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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.