April 27, 2005


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Poker, like skiing, is a sport of confidence, and the challenge confronting any beginner is to boost he or her self-esteem without winding up broke, or in the second case, with a broken leg. Fortunately, novices have three main ways to remedy these dangers: Practice helps, but only if you practice the right things, as does advice from friends, but only if they give you the right advice. Then there is the third category: the paid lesson, and if that’s too expensive, the instructional video.

Despite its associations with shamsters, suckers and Richard Simmons, I’m a big fan of the instructional video. It was Warren Miller who taught me how to jump from helicopters. In my days (six years, actually) as a ski instructor, it was well known that even if you can’t be a great skier, it helps to imitate them. Other great videos taught me not to sexually harass my co-workers, and why drugs are bad.

Now, it was with this in my mind that I watched PokerThink: How a Poker Champ Thinks His Way to Success. I jumped at the chance to sharpen my skills. As a new player to tournament no-limit Texas hold-em poker, I’ve lost all but one of the dozen or so games I played this semester (and one of them was to a 13-year-old). The game I did win, interestingly, was on a total bullshit hand, a three and a five off-suit. So before going off to another poker table last night, I soaked in every word of World Poker Champ Tom McEvoy (as the video reminds the viewer at nearly every possible occasion), author of thirteen books on Poker, including his latest title.

This particular instructional video is short on lectures and big on practice. McEvoy participates in a game with several solid amateurs, and then gives an after the fact rundown of every player’s moves and how they could have improved. It’s a good thing he won, because I couldn’t see what about him was so “expert” with only a single viewing. Anyway, it would soon become apparent how little it mattered.

So there I was on another Monday night drinking Keystones in a smoke-filled kitchen until 3 a.m., watching my stack fluctuate and running the experiment I had in mind. Here was my chance to see whether, with my new skills, I could walk away with the pot. I chose to play with people who I had lost to before, and the video was my secret weapon: clearly, if I won, the video would get a good review. Around the five-dollar table from your author, the button, we had: Smarts, Value, Slick, Nikkie No-Pants, and Mark the Shark.

Without reciting the entire game, No Pants and The Shark took hold of several sizable pots and slow played the rest of us. Slick, who went all in several times, wound up taking those pots each time, eventually putting himself in second. How did I apply the lessons distilled from the video? I folded more hands, sat more patiently, and waited for some really good cards. The toughest thing was losing all of my bad habits, which kept creeping back as much as I tried to suppress them and remember W.W.T.M.D.? One of the most successful moves for me was a big raise (relative to pot size) in early position with a marginal hand. Use it as a check to see if the other players are serious, and if they re-raise, get the hell out.

But then, with Value out, I began betting like a fool. As he pointed out, it’s easy to make calls after the game, and McEvoy certainly has the advantage of hindsight. I was out second. No Pants took the $40 pot (Value and I did a re-buy-in: it’s like burning money).

And even though I wiped out, perhaps there lies a truth in all this. If we’re going to burn our money anyway, it may be worth the $19.95 (30 Day Money Back Guarantee!) for this or other similar products to learn from the experts. Even though I promised a bad review if I lost, it’s not always the fault of the teacher that the pupil is a screwup.

Archived article by Pete Norlander
Sun Senior Writer