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
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.
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