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Camp Poker Champ

At the World Series of Poker Academy, students learn how to improve their play and vie for a seat at the big game
Michael Kaplan
From the Print Edition:
Tom Berenger, July/Aug 2007

People once scoffed at the idea of teaching someone how to win money at high-level poker. It seemed as ridiculous as coaching a would-be Romeo on the fine points of French kissing. Players learned through trial and error. By winning and losing large sums of cash, they discovered whether they had a feel for the game. Those who went broke did not. Those who managed to snag all the chips, clearly did. Ask them to tell you how to do it, however, and the response was usually unsatisfying. The late Puggy Pearson once told me, "You gotta use your cards like dukes. Give 'em the one-two punch." His old-school advice was far from enlightening. But I was not insulted. From what I knew, Pug's articulation of poker strategies remained so elusive that he couldn't even teach his own son how to play the game properly.

However, things were already changing in the 1970s and '80s. Some of the more forward-thinking players had begun exploiting what Howard Lederer describes as "power of the collective." That is, knowledgeable people sharing ideas on the game's subtleties and strategies. Back in the mid- to late-'80s, when downtown Manhattan's Mayfair Club was a hotbed for New York poker talent—attracting soon-to-be big names like Erik Seidel, Dan Harrington, Steve Zolotow and Lederer himself—long nights of poker concluded with hours of discussion at a neighborhood bar called Streets. "Those sessions made all of us better," Lederer has told me. "Cultivate a group of friends who are as committed to poker as you are and you will all improve faster than you could individually."

Books such as The Theory of Poker by David Sklansky and Doyle Brunson's Super/System elevated people's understanding of poker. (The latter tome, for example, comprised chapters written by various players, including Chip Reese and Bobby Baldwin, on strategies for beating their best games.) Tom McEvoy gave private lessons to anyone willing to pay him, and players themselves traded sacred bits of advice. Most famously, Reese taught Stu Ungar how to play Hold'em, and Ungar gave Reese a deep tutorial in gin. For all of that, however, guys like Jay Heimowitz still remained. He was one of the best poker players in New York City during the Mayfair's heyday and notoriously secretive. When Erik Seidel offered him 25 percent of his winnings at pot-limit Omaha in exchange for lessons, Heimowitz demurred. His reason? "I don't want to teach anybody anything."

These days that sentiment has taken a complete 180-degree turn. Enough books exist to fill several shelves (among the most recent is The Full Tilt Poker Strategy Guide: Tournament Edition) and instructional software is ubiquitous. Sony and the World Series of Poker both offer computer games endorsed by poker champs, chat rooms are part of every online poker site, and celebrity-infused Hold'em camps have become the luxe route for people who want to see rapid improvement. Designed to function as part fantasy camp and part learning experience, the camps make you pay your way in (usually between $1,500 and $2,000) and then allow you to play Hold'em with and against the pros—without risking real cash—while they teach you and gently critique your play. Sounds pretty good, right? It did to 80 or so people who flocked to the World Series of Poker Academy in Indiana this past Easter weekend. The Academy is a poker camp partially run by Harrah's (which owns the World Series of Poker) and it attracts people who desperately want to ramp up their skills.

More often than not, the ice breaking how-do-you-do between poker campers is a single question: what part of your game do you hope to improve? At the WSOP Academy, everyone has a pretty good answer except me. My game is enough of a mess that I have a lot to improve, more than can be expressed in a single sentence.

That isn't to say that I'm a complete boob at the card table. I am a decent enough poker player. I won the WSOP media tournament a few years ago, won or placed in a few sit and go events, and I routinely beat my home game. But I've never really possessed a definable, conceptual understanding of Texas Hold'em. Considering plays I've engineered, I know that I make mistakes without even realizing them (until much later, when I'm trying to figure out how I fell into a low chip-count position and got myself knocked out of a particular tournament). I know that I play hands inconsistently, often lack logic in my decisions, wildly veer from being too aggressive to being too passive, and bet in a manner that can charitably be described as random. So I have plenty to learn. But I'm just not sure that poker camp is the place to learn it. I sometimes wonder if Puggy was right; I'm not so sure that I can be taught poker any more than I can be taught astrophysics. Maybe I've reached my peak of understanding.

I express as much to Jeff Goldenberg, who co-owns the World Series of Poker Academy, as we dine at the steak house at the Elizabeth, Indiana, branch of Caesars Palace, where the Easter weekend Academy sessions will take place. Pros Greg Raymer, Scott Fischman and Alex Outhred (who recently made a World Poker Tour final table and is regarded as one of the top poker teachers) will be on board to instruct us. Joe Navarro, a former FBI agent, is scheduled to lead a seminar on reading opponents' tells and keeping your own invisible. I bluntly ask Goldenberg if poker—much less the ability to glean information from people's physical ticks—can be taught in a classroom setting. "You tell me after you finish the Academy," he says, with a tight grin. "We've devised a way to teach a lot in just a few days. Most everybody leaves here a better player than he was when he arrived."

The camp's acid test is a tournament in which all participants receive a seat as part of their tuition. Runner-up prizes include gear from Oakley, the eyewear manufacturer, and free tuition for a future Poker Academy session. But nobody is playing for second place. What everyone wants is first prize: a seat in the upcoming World Series of Poker, valued at $10,000. Whether you should win or lose, however, the point is that you should be playing a reasonable game by the time you're given your stack of tournament chips here.

On the first morning, campers file into a ballroom on the second floor of the casino. The group is a fairly broad cross section of poker fanatics, including a retired bookie from Detroit, a female know-it-all from Los Angeles (one student eventually complains about her habit of trying to play teacher) and several seasoned tournament players. Even before the Academy's PowerPoint presentations hit the screen, which will be punctuated by pro players' anecdotes from the trenches, it's clear that the other attendees are more optimistic than I am. While it would be unrealistic to believe that they can be made into hardened sharks in a single weekend, they do expect to be able to crush their home games and clean up at their local casinos.

The seminar portion of the camp is a lot like school or business training. Greg Raymer and Alex Outhred take turns leading discussions, while two-time World Series bracelet winner Scott Fischman offers running commentary from the sidelines.

Following a topical outline, the three poker players cover the game's nitty-gritty (starting hands, pot odds, when to bluff, when to fold) as well as the broader issues of no-limit Texas Hold'em. Subjects in that category include fear of success (Raymer tells a great story about a WSOP opponent who had been playing tight throughout a tournament and then called an all-in bet with a measly pair of deuces—he'd had enough and wanted to go home), figuring out how much to bet (risk as little as possible, as long as you can still accomplish your goals), and counterintuitive advice on why doubling your chip stack is not necessarily a great thing ("It means," says Fischman, "you were willing to risk your tournament life against a guy who was willing to do the same thing"—the point is, he most likely had a very good hand, regardless of what you were holding).

While juicy anecdotes—such as Fischman remembering the time Phil Hellmuth suffered a bad beat at a World Series table and immediately exposed his strategy for playing a particular hand—definitely add a bit of flash to the sessions, there is no doubt that this is a learning exercise. Students ask questions, the pros do their best to answer, and most quandaries get cleared up. But inevitably, the information flies fast and furiously. The former bookie, sitting to my left (we gather around poker tables rather than desks), occasionally grumbles about the difficulty of absorbing so many details when they come at such lightning speed. By the time we break for lunch, after three hours of lecturing, one of the campers looks at me and says, "Man, I'm seeing yellow."

I assume this mean that he is falling asleep. But my take on the proceedings is very different. I'm actually finding it incredibly interesting. While I'm not sure of the degree to which I'll be able to implement any of this information for fun or profit, there are revelatory bits that I view as Everything You Always Wanted To Know About Texas Hold'em But Were Too Embarrassed To Ask. For example, the pros offer some very solid points about position and betting strategies before the flop. I never really had a firm grip on what to bet in various situations; usually I'd wing it and hope for the best. Raymer provides a simple answer: always bet three or four times the big blind pre-flop. It keeps you from becoming predictable by attempting to be unpredictable.

For a lot of players, however, the opportunity to hang out with pros is as much fun as learning from them. Men (and a few women) crowd around them, absorbing their tales of high-stakes derring-do, and hoping to glean inspiration. It definitely humanizes the pros who, if you watch them on TV, sometimes look like little more than cold-blooded con artists. After a few minutes of conversation with Fischman, a middle-aged student turns around and tells me, "Scott is a pretty good guy. I never liked him on TV. I always thought he was a wiseass and actually rooted against him."

I'm left wondering why the pros bother. Or, more precisely, what does it take to get a guy like Raymer, who won $5 million in the 2004 World Series and has a sweet deal as a spokesman for PokerStars.com, to spend a weekend teaching poker in Indiana? "The money is not irrelevant," he admits. "I get paid five figures to teach here, and I've always enjoyed teaching. Long before I won the World Series, I participated in an online poker forum called twoplustwo.com and I became known as the go-to guy for tournament questions."

Raymer's knack for educating comes in handy during a play-with-the-pros segment, which ranks as the most instructive part of the weekend. Campers are each given $5,000 in chips and play against one another as if they are in a real tournament. A pro deals and, at the end of every hand, each student's hole cards are revealed and their play is analyzed. "I might tell someone I don't like his raise in early position [because his hand is too weak to justify it]," explains Raymer. "But I'll also tell him that if he was 80 percent certain that everyone behind him would fold, then it's OK to raise with any two cards. You're stealing blinds and antes and that is absolutely fine. I don't want to make anyone feel bad, but I do want to be clear about when your best position in a particular situation is to fold."

The critique's effectiveness hinges on whether you get a playable hand while the pro is dealing cards to your table. With Raymer, for instance, I had a high number of obvious folds before the flop and a few hands that started out playable but never developed into very much. Then, with Outhred in the dealer's seat, I get an Ace and a 10 of diamonds. Not long ago, I would have overvalued this hand. Now, however, I realize that it's just decent enough to play from late middle position. I raise three times the big blind, get popped back by a spiky-haired British guy who's in the big blind seat, and call his raise. When the flop is revealed as Ace-Queen-6, I'm contemplating how much to bet (expecting that he'll check) until he tosses $850 in chips toward the center of the table. Whoops. Before attending the Academy I would have blithely called. (After all, I have Aces, right?) Now, however, I think about what he might have, what might have caused him to raise early on, why he's raising now. Considering his raise from early position, pre-flop, I figure he's got to have Ace-King or at least Ace-Queen. Either way he's got me. I fold.

Then I turn up my starting hand for Outhred to critique. "I didn't mind your initial bet," he says. "But you should have folded when you first got raised by the big blind."

How come? "Think about it," continues Outhred. "What could you have been hoping for on the flop? Ace-10? You got your ace, and you still had to fold when he bet. If you're not going to play a second Ace, what are you going to play?"

I take notes mentally and in my notepad. Lesson learned.

By the time of the tournament, which will have everyone angling for a $10,000 seat in the World Series of Poker championship, I feel that I've absorbed a lot. But I'm also in agreement with Raymer, who thinks I'll be able to take in only about 10 percent of what the instructors throw at me. That's fine, but I'm not sure what it'll do for me at the table. I stack my $5,000 in tournament chips and spot Raymer sitting a few seats to my right. Only this time he's playing rather than dealing. And I've already been warned that the pros and Academy staff play plenty hard (on the plus side, they all have $100 bounties: knock one of 'em out and he hands you a crisp Benjamin). They don't get to keep any prizes (those go to the student runners-up), but they do have reputations to protect, and Raymer has no qualms about destroying the very people he had been instructing just a few hours ago.

Several hands in, however, something strange happens. Maybe I've absorbed more than 10 percent or maybe that's all I needed to get a reasonable game going. But suddenly I feel as if I know what I'm doing. My bets seem sensible, and I remember Alex Outhred's advice to think about opponents' reasons for raising and calling. I let the logic of their decisions influence my own. The game becomes more fun than it's ever been for me. At a couple points, I become low on chips. But I remember to push all in with a playable hand before the flop as soon as I get to less than 10 times the big blind. And it works.

Five hours into the tourney only six players remain. Two of them are Academy owners Jeff Goldenberg and Brandon Rosen. One of them is me. So that means I just need to beat three more players for the World Series seat. But once again, I'm low on chips, pretty much in fourth place and playing a nice tight, but aggressive game. I need to find a spot in which to double up. It comes when I push all in with a pair of 10s and find myself a favorite against Rosen. My cards hold up; he passes me his chips and a $100 bill for bouncing him out of the tournament. By 1 a.m. it's down to me, Goldenberg and a pixie-ish blonde. I'm the table's undisputed chip leader, having caught cards at fortuitous moments and managing to knock out a few other students.

When Goldenberg hits a decent starting hand and gets Blondie all in (she's got the least chips), I'm hoping for him to bust her. It'll make me the chip leader and the de facto winner of the Series seat (remember, Goldenberg's not eligible). Five exposed cards later, the poker gods smile. She goes home with a second-place prize (free entry to another Poker Academy), and I'm playing in the main event this summer.

The next morning Goldenberg playfully asks me whether he was right about how much you can learn in two days at the Poker Academy. I tell him that he might be, though I'm reserving comment till after I win the World Series.

Michael Kaplan is a Cigar Aficionado contributing editor.

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