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Learning From the Pros (Real Pros): The World Poker Tour Tournament Boot Camp
It's Sunday morning and I'm sitting at a poker table with nine people. The game is no-limit Texas hold'em, the blinds are $25-$50, and I'm one off the button. I'm paying particular attention to the players as they react to their cards, for this one time, anyway, resisting the impulse to take a look at my own before the action gets to me. Fold … fold … fold … fold … fold. My turn. I look down and find an incredibly modest Q-8 offsuit. I raise, making it $150 to go. Button folds. Small blind folds. Big blind calls, and I am nervous.
I'm not nervous because a lot is at stake – not money though – as these aren't real chips, and this isn't a real game. I'm nervous because of the legendary figure dealing the cards: T.J. Cloutier, sporting a white baseball jersey with a WPT Boot Camp logo embroidered on it. The wily old veteran, as those of us here on a weekend at the World Poker Tour Boot Camp have learned, is very approachable and very friendly - but he does not suffer fools lightly. He was more than just a dealer for this hand; he was a teacher, one of several pros manning 4 tables in a large conference room at the hotel, and he was critiquing our play. That's why I'm nervous. I don't want to make a mistake in front of Cloutier or my fellow students. We'd spent most of the previous 7 hours learning about tournament poker from every conceivable angle, and now we were getting a chance to put it to work.
The pot is right, and Cloutier deals the flop: ace, rag, rag, rainbow. I make a standard continuation bet, and the big blind folds. No comment from Cloutier (I was hoping for something on the order of "nice play"), until I glance up at him and he is staring at me disparagingly. “The old queen-eight off-suit huh?” he asks. I know what I did wrong before he can finish the question. Earlier he said to the classroom full of eager learners that one of his standard rules was “never, never play a three-gapper.” So much for not making a mistake in front of everyone. Cloutier then asks me “What are you trying to steal? $75 in chips?” I respond by saying that I know what my mistake was and citing his never play a three-gapper rule. I finally get the approval I’m looking for when he says “That’s exactly right.” I smile big and hear him follow-up with “but it’s one thing to know it and another thing to do it.” My smile disappears and turns into a timid blush as I realize he couldn’t be more right. I guess he didn’t become the most accomplished tournament poker player in history by being wrong. Lesson learned.
Learn, Learn, Learn - and Learn Some More
The weekend-long Boot Camp kicked off with a short refresher course, then lunch is a nice buffet. I was curious about what had drawn people to the Boot Camp (which is not cheap; travel and accommodations are extra, although the fee does include lunch and some WPT Boot Camp goodies), and I started chatting with Robert Mitelhaus, from Southern California. A big guy, around 50, Mitelhaus plays regularly at the Bicycle and Commerce casinos in mid-limit no-limit games; he's been playing for about three years. "I went to my first Boot Camp not long ago," he said. "It made me look at my game in a totally different way. I'm no longer predictable. I understand position better. And I learned that you can't be afraid…selective aggression - that's the number-one thing." This was his second camp and it was clear from our conversation that he was enjoying it and getting just as much out of as he had the first.
His positive endorsement was echoed by a number of people I interviewed throughout the weekend; indeed, the players appeared to be getting their money's worth at this camp. While the quality of the players was clearly all over the map, many I talked to struck me as very knowledgeable; one guy, in fact, told me he'd placed ninth in a Legends of Poker event at The Bicycle Casino. "I'm a lifelong learner," he added when I asked why he was there.
The format was simple and familiar to anyone who has ever been to any kind of corporate seminar. After a brief introduction by the instructors on Saturday morning, each led a section of the material, about an hour long on particular topic.
"Pay attention to everything that's going on at the table. If you are super-observant, you are way ahead of the game." What was unusual about this presentation on the topic - and the most valuable - was that we learned NOT to look for tells in the classic Mike Caro sense, but in the patterns of how people play. What size bets does someone make? When does he alter that size - and can you decipher why? How can you tell if a player is on tilt? (Insulting comments, an angry demeanor, and muttering to himself are good signs.) How can you tell if a player is getting defensive? The lesson: The player who understands the most, wins the most.
Similar to reading people, the focus is on gathering data, which is obviously much easier to do online than in a live event (using paper or the note-taking capabilities provided by most poker sites), like hands you've seen shown down, bet and raise sizes, noting if there are big overbets. Patience was emphasized. Online tournaments really start to get serious around level four in a sit-and-go, or after 50 percent of the field is gone in a multitable. The key is to stick to basic starting hands and position requirements early, but be prepared to change gears.
"Fame and fortune go only to the winner," the instructors said. "Runners-up become answers to trivia questions. When the game is shorthanded or heads up, you must become more aggressive. The guy doing the most betting will win the most chips." Although aggressive play throughout a tournament is central to winning in today's world, you have to ramp it up even more short-handed. Conventional wisdom used to be that "the right strategy was to survive until the end and then play to win. But the people winning today are in there mixing it up. Tight players don't win poker tournaments." This idea is at the heart of lots of players' strategy today.
During the buffet lunch, I decided to sit with T.J. Cloutier and it’s a treat to be able to dine with a Poker Hall of Famer. All the instructors were so friendly and approachable, it was amazing how giving of their time everyone was to the attendees. It appeared that no question went unanswered.
I needed some coffee by now - it has been a pretty long day already and there's a lot of learning still to be done - so I grabbed a cup and sat down ready to do some more learning. The seminar focused on how to think about what has changed from the last hand to this one, to determine how that will affect the way people play. What stack sizes does everyone have? Who is short-staked and needs to shove all-in? Who is comfortable? Who is aggressive and looking to steal? What raise sizes are effective in taking down pots preflop? At the beginning of a tournament, it might be three times to five times the big blind; later, it might be two times to two-and-a-half times; I learn that “you want to risk the minimum necessary to put your opponents to meaningful decisions.” And finally we hear about the value of changing gears: "No professional player has ever won a tournament without playing, at some point, loose, tight, aggressive, and passive."
The seminar finished up in the late afternoon and most of the participants felt like me: Our heads were teeming with new knowledge, but we really, really wanted to play some cards. And we got our chance, in the form of single-table tournaments, with the pros watching us play. Of course, it was fun, and even exhilarating, to be playing after the long, poker-intensive days, but it was interesting to witness just how serious everyone, at least at my table, got - even though the prize was a set of poker gear, not cash! No one looked at their cards before the action got to them. Everyone had their poker face on tight. The players were really trying hard to put into practice what they had learned.
Theory Into Practice
You know the old line about teachers: "Those who can, do; those who can't, teach." (I've always liked the Woody Allen version of that line: "Those who can, do; those who can't, teach. And those who can't teach, teach gym.") But the WPT Boot Camp is quite different, because those who teach it are proven professionals - working experts in their field. In that sense, the Boot Camp is a singular opportunity. (Can you imagine, say, Derek Jeter taking the time to teach amateurs how to play shortstop?) The students I spoke to loved the experience, and valued the chance to learn more about the game, firsthand, in an intensive weekend. It was also a helluva lot of fun…to meet all the pros…to learn expert strategies…to live and breathe poker with other aficionados for two-plus days.