Book Review: Read ‘Em and Reap

Phil Hellmuth Presents Read ‘Em and Reap: A Career FBI Agent’s Guide to Decoding Poker Tells
by Joe Navarro,  Marvin Karlins,  Phil Hellmuth

Although retired FBI Special Agent Joe Navarro is the primary author of this book, the largest name on the cover is that of Phil Hellmuth. This establishes the tone of the entire book, whose very valuable core content is surrounded by an equal amount of fluff, hero worship, and self-promotion.

Most successful online poker players already possess a level of poker knowledge well beyond that of the target audience for most poker books, particularly with regard to the strategic and mathematical elements of the game. It is in the realm of psychology and reading people where most of us are lacking, and so studying tells is one of the best things the average internet player can do to improve his success in a live setting.

Mike Caro has already written a seminal text on the subject, Caro’s Book of Poker Tells, and I was slow to read Navarro’s book on the mistaken assumption that much of it would be old hat. I was pleasantly surprised to find that Navarro has in fact managed to take both a fundamentally different approach to thinking about tells and to examine many new categories of tells that receive little if any treatment in Caro’s book. These include tells related to feet, hand, mouth, and eye movement.

Whereas Caro draws an important distinction between tells from actors and tells from non-actors and devotes more of his book to the former, Navarro focuses almost exclusively on the latter. He begins by establishing the physiological foundation of unconscious tells in what he calls the limbic brain. As he describes it, the limbic brain “react[s] to things that are heard, seen, sensed, or felt. It does so instantaneously, in real time, without thought; and, for that reason, it gives off an honest reponse to information from the environment.”

When confronted with stressful situations, such as those in a high stakes poker game, the limbic brain prepares the body to freeze, fight, or flee. In later chapters, Navarro goes on to detail how these limbic responses manifest themselves in instinctive body movements. These chapters, which form the core of the book, contain numerous photographs and written descriptions of the tells he has in mind.

Perhaps more importantly, Navarro always returns to the physiological motivation for a particular tell, which presumably will aid in interpreting not only that exact movement but also others of a similar kind. Thus, he has a chapter on “Gravity-Defying Tells” which gives examples of how raised eyebrows, hands, nostrils, or feet all indicate strength, whereas a decline of any of these body parts indicates the opposite. As a result of Navarro’s thorough explanation of the reason for his interpretations, one can easily imagine similar tells coming from the knees or shoulders that are not explicitly considered in the chapter. The insights he offers promise to pay off well beyond the specific information he provides in the book.

Still, it would have been nice to see more individual tells covered in detail in a 213-page book. Some of the other content, such as the section of physiology and the section on how to avoid giving off tells of your own, is well worth including. Indeed, much of the value of this book comes from the perspective from outside of poker that Navarro is able to bring to his interpretation of tells. He establishes context for the phenomena he discusses by drawing connections to such disparate subjects as the behavior of juries during courtroom trials, the responses of Mission Control to the Apollo 13 crisis, and his own experience interrogating witnesses and suspects.

Other chapters, most notably “What You Should Know to Vanquish a Pro,” contain advice that is irrelevant to the subject of the book and sometimes downright bad. For example, should you find yourself playing with Phil Hellmuth or Lyle Berman (Navarro’s examples, not mine), he assures you that “you’re going to be in awe of this player…. Don’t be afraid to exhibit a bit of hero worship and even deferential behavior to this living legend when you first meet him or her.”

Read ‘Em and Reap certainly does not shy away from hero worship. It is peppered with references to the greatness of Annie Duke, TJ Cloutier, and of course Phil Hellmuth, who is allowed to conclude nearly every chapter with a self-absorbed rant about some amazing laydown he made based on a recently analyzed tell. Moreover, the index shows Camp Hellmuth referenced on no fewer than 13 pages, almost always in a shamelessly promotional context about how great the staff is or how quickly attendees were able “to win back their seminar costs and much more.”

Navarro also spends much of his clunky introduction (what I consider to me the real meat of the book doesn’t start until page 79) overselling the value of the information he’s about to present. The most blatant example of this is the “Hellmuth Tournament Poker 70-30 Rule”, which states that 70% of tournament poker is tells. I’m not even certain what exactly that is supposed to mean, but I’m sure it’s wrong. There’s no getting around the fact that, Hellmuth’s anecdotes aside, tells are almost exclusively useful as a tie-breaker when facing a close decision.

Still, it’s by far the most underexploited aspect of the game by the average internet donkey, and I found the meat of Navarro’s book very valuable for this reason. It’s well worth working through the corny packaging and shameless self-promotion to find smart analysis of dozens of new tells that, to my knowledge, have not been discussed elsewhere in print.

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