Do you want to be the next Puggy Pearson? I know I do. That’s why I attended the World Series of Poker Academy.
By Harmon Leon • Illustration by Patrick McQuade
There are great names from the World Series of Poker’s past: Amarillo Slim, Puggy Pearson, Doyle Brunson. Gruff, manly names. The kind of guys you, like me, might fantasize about being—the kind of guy who might down a bottle of bourbon, stuff a cigar in his mug, and then casually lay down a Royal Flush. You want to learn your craft at the World Series of Poker Academy—the official poker school of the WSOP. Held in Las Vegas at the Rio, this two-day intensive class heralded more than 40 years of world-class poker instruction from the likes of Greg Raymer, Mark Seif, Shawn Rice, and several other pros from those numerous late-night poker TV shows.
Though the Academy focuses on such topics as advanced post-flop techniques and stack-size strategy, what sold me was its Mind and Body seminar with Joe Navarro—a former FBI agent who used to interrogate terrorists and master criminals. Navarro now uses his keen powers of observation, along with his body-language expertise, to teach players how to interpret more than 200 body tells at the poker table—pretty kick-ass stuff.
The WSOP Academy is held in a conference space where several green-felt tables are set up. Roughly 40 players—from all walks of poker life—pay good money to take their game to the next level.
For starters, I take the Academy’s poker-IQ test, found on its website; the test involves 20 hands of simulated tournament play. The result helps evaluate what you need to work on in your game. The average poker IQ is 130. I get a score of 82. Looks like I’ll be riding the short bus to poker training school. Climb aboard! Here are the top things we’ll learn:
GET THE PSYCHOLOGICAL EDGE
In the movie version of the Academy, I’d cast an intense Christian Bale in the role of poker mind-set guru Sam Chauhan. (For some reason, his seminar ends with the class breaking boards with a hammer.) Chauhan’s seminar touches on winning mind-set strategies right out of Sun Tzu’s book The Art of War: Always look directly into the eyes of your opponent. In an event of a bad beat, don’t show anger. Never argue with the other players. Avoid being your own worst enemy. Go to your private cave for confidence. Use a relaxation anchor to make you feel as if you have the nuts.
HAVE A DIRTY HARRY LOOK
Psychologically, people tend to avoid a person they perceive as being aggressive. So, when going up against a player in a bluff situation, try to develop a Dirty Harry look.
Former trial lawyer turned poker pro Mark Seif explains, “If you have an angry person at the table, people tend not to want to deal with him.” Seif demonstrates by doing his Dirty Harry—the very look he used to win two WSOP bracelets. It works. I no longer want to deal with him.
Here’s a poker tip that blew my mind: Wrinkling one’s forehead is an involuntary reaction when showing displeasure. Even seasoned pros like Daniel Negreanu can’t hide it. According to Seif, some players use Botox to hide their forehead reaction so other players won’t be able to read when they’ve drawn a bad hand. (No names mentioned.) Seif reasons, “It’s one less thing for them to worry about.” In the highly competitive poker world, it gives players that muscle-freeze upper hand. (Personally, I’d rather just wear a much bigger hoodie.) So, Botox is not just for women who watch countless hours of Sex and the City.
BE THE HAMMER, NOT THE NAIL
Just as soccer is a 90-minute game, when playing in a tournament, your goal is to make it to the final table. Therefore, don’t be too loose. New players want to be involved in all the action so they end up playing way too many hands. You’ll burn out if you start too fast. Learn to be a tight player and focus on the good hands. Once you start playing fewer hands, you’ll find that the decision-making process becomes easier.
Conversely, new players sometimes don’t play aggressively enough. You’ll get run over at the poker table if you don’t put that foot on the pedal when the time is right. No one likes to get run over. According to our WSOP Academy instructors, poker’s easy when you don’t have to make the tough decisions.
MAKE YOUR RAISES TELL A STORY
I get some “tough love” from Shawn Rice, a poker pro from Texas, as well as a Larry the Cable Guy doppelgänger. “Did someone try to steal the apple out of your lunch sack when you were little?” he scolds.
I’m not sure what that means, but I take it as a reference to my erratic raising ability. Rice insists, “Always raise 60 percent of the pot.” He then stresses that a raise should correspond with your chip-stack size. Always compare how much you have to how much they have in the chip department.
“Think of things in terms of a story,” Rice tells our attentive table of players. “All the information is right in front of you.
“Your betting amount tells what hand you have. Tell a good story. Really sell them on the story. Once you understand the story, you’ll see the art of poker.”
More tough love: Even though I just won a pot with an Ace/King, Rice quotes something from the movie Billy Madison to emphasize how stupid my betting was. “If you’re short stacked, then go all in. Poker’s all about taking advantage of situations.”
Maybe what irked Shawn Rice was that I was trying to be the nail and not the hammer?
FOCUS ON THE CARDS
A hoodie and sunglasses seem to be the standard poker uniform at the WSOP. Former FBI agent/body-language specialist Joe Navarro dismisses the flashy poker acces sories. “It makes you see a lot less at the table,” he stresses with a smirk. Navarro explains that when a player is wearing sunglasses, he is still easy to read: “It doesn’t block how their eyes react when they arch their eyebrows.”
Also forget hiding inconspicuously behind your hoodie: “Hoodies mean nothing—they don’t track how you are sitting, perched, and the position of your hands.”
Navarro believes that hands (human hands) are the biggest giveaway when collecting information on your opponents. Check to see if their hands are flat or arched in a ready-for-action position. When a player shows strong hands, they will be forward into the table, since we tend to move toward things we like. We also subconsciously incarcerate the cards if they have value. Spread fingers also designate a strong hand while fingers close together or thumbs hidden means the player’s hand is weak. (Use this to read his bluff.) For the optimal position, Navarro suggests hiding your thumbs and keeping your elbows in. When other players try to read you, all they’ll get is a blank slate.
TURN THE MUSIC OFF
Wearing headphones at the table while listening to your favorite iPod music shuffle (be it Eye of the Tiger or The Little Mermaid theme) is another big poker fad. Forget it if you want to be a poker purist who can zone into reading the other players.
Navarro stresses, “Don’t listen to music while playing at the tables. You’ll miss the involuntary cathartic exhale of your opponents. Exhaling with puffed cheeks is a pacifier and denotes something negative in the brain.”
True, or maybe Justin Bieber just came into their music mix?
KNOW WHEN TO FOLD
One of my favorite players, Greg “Fossilman” Raymer, offered his tournament winning expertise in poker-hand analysis. Our table is dealt a series of hands. Raymer then critiques our cards to determine if we’ve made the right play. Some Raymer hand insights: Know that it’s okay to fold on Ace/6. Only stay with Queen/8 in accordance to your position at the table. King/Jack is a good hand to open with, but fold after the flop if you’re not going to bluff and the rest of the cards aren’t telling a good story.
EXPLOIT THE WEAK
Early in the game, get a feel for the weak players at the table. Gather information about them and note how they play over a wide range of hands. Then go to town and try to knock them out. In the later stages of the tournament, adjust your play to the stronger players. Bluff more and be aggressive. Stack up those chips. One very weak thing to do: Throw in a $500 chip when you meant to throw in a $25 chip—thus a reason to always make a verbal bet first.
AVOID GETTING “THE TILT”
No one wants “the tilt.” Greg Raymer doesn’t want it. Shawn Rice doesn’t want it. Former FBI agent Joe Navarro doesn’t want it. I had “the tilt” once—it wasn’t pretty. “The tilt” is a state of mental confusion where a player completely loses his shit. The player usually starts to become irrational and overly aggressive with his play. Combat this by always staying in the moment. Analyze every situation, recognize the highs and lows of the game, maintain, and—most important of all—do not give up. Remember, there are only two ways to win in poker: either everyone folds, or you have the best hand. Just ask Puggy Pearson and Amarillo Slim.
You can improve your poker game by going to WSOPAcademy.com. Its new, highly interactive, online school features 24/7 poker training.