Shortcut to Gambling Nirvana
Enlighten your path to enlarged winnings at poker, sports, blackjack and golf
From the Print Edition:
Jay-Z, May/June 2009
Spend enough time reading this magazine and you will encounter stories about incredibly bright men with astonishing skills. Some of them seem like sleight-of-hand artists or mind readers. Others come across as out-and-out bandits. Mathematically astute and creatively resourceful about liberating the bankrolls of strangers, they are professional gamblers of the highest caliber. The best of them devise innovative techniques for beating the very games that most of us play only recreationally.
Never mind, for a moment, that gambling for entertainment and gambling to win are divergent pursuits. Wouldn't it be sweet to occasionally bust the bank in Vegas, make money on the odd round of golf or confidently clean up in poker tournaments? Assuming you have the aptitude to develop the necessary skills, if you make your money at a day job and visit casinos only occasionally, you probably lack the time and inclination to devote most of your waking thoughts to refining strategies for your propositions of choice. And, truth be told, most successful gamblers think of nothing more than ways of winning money.
Aiming to uncover a happy middle ground, the sweet spot where economy of time merges with successful wagering, we've picked the brains of four people who've devised shortcuts to finding edges at gambling's most commonly beatable endeavors: blackjack, poker, sports betting and golf. Their techniques won't turn you into an MIT card counter, or set you up to approach No-Limit Hold'em with the intuition of Phil Ivey, but they will allow you to play with a plan—and maybe even win a few bucks—while expending relatively minimal effort on learning how to do it.
Common wisdom holds that poker is a game of reading opponents and making a series of complex decisions in short periods of time. That's true for the best players. Top online pro Tom "durrrr" Dwan says that his success centers on a knack for making fewer mistakes than everyone else. Gifted pros play thousands of hands, see certain situations repeatedly and eventually develop techniques to deal with them. At its highest level, poker consists of subtle, cerebral offensive and defensive plays.
But what if you could win at Texas Hold'em with fewer complexities? What if you made your big decisions before the flop, before things got too tricky? And what if you executed bold moves that skilled players don't like defending against? Poker pros Blair Rodman and Lee Nelson have devised a strategy that is built on a foundation of pressuring superior practitioners and upending their decision-making processes by pushing all-in or folding, pre-flop, on every hand. This approach, based on just two decisions, disarms opponents and forces them to play in an unappealingly high-risk manner. Rodman calls it "Kill Phil," which is, not coincidentally, also the title of a book that he and Nelson coauthored.
At first, their technique (named in honor of Phils Hellmuth and Ivey) sounds unduly chancy. But after further inspection, it makes sense for inexperienced or outclassed players. It's a highly simplified variation on the approach that Chris "Jesus" Ferguson employed to great effect in the 2000 World Series of Poker championship when he found himself heads up against Texan T. J. Cloutier, who was clearly more seasoned and more conservative. Ferguson overcame his disadvantage by pushing all-in more often than would seem prudent, confusing Cloutier and leveling the playing field by ratcheting up the luck factor—albeit choosing to do it when he seemed likely to have better cards. This approach worked. When Ferguson attempted his final Hail Mary while holding just Ace-9, he hit his card and won the World Series bracelet. "Timid tournament players don't have a chance," says Rodman. "If you're not that good and not super aggressive, you bleed off chips to better players. The basic strategy here is to be very aggressive." It's fold-or-jam poker.
Rodman's plan can be retooled to work in no-limit cash games as well: players buy in for the minimum and fold all pre-flop cards until they catch a monster; at which point they push all-in. For tournaments, the approach entails playing tight at the beginning (when many chips aren't on the table) and opening up as blinds and antes rise and richer opportunities present themselves. "Opponents hate when you play this way," says Rodman, pointing out that it's hard for them to call a high percentage of all-in bets. "They say that it's not poker. My response is, 'OK. It's not poker. But it's the best way to attack the game if you're not experienced.' It forces players who are better than you to fold hands that they would normally play. You get very good players to completely change their games because they become scared of you. Doesn't that say something right there?"
Nevertheless, as Rodman readily acknowledges, this approach—which advises pushing all-in while holding not-so-strong cards like King-9 off-suit (with a medium stack, on the button, in an unraised pot) and doing the same thing with hands as low as Ace-10 off-suit against a late-position raiser—is a learning platform rather than a means to an end. He rightly notes that getting good at tournament poker requires players to mix it up with opponents and figure out the game; his strategy is something to use as you learn tournament Hold'em and refine your approach. "If you lack an executable strategy," he adds, "you'll never have the chance to move in all your chips, watch guys like Phil Hellmuth fold and hear them grumble when they see what you pushed with." Indeed, it may not be poker, but, as Rodman insists, "It's a lot of fun and you'll actually have a chance to make some money."
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