The allure of deciphering behavior, with Rounders screenwriter Brian Koppelman

A talk with screenwriter/producer Brian Koppelman, known for many movies and TV shows, including the poker movie Rounders, the show Billions, and the series Super Pumped: The Battle For Uber. He’s also the host of the podcast The Moment. We talk about: his initial interest in poker; how they got the idea for Rounders; poker tells in Rounders; the allure of figuring out what people’s behavior means; the difficulty of reading behaviors in most real-world situations; and the anxiety-reducing benefits of transcendental meditation.

A transcript is below.

Episode links:

Resources related to our talk:


Zach Elwood: Welcome to the People Who Read People podcast with me, Zach Elwood. You can learn more about it, and sign up for a premium subscription, at

On this episode I talk to Brian Koppelman, who you may know as the writer of the poker movie Rounders, and the creator and writer of a bunch of other shows and movies, including the show Billions, and the recent series about Uber called Superpumped. Brian also has his own podcast called The Moment, and he’s interviewed a ton of interesting people, including celebrities, TV and movie writers and creators, and quite a few poker players. 

One reason I wanted to talk to Brian is because I once, years ago, wrote a blog post about other poker tells in Rounders besides the obvious Oreo cookie tell. Basically some of the things the characters said during the hands mapped over to common verbal patterns that I’ve written about in my poker books. You can find that blog post of mine on or by searching for ‘more poker tells in rounders.’ You might enjoy checking that out before listening actually. So I wanted to ask Brian about that stuff.  

Other topics Brian and I discuss are: what led him to working on Rounders; his childhood interest in poker; his interest in behavioral clues, which I’ve found seem to feature prominently in his work; the difficulties of reading and interpreting behavior in real-world situations; the potential meanings of someone wearing an old Full Tilt poker hat; the downsides of being too confident in thinking you can read people; why you should watch David Mamet’s movie House of Games; his interest in transcendental meditation and the benefits he’s found from that; and his thoughts on what it takes to conduct a good interview.
You can follow Brian on Instagram at @briankoppelman. His website is at

Okay, here’s the talk with Brian Koppelman.

Zach: Hey, Brian, thanks for joining me.

Brian Koppelman: It’s my pleasure to be here with you. As I’ve mentioned to you, I’ve read your stuff and I find it fascinating, compelling, and useful.

Zach: Thanks, Brian. It’s a big honor for you to say that and for you to join me. I’m excited. Maybe we can start with… I’ve watched a good amount of stuff, including “Rounders” and “Billions” and I watched the Uber show recently, “Super Pumped”. And I noticed, I could be imagining it, but it seemed like there was a theme of reading people that was above average in your work. For example, in Billions, you had several instances of Mason getting reads on people and these kinds of things, and some of those clips I uploaded to social media because I found them fun and interesting. Am I right in sensing that you’ve had a longtime interest in people’s behavior and finding clues in the people’s behavior?

Brian: I loved when you put that stuff up on Instagram or wherever else I came across it because it’s always fun. But more than that, it’s rewarding when someone who’s sort of a domain expert picks up on something that you’re doing. And a domain expert whose work you’re aware of. And so for me, that was super cool. It was like, yeah. And for David, when I say me, I’m always talking about David Levien as well, my partner in doing this stuff. Because when I say ‘we’, think about things like domain experts. You know, you’re not making the show, you’re not making the piece of art for people who are experts in whichever particular domain might surface, but you are aware of the fact and we are aware of the fact that if we can get it right in a way that those people notice, then it’s possible that something about the authenticity of that will land for people who just instinctively understand it. Because a lot of that stuff, you know, we go through our lives whether we’re aware of it or not. And in a way, at the beginning, you’re at a disadvantage if you are, “Okay, I can read people. I am now going to pay attention.” In a way, that takes you out of the thing we do as human beings, which is absorb information, process and synthesize that information, and come out with our own behavior. Right?

And so we can get better at that through conscious work, for sure. But we all do it to varying degrees of excellence or non-excellence. And I do think we’ve always been interested in it. As a human, when you start to realize that verbal exchange… Now, it’s great we talk about verbal exchange. When you start to realize that people don’t always… A, they don’t always know what they mean. B, they don’t always say what they mean. Sometimes, they say something close to what they mean, but really what they’re doing is saying something because there’s an end they want to get to. And when you start to realize that there’s information and there’s disinformation, I think it’s useful– or we realize at a certain point– it’s useful to try to open yourself up to be able to apprehend what’s really going on.

Our work features that because we like to write about characters smarter than we are, more attuned than we are, and those kinds of people have the ability to recognize these micro-moments. And I would say, as you are without doubt, David and I are people who read Mike Caro’s work super closely 30 years ago. And “The Book of Tells” began a conversation for us. I mean, really, it began watching the con artist movies and reading about cons, and reading about lying and the way people can catch liars. But then Mike Caro codified in an earlier way or a way that maybe hasn’t been as tested or scientific at the time, but there are certain foundational things Caro talks about. Like first divine, whether somebody is trying… Somebody is aware of the fact that they might be able to reveal themselves. Okay, if they know that, do they think you’re the kind of person who would know people reveal themselves? Okay, do they think you’re watching closely? If they do think you’re watching closely, are they going to try to give you a false signal? And all that stuff when we were young was so fascinating.

Also, the questions that it raises, the work raises these amazing questions. Because I can distinctly remember the first window of time I was playing in high stakes for me no limit games. And there’s this one hand that’s haunted me because the person who I was in a hand with was a really dramatic, very high, strong, dude. He wasn’t intentionally trying to use stuff in “Book of Tells” to throw me off. And he made a giant bet and did a very dramatic look in my eyes. And I knew from Caro that he was bluffing, but I hadn’t yet internalized it. So I knew. And it was this terrible moment for me because– and I’m sure you’ve had this in the beginning of figuring all this stuff out– it was like being a sociologist in a way, but not being able to master myself. Because he makes an all-in bet, my ego is on the line, it’s late at night, it’s way before Rounders, and it’s just the beginning of figuring all this stuff out. And he puts me all in. Back then we’d say tap, you know? He taps me and I look, and he does this dramatic like almost puts his face right in front of mine. And I know, fuck, the book says you’ve got to call, he’s bluffing. But I couldn’t do it. I couldn’t do it. And I folded and he showed the bluff. And it was this amazing moment of, “No, you got to actually do the work now to internalize it to incorporate it. You have to play this out if you’re going to engage with this stuff.”

It’s one of those things. You say this, and when you talk about the verbal tells, Zachary, in one of your books, most of the time you come up empty. It’s a lot of trawling and there’s nothing there. That’s also important to recognize, the other side of it. Right? Not to fool yourself into believing that you’re hearing or seeing something that’s not there. Or you’re picking up on a subtle piece, but you know what? I don’t actually have certainty here. Maybe it now takes me from 54% to 55%. That’s not enough to really shift my behavior. I’m an amateur, but I find it incredibly fascinating and compelling. It certainly makes sitting in a meeting or in a poker game that much more compelling, right? That’s why it finds its way into the work, I think.

Zach: Now, was that interest in… I think it does get to the crux of drama some of these. You’re talking about the Caro things of somebody implies they’re strong and they’ll be more likely to be weak, or somebody implies they’re weak and they’re more likely to be strong. It is such a crux of fictional drama of people giving false signals about what they want to other people. And I was curious: which came first, if it’s possible to say? Was it that aspect of poker, like deceiving other people? Did that really interest you from a fundamental narrative and drama perspective? Was that part of what drew you toward it?

Brian: One of the things is like, who can find their way to the truth? I would say it’s not about the deception. It’s not as much about the deception, it’s about who is able to see clearly. Who’s the hero who can see clearly what’s going on in the world? Because don’t we want to be… You know, we all want to think, as human beings, that we can walk into a room and understand the dynamics. But if you put three people in a room, there’s no way you can understand the dynamics. This is not a political statement, but Barack Obama– as a human, forget him politically. I’m a huge Barack Obama fan but that doesn’t matter. The point is you get the sense that there are certain people who their intellect and their life experience made them have to use their intellect in a way that they learned how to decipher systems and systems of human interaction and behavior so that they could harness it in a way. Yeah, I’ve been fascinated by this for my whole… Not my whole life, but for a long time. Look, I grew up in a house where my dad had poker chips and he gambled too much on sports, and conversations about whether one could really have an edge were conversations that certainly happened. But I have a question for you, which is, what’s the extent of your ability to turn it off? Someone who spent so much time studying the way humans revealed themselves, the ways they try to resist revealing themselves, the way they use themselves for advantage or not, I just would imagine that a lot of interactions that you have become kind of freighted with this knowledge you pick up, whether you want to or not, or is it, “Okay, I’m tuning in, or I’m not tuning in.” How does that function for you?

Zach: Yeah. I think for one, I’d say that I’m quite humble about real world applications of these things. There are certain things I will get clues from, but a lot of times there’s a lot of noise in real-world things where it’s hard to say, “Oh, did they say it for this reason, this reason, this reason?” And I’ve written about that, too, of there’s a lot of these so-called behavior experts who will spout off confidently about like, “Oh, what does it mean when they said such and such or did such and such in an interrogation or interview setting?” But I think in a lot of those cases, there can be a lot of noise and a lot of ambiguity. But I do pick up good clues, and I’ve actually thought about writing a book or something about little clues and workplace or colleague intercommunications. Because I do see a good amount of that kind of stuff interpersonally and professionally and stuff. But I think the times that you’re certain about that stuff are few and far between. And oftentimes, it’s like poker too where it’s kind of just supporting something you already guessed or there wouldn’t be that much amazing insight behind it anyway. But I do think the verbal stuff is really powerful. I like to tell people, if you’re really interested in understanding behavior and getting information out of reading stuff like Mark McClish’s book, “I Know You’re Lying”, which is about interpreting verbal statements, hidden meanings in verbal and written statements, that stuff’s just much more powerful than trying to use nonverbal physical behavior.

A quick note here that I have a previous episode, one of the most popular ones, where I interview Mark McClish about searching for hidden meanings and statements. Back to the talk.

But yeah, it’s also just something too where, like, I’m not going to… It’s kind of a politeness to… It wears you out also to think about it too much, too. There’s a few reasons why you just may not be always on and thinking about at full bore or such.

Brian: Yeah, because people lie so much. And if you go through life constantly looking— sometimes they’re lying because they think it’s the kinder thing to do. Sometimes they’re lying because they can’t bring themselves to have to face whatever it is. And I just imagine if you’re someone who’s studied this the way you have, it might be at times. This gets to what you’re inching away. Like when you’re a writer of the kind that I am, I’m always trying to look through other people’s eyes. I’m always trying to empathize through their point of view. So, I’m thinking about if I had the skill set that you had, your hard-won skill set, I’m thinking about what it must be like. It’s like the way I’ve studied con artists, I can sometimes see things coming. It’s also like, people, I think, often we as humans, don’t want to necessarily… Let’s say you can divine… You know, someone you like says, “Hey, I have a special invitation, I want to give you something,” you want to believe it’s a special invitation. You don’t want to believe that they’re bringing you there because it’s going to serve them or their need. It’s easier to just think, “Oh, isn’t that sweet?”

Zach: Right, you don’t want to know. You don’t want to delve too deep.

Brian: Yeah. You want to go like, “Oh, it’s sweet that they thought of me,” instead of going like, “Ugh, special invitation, I know what that means.” You know? It’s easier to just kind of flow through. Right? So character-wise, people who are going to be vigilant with themselves and say, “No, you know what? I’m going to do the hard work of that kind of vigilance because the enterprise needs that,” and then they get certainty too. Because you’re 100% right, and often, the information is faulty. Someone could say three McClish buzzwords, and actually not be fucking lying. The good player knows to take a step back and look at the… I heard those words, what that should do is awaken you. That should awaken you. Now, take a look. Now, put all the other elements together. As opposed to just going, “Oh, that guy’s full of.”

Zach: Like in real life, too, you have to weigh the risks, the dangers of being wrong, right? Even if I think this might make it more likely, for example, if I think somebody said something in real life non-poker situation and made me think that they’re not telling the truth, there could be major downsides to accusing someone of lying, right? So you have to think about what is the actual usefulness, even if you suspect it may be true. These kinds of things. Yeah.

Brian: Yeah, I was going to… It’s funny, we’re not doing this on video, but I happen to be wearing a very old– I bet you this is a 17-year-old, and it looks all beat up, really old, Full Tilt Poker hat. If we were on video, I was going to say to you like, “It’s a perfect kind of thing.” Because what is it? It could have no meaning wearing that hat to someone who’s in the world of poker. It could mean I don’t really know the significance of what they did and who got hurt. It could mean I’m telling you I don’t give a fuck about… I was going to say it’s like one of those things where, “Or it could literally just be I grabbed the hat that’s been in my closet, and I didn’t look at that and I put on my head.” It could signal a lot of different… Wearing that hat, to somebody… Basically, wearing this hat in the world to the gym is meaningless. But wearing the hat talking to someone in the world of poker is meaningful, or could be meaningful. And I was going to ask you about it. So, the answer is I’m fascinated by this shit and that’s why I write about it. Because semiotics are fascinating, man. Especially figuring out what the semiotic signal is, and who’s aware of iconography and who’s not aware of it, and all sorts of ways. You know?

Zach: I think it gets back to something you said about its good to be a bit humble and not be overconfident in these things. Because, like we said, there can be so many meanings. So I think in the real world context, there’s a real value to sitting back and being like, “Well, I’m not going to reach any confident conclusions without good reason.” Because yeah, there just can be so much noise in these things and it can make you a bit neurotic to start thinking like, “Oh, I’m going to definitely be a Sherlock Holmes and pull out all these minute conclusions about things that I could convince myself are right but they’re wrong.

Brian: Yeah. I was reading something the other day where someone said– someone I like, someone I respect wrote a post about how to tell if you’re not in a good game, basically. How do you know if you may be sitting with people? And I thought it was really great. They said just because they’re wearing a hoodie and glasses doesn’t necessarily mean—

Zach: They’re a pro.

Brian: It could mean they’ve just watched TV. But then one of the other things was the way they handled chips. And I’m not sure. Because a lot of people play now enough poker that they know how to handle chips.

Zach: Right, they can rifle them and such. Yeah.

Brian: You know? I mean, I could do a lot with chips. I can really rifle them… If you sat with me to poker play, you would know I’ve played thousands of hours of poker. But I don’t know that that would tell you that I’m a winning poker player, or what level winning poker player. Maybe it would just make you pay a little bit of attention to me. What would it tell you, though, if you sat at a table– cause I want to know– and some dude or woman was wearing what was very clearly a really weather-beaten beat-up Full Tilt Poker hat? Would you imagine? Would you sort of ascribe anything to it?

Zach: It’s getting back to some of the things we talked about, like you said, there could be multiple interpretations. I think the thing I would jump to immediately is they’ve probably been playing for a while, no matter what that tells you. They could have got it at a thrift store, sure, but it’s probable that they’ve been playing for a while. But again, like you’re saying, does that mean they’re good? Or maybe they just lost a bunch of money on Full Tilt back in the day and they’re still bad? I don’t know. Yeah, it’s hard to reach a conclusion sometimes.

Brian: Yeah. But also, you might be able to. There might be information in that.

Zach: True. True.

Brian: I don’t know. That’s why I find all this stuff incredible. And House of Games– I don’t want to downplay it– House of Games– you know, the ring and the fact that the ring was a fake, you know? The whole first sequence there. And anyone listening to this should watch that movie, David Mamet’s House of Games. And even though the poker is kind of bullshitty intentionally or whatever, the way that they talk about that stuff. I think I saw that movie in college and i was like, “Oh, this is important.” Because I was already playing so much poker and I was already so interested, but I for sure hadn’t found “Book of Tells” yet. I found “Book of Tells” a couple years later. I found [Doyle’s] book maybe right after that had some stuff about how to read people. It was more of a mythical thing. And I’m 57 years old, so back then when I was in college, I think most people would assume if someone looked you in the eyes that you had a hand. Of course, now it’s all changed. You really still have to figure out if the person’s been trained. If they’ve read. It still works, by the way. That one, Caro’s one thing, which was just often people will look away if they had a hand and look at you if they’re bluffing. If they’re not intentionally showing you that, if they’re not educated, or if they don’t know, that does… Ever since that moment when I was young, I can’t tell you the number of times that’s paid off for me. Once you can figure out if the person’s doing it how many steps away from the idiot they think you are, basically.

Zach: A quick note here. I didn’t want to get too in the weeds on this during the talk and interrupt Brian and I’s discussion. But I did want to mention that I do think eye contact after betting is a pretty complex area of behavior more complex than what Mike Caro wrote about. I actually think the reverse pattern is more common. Someone making a big bet, who’s willing to stare at you and make eye contact with you is more tied to relaxation and a strong hand than it is to bluffing. But there can, of course, be different patterns and it’s also possible that the pattern Mike Caro talked about– the opposite pattern of staring at people when bluffing– may be more common in certain player pools or maybe more common to the past. The most complete description of what I think about eye contact can be found in my final Poker Tells book, “Exploiting Poker Tells” Okay, back to the talk.

Zach: I was curious. I was reading something about your decision how you decided to work on Rounders. And maybe the article was wrong because it made it sound like you didn’t actually know that much about poker or hadn’t played that much before then and you just thought that maybe poker would make a really good subject.

Brian: Yeah, it’s 180 degrees wrong.

Zach: Okay. Yeah, that’s not surprising. I read so many wrong things online. So based on what you were just saying, I was like, well, that’s got to be wrong. Because it sounds like you were pretty familiar with poker when you decided to write Rounders.

Brian: I’ve written about this before, but when I was eight years old, I was at sleepaway camp. And there’s this word, it doesn’t mean what it sounds like, this word canteen. But it doesn’t mean a canteen you drink out of. Canteen is where you could buy things like candy and stuff. And then your parents would give you money that was your canteen money for the whole summer. I don’t know. Was it $12 or $9? Whatever it was back then. $20. But you had access to that money, but it was for this one purpose and it would be kept in an envelope in this bunk that I was in at camp. A bunch of these dudes played poker with my dad because he had these chips in the house. He had a carousel of chips in the house but he didn’t play poker much back then. More sports betting. But these bunkmates of mine knew how to play and we played and I got cleaned out. I lost my whole canteen money, gone. And it upset me so much that I was like, “I gotta learn what the fuck this game is.” And so I pursued poker a lot and in various ways over a long period. It was in my 20s when… In college, my senior year, every day we ended up playing a lot of hearts. That’s why Hearts got in “Rounders” in that one scene in the jail. But we were playing a lot of hearts, and also poker. And I learned really valuable lessons because this one friend of mine was better. And we played gin a lot but then I went and read some gin books. And when I got better, he stopped playing against me. And I was like, “Oh, that’s amazing. I don’t have that discipline.” You know? He was really good gambler and he was just like, “Oh, Koppelman got better than me at gin, so that’s an activity we’re not doing.” I would not have had that capacity at all back then. I did not have that kind of self-control as a 19-year-old. Not nearly, you know? This is the way the story got completed, I think. I loved poker, and I was in the record business and I got married young and I married the right person. So, a certain kind of activity, if I was on a business trip, was off-limits for me and happily off-limits. But still, there was time. And I found the bike and I found [commers] and I just started going to those places when I was 26 years old, 25, 24. I was in those places all the time. And it was amazing that that existed. David and I had not yet started… So when I was in [commers] and the bike, everytime I was in LA, I would go play. That’s when I started reading poker books.

Then a friend of mine, in the end of 1995– I know the date, December 15th, 1995– I was with a friend and I was telling him how much I love playing poker in LA. I was back in New York. And a guy I work with said, “Well, you know there are these underground clubs in New York.” And I said, “I’ve always heard about it and wanted to go, but I have no contacts or connections so I don’t know.” And he said, “There’s this guy who tangentially is in our business too, but really, he helps manage the Mayfair Club– which is this club on 24th Street– and I can get you in.” That was at a lunch on that day and that night I went. And this part, which is the part that you heard, I go to the Mayfair but not as a screenwriter, I go to the Mayfair because I can’t believe that this exists. I sit down with this guy, Joe Bagels. And the first night, I started first. And the way they spoke, I lost all the money I had. I maxed out my ATM card, like $700 or something. I don’t remember. I brought 400 bucks and then I lost another 350 bucks at the time. I wasn’t going to take credit from them. I wasn’t going to whatever. And I did leave there and call David. By then we’d been talking about trying to find something to write, and I did leave there and say, “I know what the movie we’re going to write.” Because we were already going to write about these two kids. We already had Worm. Worm’s based on a guy I went to college with. They were going to be gamblers of some sort. We already had the scene where the Mike character’s name who’s Matt then goes and finds Worm in a gym because I used to go to the gym in the middle of the night and break in to shoot baskets to clear my head. And that was something we’d always thought about. So we had this idea. But when I went to the poker club, that was when I and Dave were like, “Well, okay, but now we got to really dive in. Who are the characters? What do they want?” That’s when the process started.

Zach: Yes, I wanted to talk a little bit about this blog post I wrote 10-plus years ago about tells in “Rounders” and I’ll just describe it a little bit for people listening. So, everyone knows about the Oreo cookie tell in Rounders; Teddy KGB opening the Oreos indicating he has a strong hand. But there were some other behaviors in “Rounders” that were common tells that weren’t at the center of the plot. In this blog post of mine, I talked about examples of what I’ve referred to as disclaimers, which I later called missdirections in my book, “Verbal Poker Tells”. Basically, these were verbal statements that misdirect attention away from someone’s true reason for doing something. For example, at one point, the main character Mike says, “Yeah, I’m going to go all in because I don’t think you got the spades.” He’s implying he’s going all in mainly because he thinks KGB did not make the flush when actually Mike’s got a very strong hand so he’s misdirecting attention away from the real reason for him going all in. Another way to think about this is that it’s basically Mike Caro’s weak means strong, strong means weak patterns. I don’t know if we mentioned that yet. Mike Caro’s book makes a cameo in “Rounders”. I want to throw that in there too. There were a few more instances of that kind of misdirection in “Rounders”. One thing I was curious about when I wrote that blog post was if you were kind of aware of that at the time and just thought that we need to obviously have them talk in entertaining dramatic ways with each other, you know, to hell with whether that’s common and people might perceive that as a poker tell. Or was it maybe something you thought about afterwards and you’re like, “Oh, that’s actually something that is a common poker tell that happens a lot.” Would you care to share your thoughts on all that?

Brian: Well, I would say, if you go back one step further, why did Mike write about that? Why is that a thing that exists? It’s because it’s the thing people do. Not now. Not in 2024. But in a pre-internet world, people behaved. They just behaved how they behaved. They spoke how they spoke. They tried to gain advantage when they could gain advantage in those settings. And saying something like, “I don’t think you got spades,” as you know, it depends on how many [yardley]. Right? It depends on how many steps away from the idiot I think you are. So he could be trying to communicate to Teddy KGB, it doesn’t matter what you have, man. You could have the flush, I still can beat you because I have a full house. It could be a very sophisticated bluff. That can be a bluff if you know the other person is hip to what you might be doing. Right? Look, the the idea… We had read… I will say, at the time, I was talking to the person who owned the Gamblers bookshop in Vegas all the time and I was reading. I have this collection of books which I’m staring at it now. It’s a giant collection of poker books stuff, many of which are from back men. And so yeah, we were reading all that stuff and figuring out the ways people talked. Also, we were in the Mayfair Club and the Diamond Club and the VFW hall, and writing down shit that people said and watching it. So yes, some of the dialogue is obviously torqued up. Nobody’s said three stacks of high society, not since 1911. But the idea of the ways in which people communicate, the ways in which people signal strength signal strength? I mean, yeah, we were conscious of that, but also conscious of the utility of seeming to signal that you’re revealing a tell when in fact, you’re doing something else. It’s just that Teddy had the one hand that it didn’t matter what the fuck Mike had. Because quads are under the table because Mike has one of each, right? So Teddy had the only hand better than Mike.

Zach: Again, I didn’t want to bother Brian about it during our talk, but I’ll just say that I do think the verbal statements in Rounders that I wrote about in my blog post show up like many standard and reliable common verbal poker tells you’ll find amongst a fairly mediocre player pool. Of course, anything is possible; as Brian says, experienced poker players might say such things in real life; I’m just talking about common patterns. And in this, some of the behaviors are just standard weak-means-strong behaviors – what I call weak-hand-statements in my book Verbal Poker Tells – weak-hand statements are players saying things that weaken their range in various ways, directly or indirectly. You actually don’t find even good players switching this up much —- this pattern for weak-hand statements is quite reliable; surprisingly reliable. 

And the degree of subtlety is a big factor here. When I say that the verbal tells in Rounders are good examples of commonly found verbal tells from bad players, what I mean is that the behaviors are fairly over-the-top and obvious. In the hand we were talking about, the Mike character acted stressed out and said “Time” like he needed more time to think, and then that’s when he said “I don’t think you have the spades” and went all in. Just quite over the top in terms of trying to act weak and uncertain when he had a strong hand. That’s what I was trying to communicate in my blog post; not that such behaviors couldn’t be found from very good players, or couldn’t be switched up, but just that the very unsubtle presentation of them made them seem like the behaviors you’d find from fairly inexperienced players.  

If you’re interested to learn more about why I think that, I’d recommend checking out my book Verbal Poker Tells. A lot of that book actually deals with the concept of weak-hand statements, and the different ways they show up. 

Actually, kind of funny, related to that, there’s a hand from the 2009 WSOP that Matt Damon where he does some very similar over the top behaviors —acting very stressed out and uncertain when he flops a full house. Matt Damon’s behavior in that hand basically, to me, gives away how inexperienced at poker he is – and it reminds me of his character’s behavior in Rounders. If that helps explain it a little better. In the blog post for this episode entry, I’ll include some links to these resources I’ve mentioned. 

Sorry to Brian for all this post-interview disagreement. I didn’t want to hold up our interview too much but I did want to dig into this a bit more because I thought poker players would find it interesting, and because I wanted to defend the ideas in my blog post a bit. Okay back to the talk.

Zach: So, I actually didn’t know how many interviews you have done for your podcast at the moment. I saw that you interviewed more than 400 people and you had so many interesting people in there. I was actually reading some reviews of your podcast people had written and somebody said that they thought that you were maybe one of the best interviewers in the country, just because of how you’ve gotten so many people to talk openly and be vulnerable about their life and these kinds of things. I’m curious, how do you feel about your skills as an interviewer? Have you seen them get a lot better over time since you started that endeavor?

Brian: Here’s a good thing to talk about. I would say I don’t spend that much time in general. I do when I’m weightlifting. But other than that, I spend a lot of time in general in tennis, I guess, or sports. But trying to fix myself at a point in a graph and sort of evaluate that, instead, I would rather say, “Okay, I feel like that interview wasn’t great. Why? I wasn’t curious enough about the person I was interviewing. Next time I should make sure that I’m only interviewing people about whom I have great curiosity. Because when I’m really curious, when I’m really fascinated, the interview is going to be great because it’s going to feel like a conversation and everyone’s going to hear that I can’t believe how lucky I am that I get to engage in this.” And it’s really outwardly directed. It’s really directed. It’s very inward, and then it’s like, “Does the notion of having this conversation fire me up in a way that it’s worth it to put in the work have to put in to do a great job?” That’s really what I’m thinking about. I mean, it really is. I’m just thinking about all the amount of work I have to do. Because I will not phone in an interview, I will not fake the funk. I’ll read the fucking books and I’ll listen to the thing and I’ll watch the thing. So I have to be fascinated by somebody either by their story, their work, the life that they’ve lived, or something they’ve said. And so I would say the most important thing is guest selection. The most important thing of being a good interviewer in a podcast scenario is guest selection. If you have the right guests for you, then the interviews will be great. If you don’t, it’s very hard, then you have to just… Look, in my whole life, I try to put myself in a position where I’m working from a place of curiosity and fascination. I said yes to this because I’m really fascinated by your work and the way you think. So I knew what does matter, I could be on either side of this conversation. It’s a conversation I want to have. I basically say no to some number, like 75% of the podcast requests and beyond podcasts. I mean, I mostly just saying no. Because I’ve gotten to— I didn’t. That wasn’t my policy 10 years ago, but I’m a little tucked down. So I would just rather not do it. I don’t need…

Zach: You need the spark.

Brian: I get very little out of this kind of thing except the engagement with the person I’m talking to.

Zach: To your point. I’ve had that learning, too, where I’ve said I’d interview people for my podcast, mainly they’d be nice. Or because I thought I was doing it for other people, those are the ones that always turn out the worst for me. Like you said, it’s like you’ve got to have that spark and really want to ask some specific questions. Yeah.

Brian: Yeah, totally. Right? You do! You have to feel… You have to feel an engagement. Of course, everyone’s been in a situation where they’ve done something to be kind. And by the way, that’s a really valid thing. But the product won’t be amazing and you got to say to yourself, “Well, sometimes that’s a balancing act.” But I don’t do it. I can’t. I got to a point where I would rather not do anything. I mean, I have to be engaged or it’s not worth it. It’s back to what I love about poker. When I sit at the poker table, I’m never bored. I’ve never been bored at a poker table.

Zach: Always something to watch and observe.

Brian: Yeah, and I don’t understand. I get it. I don’t understand. We all do it. But I’m not on my phone when I’m at the poker table. It’s the same thing. Honestly, in the last six or seven months I’ve become really crazily obsessed with lifting weights and learning about it and figuring it out. And I think one of the things is when you’re doing sets to failure, you truly are forced to be present. You’re engaged in something where you’re trying to improve and you have to bring everything to bear in that moment. You know? And poker done the right way, I think it’s the same thing. Yes, you’re having a conversation. Yes, you’re with your friends. Yes, it’s great. Yes, there are laughs. But can you say alert during that? Can you stay focused? Can you stay curious? Can you stay engaged? Can you keep listening? Can you pick something up? And as you state in your books, you might not pick up a sign for a whole night of poker. You could still win, by the way. You can still play well. And you might not really hear the thing that makes you make a certain move. Or you might even be in— Like, the moment you can really tell somebody has it or doesn’t have it, you might not even be in their fucking head. But you’ll learn it for next time. So, it’s not that different. Everything I do, I try to make it be something that I can have that level of engagement.

Zach: Are you going to write a “Rounders” for weightlifting? Is that a script idea?

Brian: It’s tough. There is actually one. There’s an angle on it. By the way, I mean, talk about subcultures. Dude, that’s a subculture that is so intense. The arguments that people in the world of lifting have with each other about literally… You could get guys calling each other the worst— Smart guys with PhDs calling each other the worst names ever about five to seven reps versus ten to twelve reps. Literally, you could have people devoting hours of podcasts to just downvoting somebody who thinks that a five-cent range is worse than a ten-cent range. It’s amazing. It’s like I had no idea of the words about that until I got into it, you know? No different than starting hand arguments or position arguments. It’s the same thing.

Zach: Do you mind if I ask you about transcendental meditation?

Brian: I’m totally happy. I love talking about it. Yep.

Zach: I know that you’re a big proponent of that and I was wondering, if you explained it to a lay audience, how would you pitch it? What are the benefits that you get from it?

Brian: Like Tim Ferriss says, I think he said something along these lines– I’m paraphrasing, I’m not quoting him– that it might be the thing that is most in common among the guests that he’s had on his show is that they do some form of meditation. I think I started meditating in 2011. And I want to say this succinctly. For me, the benefit is it reduced the physical manifestations of anxiety by something like 80% or 85%.

Zach: Wow.

Brian: One of the things is that when people want to sell stuff, they’ll say it makes your anxiety disappear. And we as human beings go, “Well, that’s bullshit.” Because nothing can. Because we’re humans and we know we’re mortal, so we have anxiety. But it just made the physical manifestations– the stomach or the heart– suddenly quickly. A month in, that stuff just went… The [line] just went way down on it. And that alone is enough. Then clarity of thought, peacefulness, sense of wellbeing. Look, I’m talking about lifting, but I’ve always been someone who exercises a lot. And part of why I started lifting and stuff is because as you get older, if you let yourself stay out of shape and you still play sports really hard, you can just hurt yourself all the time. And if you’re fat like I was, it’s just bad. So I had to start. Then you throw the cardio piece and you’re like, “Well, I got to do the other thing too.” So exercise has always been meditative, too, for me. I can get to that sort of alpha state that they call it, you know? Meditation is 20 minutes. The way I do it, Translated Meditation TM, there’s a book by David Lynch, the great filmmaker, the book is called “Catching the Big Fish” and he talks about it in a way that I find incredibly compelling. But essentially, you’re repeating a nonsense word to yourself quietly in your brain for 20 minutes twice a day. It’s very easy and it’s very calming. I just feel better doing it. I had a lot of questions going in. I had read all the sort of negative things about TM and I was very aware of it, I had very clear rules for myself about the ways in which I would engage. I would go take these lessons and then that’s the extent of my involvement. And it’s been, by the way, the extent. I’ve never gone on some retreat or thing. It’s just that I find this technique useful. And I’m just always after. It’s hard being a person, and so whatever makes being a person a little bit easier, I’ll take it. It goes back to the thing I said about mortality. We understand people are fragile, that means the people you love are fragile. And that stuff scary sometimes. So, anything that’ll help I’m interested in. Exercise is a huge one. Walking, not just as exercise, but walking is really helpful. Journaling is helpful, I think. And I think translated meditation, for me, is just very useful.

Zach: The form of the meditation, is it always the same? So, it’s 20 minutes of repeating the mantra and it doesn’t vary from that?

Brian: But the thing is, when you learn TM, it’s not rigid. You’re not forcing yourself to say this mantra over and over again. You’re allowing this mantra to surface and you’re kind of engaging with it. And then sometimes your thoughts come in. It’s like other meditation you’ve heard of. Your thoughts come in and then your thoughts move out and the mantra resurfaces. It’s just being in that space. And I’ll say I will not play. I do the morning meditation every single day in my life. I haven’t missed one since 2011. And I’d say I do the one in the afternoon 70% or 80% of the time, depends on the period. Right now I’m in a period of time where I’m doing it every day, but sometimes life makes it hard to the second one. But I will never play poker at night without doing this. Never. It’s a zero for me. Maybe I did it twice. And I just know. Like, I will meditate this afternoon before I go play poker tonight, for sure. And that will be useful. It will reset me in a way. It doesn’t mean I’m going to win, by the way. I could still lose.

Zach: And you said it’s something you say internally, you don’t say it out loud? Is that right?

Brian: Correct. You never say it out loud.

Zach: Is your mantra a secret? Or can you say what it is?

Brian: No, you don’t say what it is. And the reason is, you don’t want to attach anything to it. Really it’s a word sound noise. You don’t want to attach someone’s reaction. You don’t want to attach that moment. It really is just something to break the cycle of the pattern of thoughts.

Zach: You don’t want association.

Brian: No, you don’t want any. And no one knows it. In fact, because it’s like some state secret. It’s not special, it’s just because it keeps it pristine.

Zach: Do you have your own thoughts on what the mechanism is by how it helps you? Is it basically like… Because you said these other thoughts come in and you basically are able to kind of brush them aside, do you think it kind of sets you up to be more easily able to brush aside things?

Brian: Yeah, I don’t know. I was reading a book– this is not translated, this is a way to get to the answer– I was reading a book by Thich Nhat Hanh, he’s this amazing Buddhist. He had this phrase that he said he repeated to himself and he found it very useful. And I’ve done this not as TM, because it’s not TM, but I’ve done this sometimes to go to bed at night if I somehow am not able to fall asleep and my thoughts racing. He says, “I am not my body. I’m not even my mind.” By repeating that to himself, not out loud, it’s a reminder in a way that the thoughts you think aren’t necessarily valid. We all have thought things that we didn’t put into action or that turned out to be wrong, right? So just reminding yourself, yeah, you might feel a twinge in your knee, but you are not the twinge in your knee. It’s useful. Anything to create a tiny bit of separation from the thoughts that kind of own us most of the time and our essential nature, anyway that we can sort of separate those slightly, I think has tremendous benefit. And I think TM, though I don’t know, I really don’t know the answer to this, but what it feels like to me is that there’s probably a cycle of counterproductive thoughts that we all have. Who knows where they’re from? Who knows when we took them on? Whether they’re worries, fears, self-criticism, whatever the thing is, the mantra has a way of like if that thing is a circle that’s just going and going, maybe the mantra just kind of takes us somewhere else away from that and breaks it so that you have a minute to just have some peace.

Zach: Yeah, that makes sense. It’s like breaking the rumination or the ruts that we get into our normal—

Brian: Yeah, exactly right. Ruts. People should look at— I mean, there’s a lot of EEG studies and stuff, brainwave studies, and they’re doing more and more. There’s a lot of science now on this question. I was even reading recently… Recently, I put into two different AI engines a bunch of questions about meditation and the various forms, and about what the science said. And I was really prepared to be told that it’s all been debunked, but it just hasn’t been. The science really stands up for its benefits and you can just find that out. That’s just out there, people looking at the brainwaves and stuff.

Zach: Yeah. And like you said, there’s some understandable mechanisms by which you can see it helping you. And it’s now like some things you hear about you’re like, “That makes no sense.” You can see the logic there. Yeah. Well, it’s been great talking to you. It’s a big honor. I’ve always enjoyed your work, I always look forward to what you’re working on next. So, thanks a lot for talking to me.

Brian: Thank you. And as I said at the beginning, and I mean it, your work is valuable. I’m really glad that you’re doing it. I often wish you were just sitting next to me at a poker table so you could tell me what the fuck was going on, man, when I can’t figure it out for myself. [Zach chuckles]

Zach: Well, thanks, Brian.

Zach: All right, take care.

Zach: That was a talk with screenwriter, producer, and director, Brian Koppelman. Brian is also the host of the podcast The Moment. You can learn more about him at

If you’re a poker player and enjoyed this talk, you might like some other poker related talks I’ve done for this podcast; you can find a compilation of all the game and sports related episodes on my site  And if you want to learn more about my poker tells work, check out my site 

Thanks for listening.