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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

(continued from page 1)

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.


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