Tim's Reviews > Phil Hellmuth Presents Read 'Em and Reap: A Career FBI Agent's Guide to Decoding Poker Tells

Phil Hellmuth Presents Read 'Em and Reap by Joe Navarro
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Mar 17, 2012

really liked it
bookshelves: nonfiction, poker, reviewed
Read in January, 2007

Quite brilliant--despite Hellmuth's participation.

Since a couple people noticed my super-shorthand gloss on the book (I'm actually not a Hellmuth hater; I met him once, and he is a nice guy), I pasted my original text of a review for Card Player magazine back in 2007 (I think):


“You see, but you do not observe.”

Read ’em and Reap: A Career FBI Agent’s Guide to Decoding Poker Tells by Joe Navarro (with Marvin Karlins), Harper Collins, $18.95

It was the great fictional detective Sherlock Holmes who said to his partner and chronicler Dr. Watson: “You see, but you do not observe.” That could be the mantra of former FBI agent Joe Navarro, who has spent his career observing people and the nonverbal cues—the tells—they give off. Over the past two years, Navarro has applied his formidable intelligence and relevant experience to poker, and the result is a book that every player should read.

Even casual players know the idea behind tells, and students of the game are no doubt familiar with Mike Caro’s groundbreaking Caro’s Book of Poker Tells. But Navarro’s book is valuable precisely because he is relatively new to poker. His specialty when he was an FBI agent was on nonverbal communication and behavior analysis, and his insights into how people respond in interview situations are directly applicable to the poker table. Navarro met Annie Duke 2004 while both were guests on a TV show about humans and lying, and it was her ability to see through other people that got him thinking about poker. Then Phil Hellmuth enrolled the former FBI man as a speaker at his poker fantasy camp.

In an introduction to Navarro’s book, Hellmuth makes it perfectly clear how important tells are: “Success in the game is 70 percent reading people and only 30 percent reading the cards (understanding the mathematical and technical aspects of the game”). People may quibble over those percentages, but after reading Navarro’s book, I suspect Hellmuth is pretty close. I also suspect great players already know how to decipher tells and read players, even if they can’t articulate exactly what they’re doing. But even they will learn something from Navarro’s book—as will the rest of us.

After articulating the importance of observation, Navarro explains some of the physiology (and even the evolutionary biology) of tells. The brain’s limbic system is what reacts to outside stimuli (it tells us to fight, flee, or freeze in the face of danger), while the neocortex—the thinking part of the brain—is what makes conscious decisions. (The neocortex also allows us to lie, while the limbic system “gives off an honest response to incoming information.)

How does this apply to the poker table? An example: Bluffing is, for most people, a frightening experience; we’re afraid of being caught. The implicit danger causes some people to “freeze because they feel threatened and don’t want to be noticed.” They hold their breath, stop fidgeting, sit straight up in their chair. The observant player will notice this, and use it to help make a decision. Another example is “the flight response”: our desire to get away from sources of danger. “You’ll draw nearer to the table…when you have a great hand and draw back when your hole cards are bad.” There’s a third innate response to dangerous situation: fight. “At the poker table,” he writes, “the fight response often takes the form of aggression.” While aggressive betting is typically good; aggressive behavior, Navarro argues, is less so. (And if you’re the victim of a table bully, you have to ignore him—and it’s almost always a “him.”)

It’s one thing to pick up on tells (and I’m convinced anyone can improve his or her ability to do so). It’s another to avoid giving off tells, and Navarro devotes a considerable amount of space this topic, providing a systematic approach to establishing and controlling your table image (not your betting image, but the image you present through posture and movement). Develop a system for looking at your hole cards and making your bets, and never vary (Hellmuth is superb at this, as is Chris Ferguson).

The most fascinating chapter in the book was about what Navarro calls “the most honest part of your body”: your feet. Again, it’s an issue of evolutionary biology: “Our feet and legs not only react to threats and stressors, they are also reactive to our emotions,” he writes—think dancing, nervous foot-tapping, stomping feet at a sporting event. (You can’t really check out another player’s feet, but movement of the shoulders will often reveal if a player is a exhibiting “happy feet.”)

Navarro describes and interprets dozens of physical gestures and tells, from the pursing of the lips to what people do with their hands while waiting to bet or seeing if they’ll get called. And it doesn’t take a great deal of live poker experience to believe he knows what he’s talking about; the real challenge, of course, is knowing when to use the tells you do pick up to make decisions. Tells are a factor in your decision-making, but they are most reliable in the context of “baseline behaviors” (for example, older players often have hand tremors, so shaking hands don’t tell you much about the strength of their cards). And tells are remarkably unhelpful when dealing with players who are clueless. (If a player truly believes his top pair is good with a board showing three cards to a flush or a straight, he’s not likely to exhibit tells that suggest weakness or fear.)

The material in this book is insightful and useful. My only criticism is with the style of the prose, which occasionally strives much too hard to be clever (for example, a subhead that reads “A Rise in the Feet Means the Cards Held Are Sweet”; that’s just painful to read; I’ve never met Joe Navarro, but I’d lay quite a wager that he doesn’t talk like that and doesn’t write like that). Lots of poker promise to pay for themselves; for those who study it carefully Read ’em and Reap will also certainly be a money-maker.
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