Phil Gordon Answers Your Poker Questions

Phil Gordon

We recently solicited your questions for poker man Phil Gordon. In his answers below, he discusses (among other things) variance, sunglasses, and why he’s not a gambler by nature, but rather “a strategic investor.”

This is a really good and smart Q&A (although he did neglect to mention a certain beat-down he once suffered).

Thanks to Phil and to all of you (especially those whose money Phil has taken) for participating. Enjoy.

Q: What percent of your success would you say is attributable to randomness?

A: That really depends on what you mean by randomness. Was it random that I was born in the U.S. to a caring family that was able to educate me instead of to a poor family in Zimbabwe? That was probably the biggest determining factor in my success, and one of the most random.

Randomness, otherwise known as “variance” at the poker table is much bigger and more important than most poker players realize. I have a simple theory: change 10 river cards in any poker player’s tournament career and I would bet that they would be a losing tournament player for their career.

Q: How many times have you gone completely broke over the course of your poker career?

A: I’m proud to say “zero” — in fact I’ve never had a losing year as a pro. I practice very sound bankroll management principles, and I think my game selection skills are just about as good as anyone in the game.

If there aren’t a few guys that are just giving their money away, I don’t play.

Q: At a final table, would you rather play against a pro that you understand or a lucky rookie who doesn’t understand the game?

A: Give me the chump any day.

Q: Do you gamble much on non-skill games or games that have a house edge?

A: No. I’m not a “gambler” by nature — I consider myself a “strategic investor.” In fact, what we do at the poker table isn’t very different than what investment professionals do — we just get our results every two minutes instead of every few months or years.

Q: How do math and psychology cross in poker? For example, if the book says a certain hand is a loser 60 percent of the time, how would this change if you know your opponent likes to raise with weak hands at this point, and if you suspect he is bluffing?

A: There are times in poker where making a correct decision is almost completely mathematical. For instance, if a player moves all-in after the flop and you have a flush draw or a straight draw, you can be 99 percent sure that if you make your hand, it will be good.

At that point, just making a simple pot odds calculation will lead you to a winning decision and psychology has nothing to do with it.

But, that being said, poker is the great game that it is because psychology plays such an important part in the game. Knowing your opponent, putting them on hands, and figuring out their state of mind and exploitable tendencies makes all the difference.

Q: What percentage of professional poker players would you consider to be compulsive gamblers?

A: Ninety percent of the “professional players” I know have some serious “leaks” that affect their ability to hold on to their money.

Whether it’s playing too big for their bankroll or betting on sports or casino games, these leaks have a way of keeping many of them completely broke no matter how much they win on the tournament circuit.

One of the “requirements” to be a great player is being able to divorce yourself from money and its value. Making good decisions at the poker table means that you must have the ability to “put a Ferrari” in the pot if it’s right to do so. That lack of respect for the buying power of money leads to financial problems for many of the best players in the world.

Q: If you could sit down and play a game of poker with any five people in the world (living or deceased), who would you pick?

Stu Ungar — widely considered the best that ever played the game.
Steve Jobs
Leonardo Da Vinci (Poker wasn’t invented when he was alive, but I have a feeling he could pick it up easily.)
Ernest Hemmingway
Rafe Furst — my best friend and poker buddy.

Q: How did you go about developing your poker face so that others couldn’t read your unintentional body language?

A: I learned what little skill I have in that regard from Chris Ferguson. If you watch him play, you’ll see a “pre-shot routine” go into play as soon as it is his turn to act.

The key is to act in the same amount of time and with the same mannerisms every time. Even with easy, straightforward decisions, Chris still takes his time to make his move. He’s one of the best, if not the best in the world at this.

Q: How do you explain the phenomenal increase in the popularity of poker recently? (Or is it merely an increase in the visibility of the game, and the popularity is actually stable?)

A: It’s all about the T.V.

Poker is the only “sport” on television that guys at home can visualize themselves doing at the top level. They know they’ll never catch a pass from Tom Brady or dunk on Kobe Bryant. But, they have a shot of ending up at the final table of the World Series of Poker and winning $10 million on national television.

The fame, money, and “everyman” nature of the game has made poker what it is today.

Q: Do you agree that “sunglasses is to poker as steroids is to baseball”?

A: People wear glasses at the table so that they can watch other people at the table without detection. I don’t believe in the “dilated pupil tell” and other such nonsense.

That being said, I’ve never worn sunglasses at the table and I think it looks completely stupid and is unnecessary.

Q: No-Limit Holdem has seen a dramatic increase in play and popularity — due, most likely, to a combination of televised poker and internet poker. What sort of push would be needed to get Pot Limit Omaha the same exposure and popularity (within the U.S.)? Or are there fundamental issues in the game which restrict it from being more popular?

A: Pot Limit Omaha is a great game that is enjoying widespread popularity, especially in Europe and on the Internet. It is a much higher variance game with some very interesting strategies.

I think that it has a chance of surpassing Holdem as the most popular form of the game in five to eight years. As people become “bored” with Holdem, they’ll naturally progress to P.L.O.

Q: If they made a movie about your life, would Jeremy Piven play the lead role?

A: No, I heard Nicholas Cage was.

Q: What percentage of the poker pros that were seen on T.V. over the last five years are broke or in debt for hundreds of thousands of dollars? Do you make more at the poker table or from selling poker books?

A: I’ve made far more money at the tables than through my books. It’s not like I wrote Freakonomics or something.

If I had to guess, I would say about 50 percent of the “name pros” you see on television on a regular basis have a negative net worth. Frightening, I know.

Q: How do you deal with the younger generation of loose, fast online players? These types of players seem to take the skill out of the game — they become calling stations and strategic play is really watered down. Thoughts?

A: Actually, they aren’t calling stations at all. I’d love to play against them if they were.

The “new generation” of players are hyper-aggressive — that makes beating them incredibly difficult. The more aggressive a player is, the more luck comes into play.

Think about it this way: say you are going to move all-in against me blind on every hand and we start with 20 big blinds each. What hands should I call you with?

Certainly you’d have to call with Ace-Ten suited, right? Ace-Ten is about 62 percent to win all-in against a random hand.

Q: What skill is more important in Holdem: discipline in the range of hands you play, or the ability to read the other player? How can you teach someone to trust their read and to let a hand go, or to trust the read and make a difficult call?

A: Hand selection is the most important in my opinion. A blind guy who has good hand selection skills could win a world championship. A guy with 20/15 vision who picked up all the tells but played every hand might never win.

Usually, your first instinct is right. Go with it, but never disrespect the math.

Q: Is it better to play aggressive early in a tourney where the blinds go up quickly — or should your style of play stay consistent no matter how quickly the blinds go up?

A: The quicker the blinds escalate, the more chances you should be willing to take. Your stack will be at risk quickly, so you might as well push any marginal edge you have when you have it.

If the blinds are escalating slowly, you can afford to give up small positive expectation plays.

Q: Why do so many highly-intelligent people with advanced degrees decide to play poker?

A: It is a fascinating game that is impossible to master. The money isn’t bad either.

Q: Cameras in the table or the internet: which had a bigger impact on poker? From a competitive as well as business perspective, is it a good thing?

A: Cameras, for sure — both are excellent from a competitive and business perspective.

Q: Will a pro ever win the W.S.O.P. again now that there are so many entrants?

A: Of course. In fact, quite a few of our recent champions have been pros. Maybe not “household name” pros, but pros nonetheless. I’m thinking specifically about Greg Raymer and Joe Hachem.

Q: Does the Tiltboys home game still run? On a related note, at what stakes do you take poker seriously enough to play your “A” game?

A: Wednesday night is still the best night of the week. The game goes about two to three times a month. I can play my “A” game at any stake. I regularly play 1-2 and 100-200 on the same day and it makes no difference to me.

Q: Who do you think the top five N.L.H. cash game players are in the world right now (including online pros)?

A: I don’t think I’m really qualified to answer that question. However, here’s my best guess: Phil Ivey, Patrick Antonius, Phil Galfond, Brian Townsend, and Mr. Random-Internet-Guy-No-One-
Knows-The-True-Identity-Of. He’s probably from Scandinavia.

Q: Who are better at cash games: the best live pros or the best online pros?

A: Live.

Q: When you decided to turn pro, what type of bankroll did you start out with? How much time/what stakes would you have to play in order to make a quality living?

A: I started out with a bankroll of about $400,000 — I “went pro” after finishing fourth in the W.S.O.P. main event in 2001. To make $100,000 a year playing poker, I’d have to play about five hours a week.

Q: Do you enjoy playing poker any more or less than when you first started out?

A: Definitely less, although I’ve found a resurgence of energy for the game recently.

Q: How advanced is your Rock-Paper-Scissors strategy … any tips for us R.P.S. novices?

A: I’d be willing to put some money on a match or two. Never go rock on the first throw.

Q: How did you decide that you wanted to play poker full-time? Can you explain what factors you considered and do you have any advice for aspiring card players? (By the way, Phil, you knocked me out of a 5K W.S.O.P. tourney before.)

A: Sorry to bust you like that … I decided to “go pro” on a lark, really. You’re a pro when you call yourself one. I was winning, having a great time playing, and wanted to travel the circuit and give it a shot. I’m certainly glad that I did.

Q: I hear a lot about compulsive gambling and gambling addiction which makes me wonder if the Safe Port Act, by causing online poker play to drop off, may not have been such a bad thing. What’s your opinion about the Act?

A: I think that the U.I.G.E.A. (the provision of the Safe Port Act that deals with internet poker) was a complete travesty.

First, it places an impossible burden on the financial institutions. Second, 85 percent of the U.S. adult population thinks that they should have the right to gamble on the internet if they want to. Third, what the hell does port security have to do with internet poker? Why do we allow politicians to do this?

Q: Is Phil Hellmuth really as unpleasant as he seems? Conversely, who are the top pros that are regarded as being the most fun to play with — not necessarily the ones you can clean up on, just the ones that you’d have a good time with? (I’m guessing Negreanu is at the top of this list.)

A: Hellmuth isn’t as bad in real life as he appears on T.V. I really like him. He’s a great family man, does lots of work for charity, and has a kind heart.

Unfortunately, he comes across like a complete a–hole on television. But, it’s great for ratings.

I really like playing at the table with Phil Laak, Antonio Esfandiari, and David Grey — they have excellent stories and are very entertaining. As for Negreanu — things aren’t always the way they appear on television.

Q: What are the finances of some of the top pros like?

A: Some: poor, reckless, with no shot at improving long-term. Others: multi-million dollar mansions, $5-plus million a year income, and no financial worries.

Q: I’ve played a ton of poker, and read all three of your books, but I have a very different question: I see that you’ll be at the Youth N.A.B.C. (I’m 19, so I’ll try and make it out there if possible) this summer. How do you think bridge can be re-popularized in mainstream society (much like poker had been five years ago)?

A: Well, I actually love bridge. I won’t be able to attend the Youth N.A.B.C. (North American Bridge Championship) but I have donated a sportsmanship trophy and lots of money to the organization. In my opinion, bridge is the best card game in the world by a long shot. Unfortunately, it is also the most complicated and difficult to play well.

Q: Typically, how long does it take players to progress from one skill level to the next (assuming they play several times a week)? How long before a new player is able to break even consistently, or even turn a profit?

A: It really depends on the player. Rapid improvement is much easier today than it was when I was learning — the Internet completely changed the learning curve. You can play in 100 tournaments a day or more online.

There are 18-year-old kids that started playing poker a year ago that have played five times as many tournaments than I have in my entire life.

Q: Is the median loose-aggressive player more successful than the median tight-aggressive player?

A: Tight-aggressive player will win more in the long run.

Q: Phil Hellmuth said that pot odds were for suckers. Why risk my chips when I am an underdog when I can get those same chips in later when I am 80 percent to win?

A: If you make sound mathematical decisions, you will be a winner long term. Any time the pot odds dictate a positive expectation play, I’m going to make it. Hellmuth may disagree, but I think he’s wrong.

Q: What is the most dangerously deceiving starting hand for an amateur player in Texas Holdem? When I say dangerous, I mean most likely to make a stupid call when they have no business calling.

A: It’s a tie … AQ, KQ, and QJ. Those are death hands to be avoided at all costs, especially if your opponent has made any aggressive move pre-flop.

Q: How many years did you play poker before you started to realize that you weren’t making really dumb decisions?

A: That moment hasn’t come yet.

Dorian Grey

@ TP:

Most probably there have not been any recent studies done on Texas Hold'em and what percentage of players end up with a problem but it would be interesting to find out. Maybe Gamblers Anonymous has some figures.

My guess would be that it is not a totally harmless activity and like alcohol a certain percentage end up becoming hooked.

Texas Hold'em is about 70% skill and 30% luck, which does not automatically mean it is not gambling and a game of skill.

Just because you help smokers and your hobby is poker does not make you an expert but instead makes you a biased observer.

Andy Bloch

Dorian wrote:

"Ten percent of those that drink become drunks. I don't know what the percentage is for gamblers, and I don't think there has been a study to find out."

Of course their has been a study (and it wouldn't have been hard to find if you looked). According to the National Council on Problem Gambling, less than 2% of U.S. adults who have gambled exhibit the criteria for pathological gambling. Here's their FAQ:

I've only heard of one case of a teenaged poker player stealing to support his habits, and the anti-gambling lobby always references that same case. There are probably others that go unreported, but if they were major cases I'm sure the gambling foes would be quick to latch on to them.

Here are some more figures you should think about:

A study published in the American Journal of Psychiatry reports that 6% of Americans are compulsive buyers according to screening tests. (Unlike compulsive buying, poker playing doesn't waste resources and harm the environment.)

There were about 16,000 alcohol-related automobile deaths in the U.S. in 2006. How many poker-related deaths were there? What would you rather have your teenage children doing on a Friday night, playing poker in the basement or at a party drinking? A late-night poker session is a lot safer than a late-night alcohol binge (and the physical recovery is a lot easier too).

Everyone is aware that gambling can be addictive, but gambling addiction is much less common than many other addictions, and it's less harmful too.


Princess Leia

Extremely interesting. Thanks for posting.


As someone who doesn't like entering into anything without at least a basic understanding, I'm wondering what are the best books for a beginner to the game?


Not sure I follow the 10 river card theory. According to Cardplayer, Men Nguyen has won $8.2 million in tournaments. His top ten cashes account for less the $2.2 million of that. So even if by changing 10 river cards, you wipe out all ten of those cashes--by knocking him out of the tournament before he makes the money--he's still up $6mil, far more than his buy-ins could possibly be. I'd imagine there are easily a dozen players where this is the case.

Mike Roddy

Excellent piece- Gordon is skilled and articulate. And yes, I agree from my hundreds of hours against him that Stuey was the best player ever.

The problem is one of expectations compared to other activites. I speak from experience, since I am also blessed with a mind and a good education, and played professional poker at the highest levels a couple of decades ago. People who can succeed in poker almost invariably would have happier and more affluent lives had they marshalled the discipline to pursue something more prosaic. One hidden reason so many excellent players go broke is that the lifestyle encourages a constellation of bad habits and descending self respect- laziness, drugs and partying with women. The one real blessing is a degree of freedom you won't find anywhere else. But as Waylon Jennings sang, "Low down freedom, you done cost me, everything I ever knowed".

It sounds good, all right, especially to a young man, but that kind of life erodes your self respect and feelings of productivity. You end up with a nihilistic world view on some level, which is no good for anyone. That's why I admire the level of play of some of these young Turks (I have been over the hill for a long time, and gone on to other things), but am puzzled by their being portrayed as some kind of heroes or stars. Trust me, the reality is a lot different- lots of shattered or nonexistent families, and descents into personal hells that are hard to explain. This happens whether you win and hang onto your money or not.

Get a job, young man. Or if you're a little too eccentric (as I am), start a business or creative activity you can be proud of. The expectation will be higher in every way, and instead of paying the house your work will have a positive bias. I can be reached at if anyone who wants to get out needs to discuss. That's my real name, by the way- some of the old timers on TV may remember me.




I played online with real money for several hours every night for about 2 years straight. One day I became interested in something else, and haven't played online since.

Poker is no more of an "addiction" than anything is, people can become addicted to exercise, videogames, the internet, etc...

The point is that it's not the job of the government to "protect us" from these things. If you don't like poker and don't want to play it online, then don't. But, don't presume that you have the right to tell me or anyone else not to.


Bill James, Scott Adams, and Arthur Frommer have some new competition for the best Freakonomics Q&A. I loved this - insightful, honest, surprising. I only flipped through Gordon's Blue Book but I'll have to give it another shot.


Men Nguyen has cashed for $8.2 million. He has not profited anywhere near that amount.

Short-Stacked Shamus

Interesting interview. Gordon is always a very thoughtful & articulate observer of the game.

Who is this "Hemmingway"?

Dorian Grey

For a large percentage of poker players it is an addiction, which is an issue people prefer not to discuss. Sooner or later most players will come to this realization, and it doesn't matter if you are a "pro" or not.

When you win a big pot your brain generates chemicals that make you feel good. And like lab rats we keep hitting that lever so that that chemical reaction will take place again. Texas Hold'em is popular because it is faster than most all other forms of poker and therefore generates more chemical reactions per hour.

It is also an addiction that is extremely hard to overcome because it is not triggered by some physical substance that you mix into your bloodstream; it's all in your mind. The only way the addictive behavior will stop is if there is no more money.

I challenge all those of you that have just told yourself you are not an addict to try not to play for two weeks. First of all I doubt most of you will be able to last two weeks, but if you do, it will be something you should come to terms with now rather than when you are homeless and begging for food money.

If you are having trouble with your addiction I suggest one solution and that is to only play on line with play money and burn all your credit cards. Play money games will still provide the chemical reaction but you will not lose any money when trying to get a hit.




As someone whose career involves discouraging people from taking up smoking and whose hobby involves playing poker, I think I'm qualified to say that you're way off the mark with your comments. You describe poker as an addiction akin to drugs or alcohol, and that is simply incorrect. GAMBLING addiction may be a closer straw for you to grasp at, but you cannot attempt to condemn poker player with guilt by association.

The fact is, poker is a game of skill--albeit with a luck element that can be significantly minimized by an acute understanding of the game--but it is a skill game nonetheless. The sensation of winning a big pot through the use of that skill does not cause an "addiction" in me any more than sinking a long putt or nailing a three-pointer at the buzzer does for Tiger Woods or Kobe Bryant, respectively. This is called competition, not addiction.

I have played poker for money for over two years and am a "successful" player both online and live. I put the term in quotes because I play microstakes games and my "profits" are laughably small. But mine are positive numbers nonetheless, and learning to play poker has actually HELPED me steer clear of traditional "gambling" games that places like Vegas and state lotteries offer. If anything, poker has helped me AVOID a gambling problem, not contributed to it. Yes, "gamblers" may be attracted by poker's big paydays, but let's be clear:

Just because some gamblers are poker players does not mean that all poker players are gamblers (or that they have an addiction to some magical pot of brain fluid that empties every time something nice happens to them).


Dorian Grey


What makes you make the presumption I am in favor of the government protecting us? I live in the only theocracy in the world and I can assure you I am not in favor of the government telling me how to live. Ten percent of those that drink become drunks. I don't know what the percentage is for gamblers, and I don't think there has been a study to find out. The fact that you did not get addicted to poker on line does not say anything about those that have and ended up ruining their lives. There are teenagers that are now seriously hooked to Hold'em, with a small percentage becoming "pros". What do you think is the percentage that is hooked and is stealing to support their "problem gambling"? The issue is that those that are just picking up the game should be aware of the fact that becoming addicted exists, maybe not for everybody, but certainly for a certain percentage.


great article



Thank you for all the great insight over the years. Your Little Black Book inspired me to take up the game after turning eighteen and I haven't looked back since.

Charles Parker

Excellent Q&A with an articulate expert poker player and writer. I'm not sure bridge is a harder game. I've been playing poker longer than it took me to become a reasonable but not expert bridge player, and Mr. Gordon would correctly consider me a donkey. Maybe someday...


Mike Hernandez

Phil Gordon seems to employ an overall strategy that's not only conducive to winning individual games, but in maintaining a positive net worth.

I really appreciate the fact he acknowledges that pros on tv don't necessarily seem as they appear. Television has done a great job of glorifying the game, giving hope to people that enough skill exists in the game to make anyone a big winner. What people fail to realize is that a long-run does exist in the thousands if not hundreds of thousands of games some people play.

Mike Roddy makes a valid point on the "ugly side" of poker. While a poker player's career may not necessarily contribute to the world directly, I think his lifestyle and attitude keep him happy, and that's perfectly fine. So long as one can tolerate the swinginess that everyone runs into, that shouldn't stop them from doing what they enjoy.

As for Ben's comment, Men Nguyen could simply be an outlier. A very lucky outlier.



Phil, if you're reading this, thanks for sharing-- and I mean more than the Q&A here. You deserve a lot of credit for your charitable works as well. Hoping to shake your hand for that someday.

Cactus Jack

The problem is people don't understand the difference between poker and all other forms of gambling. Poker is actually a lousy game for problem gamblers. It's too slow.

The majority of poker players will never have a problem with gambling addiction because they aren't "addicted" to the gambling portion, but to the game/strategy portion. Many of us have no interest whatsoever in any other form of gambling--slots, craps, blackjack, and most esp lotteries. To become competent, we learn about the math, and we quickly learn that the math of all other games has terrible negative expectation.

Most professional and many successful amateur poker players are very, very smart. They play poker because of the levels of strategy and the difficulty in mastering the game--which none of us ever will.

For myself, it's not about the winning, but the losing. My hatred of losing is far greater than any rush of endorphins released by winning. This is exactly the opposite of what causes gambling problems.

With regard to the Phil Gordon Q&A, outstanding. The UIGEA is an absolute travesty, indeed. However, one thing needs to be clear. Playing poker online is not illegal, and there are more people playing online poker now than before the passage of that abomination.

Finally, one question: Who in the world can make $100,000 a year playing 5 hours a week???

Surely there is a mistake there. 5 hours a day, online, and middle-stakes, multitabling...maybe.

Best wishes,

Las Vegas, NV


Seth Baldwin


The best poker books are by Dan Harrington, followed closely by Ed Miller, and I've read dozens of authors. Good luck at the felt!