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When to Hold Em and When to Go to Poker School
After a whole afternoon playing No-Limit Texas Hold ’Em poker, this was the moment that Donny Campbell had been waiting for.
Hunched over a poker table in a back room here at Caesars Palace, Mr. Campbell, 29, looked down at his cards to see a pair of queens. One of his two opponents had bet $300 in chips, and the other $600, and now the bet had come around to him.
Mr. Campbell stared into the distance, as if to bore a hole through the wall with his eyes. He paused. Then he looked at his cards again.
“I re-raise,” he said, pushing $1,200 in chips to the center of the table.
This rattled the others. The first opponent folded his cards quietly. The second, sighing, did the same.
But before Mr. Campbell could celebrate his victory, Mark Seif, a prize-winning poker player who was dealing the hand, interjected a stern dose of advice.
“That just worked out, but that re-raise might have been risky considering which cards could have beaten you,” Mr. Seif said. “Position is important, but just because you’re last to act doesn’t always mean you need to be the aggressor.”
Mr. Campbell, of Tampa, Fla., smiled with gratitude. Under normal circumstances, he might have been embarrassed after making such a strategic gaffe in the presence of greatness. On this day, however, Mr. Seif’s evaluation was exactly what Mr. Campbell had paid for as a student.
As more people take up poker as a hobby, the camps are hot commodities...and nearly every one of them has sold out.
Tuition for these experiences isn’t cheap, generally ranging from $1,895 to $4,300. But Jeffrey Pollack, commissioner of the World Series of Poker, says that for people who are serious enough about poker to take a class, the money is a stake in the future.
For those players thinking about playing in events where the buy-in, or cost of entry, is $5,000 or $10,000, Mr. Pollack said that “a couple thousand dollars for valuable instruction is almost like an insurance policy.”
For some poker fanatics, returns on their investments are subtle: a new strategy for hiding the starting hand of ace-king, or a new approach to semi-bluffing, which is a bet or raise on a straight or flush draw.
But for other amateurs, the experience has been soon followed by major winnings.
Consider Bill Spadea of Easton, Mass., who paid $3,000 for a seat at a World Poker Tour camp. Days later, he won $429,114 for finishing 13th at the World Series of Poker “Main Event,” which cost $10,000 to enter.
Then there was Lee Childs, who said he paid $1,500 for a different World Poker Tour camp and bagged $705,229 at the Main Event for finishing seventh. Mr. Childs, who lives in Reston, Va., said that he bought a seat at the boot camp only to “brush up” on some fundamentals.
“I’d say it was money well spent,” Mr. Childs said of the tuition. “I knew how to play poker going in, but hearing these professionals teach discipline got me out of a bunch of hands in the tournament that I probably would have played if I hadn’t just been reminded to stay away from them.”
Every day starts with a keynote speaker — a poker professional, in most cases, but sometimes an expert on statistics or gambling strategy.
Around lunchtime, students hit the tables for live demonstrations. These sessions are just like action in a poker room, except that the dealers at each table are professional poker players.
The Pros serve as instructors and ask students to play hands the way they would in a regular game. Instead of having students surrender (or “muck”) hands when they fold, however, the Pros ask the players to move their cards to the edge of the table until the hand is done.
Finally, when someone wins, all the students show their cards, and the professionals deconstruct the hands, asking each student to explain his or her decision-making. They also review how body language unintentionally reflected strategy to opponents. Then the instructors offer their opinions — however critical they might be.
T. J. Cloutier, a member of the Poker Hall of Fame, said that while the step-by-step review can be harsh, it offered a great way for students to learn how they should have played their own hands and how opponents could have played theirs.
“Poker is a situational game,” Mr. Cloutier said, “so talking about how someone should have handled a certain hand in a particular situation could help you down the road, too.”
Of course, success at poker schools doesn’t automatically translate into success in live games. As in other sports, practice makes perfect.