“My overall view of the experience of working with [Zachary Elwood] is and was very positive… I learned a lot and think I will learn more about live tells… I feel I got fantastic value.”
– Amir Lehavot, 3rd place 2013 WSOP Main Event
I’ve been hired as a poker behavior consultant by two World Series of Poker Main Event “November Niners” (i.e., final table players). In 2013, I worked for Amir Lehavot, who got third place. In 2015, I worked for Max Steinberg, who got fourth place.
The work involves accumulating and studying the existing WSOP footage of that year’s November Niners, and footage from other televised/streamed tournaments those players played in, to look for possible behavioral patterns. Because there are often very experienced players at the final table, my focus is on 1) the least experienced players, and 2) the players with the least live poker experience.
The other major part of the job is watching the final table live (15-minute delay), as it occurs, to look for patterns. Then I send any noteworthy thoughts to my employer’s private Skype channel or text group, to be checked at their convenience.
It’s a pretty unique assignment: as far as I know, I’m the only person who’s ever been hired to study tells in such a high-stakes setting.
Here’s a quote from Max Sternberg about my work:
“Hiring Zach for the WSOP Main Event Final Table was a huge help in getting a feel for each of my opponents. By the time we were done going over all his research, I had a fantastic feel for everyone at the table. I went in feeling comfortable that I would be able to make the right reads. Because of the way the Final Table played out, our work together did not end up playing a huge role. But I think working with him was a very important part of my preparation and I would absolutely recommend him to anyone about to play a big final table.”
– Max Steinberg, 4th place 2015 WSOP Main Event
My opinion is that poker tells analysis, when preparing for a big tournament like the WSOP Main Event, will most likely not be a big game-changer. (There are a few reasons for this.) But I do believe that such analysis can, depending on how things play out, be hugely important. This is because there is so much money at stake, and even if something reliable is found infrequently, the times it is found and made use of, it will have a huge impact. When small edges can greatly increase your expected value, it can make a lot of sense to cover your bases by hiring someone dedicated solely to analyzing one specific aspect of the competition.
For an example of the kinds of patterns I look for when studying high-stakes footage, here is a video I made that features a reliable tell from the 2011 WSOP Main Event champion Pius Heinz (you can skip to 3:50 for when it starts talking about Heinz). Heinz was an experienced online player but he was new to live play, which was one of the reasons I set out to study him, as I was confident I’d be able to find something significant. The pattern I found on Heinz is the most reliable tell I’ve ever found in such a high-stakes poker environment. The fact that I found something this reliable in such a high-pressure setting proves the value of looking for the tells, no matter how rare they may be. (And they are more common than many people believe; it’s just that many people don’t know what to look for or don’t have the inclination to compare footage like I do.)
Very reliable tells like this are admittedly rare amongst tough, experienced competition; much more common are tells that have around 65-75% reliability, which is still quite useful, especially for close, borderline decisions.
I’ve also done a little bit of personal coaching, if there is some poker footage to study. Below is a quote from a local Portland-area player who appeared on Live At The Bike and who hired me for a few sessions where we studied the footage and discussed his behavior and his opponent’s behavior:
“I’ve found personal training from Zach to be a valuable addition to my growth as a poker player. In my session, we reviewed footage from a live cash game I was in. I gained insight into the process of how he goes about observing players, establishing a baseline, and then assigning meaning to player behavior. In addition to work on tells, I found our discussion on poker strategy and theory incredibly helpful as well. He was able to convey concepts and work with me in a way that really gave a boost to my thought process at the table.” — L. Vitasovic, semi-pro poker player
I’ve also been hired by a high-stakes California cash game player (he asked to remain anonymous) to analyze his behavior. We recorded footage of him playing with me and his poker-playing friend and looked at different spots. (More thoughts on using video below.)
Analyzing yourself for poker tells
For players who want to analyze themselves for behavioral “leaks,” there are a couple possible methods.
One method would be to set up a video camera and to play a heads-up freeze-out game with someone (Elwood or another player), with the camera recording the player being studied. To simulate a serious, high-stakes environment, the player being studied would need to have a meaningful amount of money on the line. (This could be accomplished even in a play-money or low-buy-in game by having the player, if he were to lose, donate a significant amount of money to a cause or movement that he/she viscerally dislikes. This is an example of one way to stimulate the necessary mental and financial incentive for a player to want to avoid losing even if a lot of money isn’t on the line.)
After the game, I’d analyze the footage, looking for possible behavior patterns and making a detailed report of possible areas of interest.
If you were featured in a televised poker event, or are going to be featured on a live stream or other broadcast in the future, I could study the footage and produce an in-depth analysis.
Analyzing opponents for poker tells
For someone interested in analyzing a specific opponent for behavioral patterns, this would only be possible if there were a decent amount of existing footage of the player or players in question.