When most people see a poker game, the first thing they think is that it’s all about luck. And they aren’t necessarily wrong. But believe it or not, poker is more than just a casino game; it’s a game of skill, patience, and tact, that takes thousands of hours of practice to get good at (Yes, you can get good at poker). The problem is, most people don’t really understand what it takes.
Last week, we had the opportunity to head down to The Bahamas to check out the inaugural PokerStars Championship Bahamas with our friends from PokerStars.com. In between the action on the tournament floor, we got to interview some of the best pro players on the PokerStars team roster, and asked them a bunch of questions about the art of poker. We took the opportunity to dig for the information they wouldn’t normally give up to bring you the kind of stuff you can actually use.
Daniel Negreanu – Total Live Earnings: $32,887, 948
Self-Awareness Is the Key to Everything
Daniel Negreanu did our interview from his lavish hotel room at The Atlantis Resort. He answered the door barefoot and wearing sweatpants, and asked us to eat all his food. Most importantly, he was always gracious and smiling. According to him, the number one most important trait for a good poker player is self-awareness, otherwise known as your ability to have a deep understanding of how people are going to perceive you. Once you get that, you can use their perception to your benefit on the table. It also makes us wonder if there’s an off switch and if he was maybe playing us a bit.
Keep a List of the People you Play With
Negreanu makes sure to keep a list—and studies it frequently—of the people he plays against, and what their playing styles are, what their tells are, what works against them and what doesn’t. Even if it’s something as small as a couple notes on your phone, make sure you’re not only paying attention to who you’re playing with, but what’s been working and what hasn’t. Then react accordingly.
Fatima Moreira de Melo – Total Live Earnings: $484,237
Don’t Wear Tight Clothing at the Table
When Fatima Moreira de Melo isn’t playing professional poker, she’s staying active, representing various brands, laying down tracks, modeling, and being a generally kick-ass woman. That said, despite enjoying more form-fitting clothing away from the table, she never wears tight clothes when the cards are down.
According de Melo, tight clothing gives away a lot about a person’s body language—fidgeting, raised veins, heart rate, etc. By avoiding tight clothing, you deny your opponents potential ammunition, with the added benefit of being comfortable.
Treat Poker Players Like Buying a House
Every individual player is different, and each fresh table brings with it a plethora of new things to learn about your opponents. De Melo compares the process of getting to know every new opponent to buying a house: “That’s what I always say. If you’re going to buy a house, you have to check out the house first. How many bedrooms? How many bathrooms? Is the foundation good? You get the information first before you buy the house, and that’s what you have to do with every person at your table—get the information about them before throwing your chips at them.” Never buy site unseen, and never toss chips at poker players you don’t know.
Chris Moneymaker – Total Live Earnings: $3,644,639
In This Industry, Failure is a Job Requisite
Chris Moneymaker is every amateur poker player’s dream. By sheer luck, in 2003, Moneymaker was offered a chance to compete in the World Series of Poker. Despite being a literal nobody in the sport, Moneymaker went on to win the whole tournament.
According to Moneymaker, if you want to be a successful poker player, you better be able to fail and not get bent out of shape about it. In fact, he says failure will be up to 85% of your job, on average. It’s the same general principle as most talents, the difference being getting good at the saxophone probably won’t put you a couple grand in the hole. If you’re going to take Moneymaker’s advice, it’s best to have some flexible capital.
Jason Somerville – Total Live Earnings: $3,619,118
Start Online to Learn the Fundamentals
Jason Somerville is one of the most influential online poker players today, and according to him (and just about everyone else we interviewed), starting online is the best way to learn the fundamentals and mathematical theory that go along with poker. Online games allow you to see poker from a less personal, less jumbled, and less chaotic perspective, making you focus more on the cards in front of you and how they’re played. You can learn all the body language tricks you want, but if you don’t know a flush beats a straight or the likelihood of getting the cards you need, you won’t survive long.
Liv Boeree – Total Live Earnings: $3,152,648
Poker is 85% Theory—So Know the Math
It should shock positively no one that Liv Boeree suggests prospective poker aficionados take a scientific approach. After all, not only is she a professional player, a TV presenter, and model, but she’s a literal astrophysicist. As in, someone who does math all the time, possibly for fun, definitely for money.
Getting a grounding in theory and the mathematical fundamentals of poker is roughly 85 percent clear-cut theory, and 15 percent of “the more artsy stuff” as she liked to call it—like psychology, learning how to pick up on a player’s tells, etc. So yeah, Rounders was a good movie, but Matt Damon still had to know some basic math. Despite what proponents say, poker isn’t all being able to read someone.
Aaron Paul – Total Live Earnings: N/A
Be Quiet, Zone Out, and Watch People
Aaron Paul is an extremely talented actor, known for his role as Jesse Pinkman on the AMC hit series Breaking Bad. As it turns out, he’s also quite the recreational card hustler. We were very interested in his “Shut up and tune out” commentary, because here’s a guy who made his first really big impact on television with a character who’s known for loud, crass catchphrases and drug addiction. Yet, when it comes to the table, it’s all about quietude, tranquility, and focus.
When he’s playing, Paul tries to stay quiet and zone out as much as possible. It helps him stay patient and focused, and keeps him from making potentially fatal mistakes.
Turns out, being a good actor isn’t always an advantage in poker.