the idea of tying the practical info to a theoretical, philosophical framework, like: this is the way the nervous system works. Like “Happy feet”; you look at how people’s feet or legs are moving; not many people were looking at people’s feet. You can tell if they’re bouncing up and down.
Elwood: That was one of the most valuable things I got from that book. I hadn’t thought much about that before reading that. What about Hellmuth’s role on the Read ‘Em and Reap book?
Karlins: Hellmuth had basically no role in writing the book. He wrote the preface; he had some introductory stuff. He gave the credibility factor: “I endorsed the book.” Unlike what some people think of him, I find him to be an incredibly capable player. He’s not as annoying as someone like Kassouf. That guy’s just downright… Hellmuth is a legitimately competitive guy. Away from the table, he’s a nice guy. But he really does take things personally, so part of that’s real. Like Mike Sexton said: “Nobody fights harder for a World Series bracelet than Hellmuth.” If you look at Hellmuth, he’s taken Joe’s advice seriously and that’s why he has that stance. If Hellmuth’s doing that, speaks to importance of hiding these things.
Elwood: What about other gambling or related books you’ve worked on?
Karlins: Navarro’s second book, I worked on him with. It was a general behavior book. “What Everybody Is Saying.” It really took off. 23 foreign editions. Around $20 million in royalties for publisher in total.
Another FBI guy whose book I helped with: The Like Switch. We just put this out last year. This one is about how to get people to like you. For example, if someone doesn’t like you, they might place obstacles between you and them. If you’re on a date, and a woman puts a handbag or a vase on the table; it’s these types of blocking behaviors. Like with prisoners; if they’re warming up to you, they won’t block you with their eyes or with objects, there’ll be more congruence and cooperation. Little things; the way they say things. Certain ways people will speak indicate inner tensions and feelings. Considering the person once you get w/ polygraph, gotta get baseline. Need baseline for each player. Some are a lot more expressed than others.
Elwood: Any other thoughts on poker tells?
Karlins: In today’s games, I’d say at least 50% of players are not watching the game at all. They might be “watching the game” on TV, or checking their iPads or cellphones and scrolling. Some are studying the game a bit. But the concentration on the game: I think you need this to be able to pick up on tells. Between Mike Caro, your books, our books; there’s a lot of good info out there to look for. “Knowledge without action is knowledge wasted.” Most people are just not willing to take the time.
You can follow Marvin Karlins on Twitter at twitter.com/TheDuckman22.