One of the best pieces of poker advice I ever received was from Melissa Hayden, a tough-as-nails pro poker player from Brooklyn. She has been around the game a long time, and can hold her own against the best of them. Before I started my first WSOP main event, Melissa approached me and imparted a little poker pearl which has served me well over the last decade.
It’s easy to feel outclassed when you are sitting at the table with world-class poker players. There are some truly great names in the game, like Phil Hellmuth, Phil Ivey, Doyle Brunson, Johnny Chan, Gus Hansen, and Erik Seidel, who seem intimidating and larger than life when you see them across the felt for the first time. But each of these poker titans began their lives the same way any of us do. And each began their poker career as a donkey.
Everyone knows it’s dangerous in poker to underestimate your opponents, but it can be equally dangerous to overestimate them. The first time I played with Phil Ivey (widely considered to be the best all-around poker player in the world), I couldn’t shake the feeling that perhaps he was playing with some supernatural ability allowing him to reach into my mind and psychically extract the secret of my holecards. After years of playing poker I can now tell you with close to 100% certainty that psychic abilities do not exist at the poker table.
Phil Ivey is a good case-study of the development of a world-class poker player. Phil began gambling as a teenager in Atlantic City, using a fake ID to enter the casinos. The name on his fake ID was Jerome Graham, earning him the nickname “No Home Jerome”. Many think the nickname stuck because he practically lived at the poker table. It’s less known among poker fans that Phil’s nickname stuck at least in part because he was literally homeless at times, sleeping underneath a bridge in New Jersey.
Today, Phil Ivey is admittedly a better player than I claim to be, but he didn’t start out that way. Nobody does. It is only after tens of thousands of hours playing the game, studying the game, thinking and even dreaming about the game that a poker player evolves into something great. New poker players out there shouldn’t be discouraged by this, however. The law of diminishing returns applies in poker as it does to most things. In six months, any dedicated and reasonably intelligent person can become a good poker player. The difference between a good poker player and a world-class poker champion is not as wide as many think. It certainly isn’t as big as the difference between a good player and a bad one.
“The whole problem with the world is that fools and fanatics are always so certain of themselves,
but wiser men so full of doubts.”
The toughest challenge in poker, and perhaps all of life, is to know yourself. It is not an easy task to understand where you are, what you know and how you measure up. The further along you are as a poker player, the less sure of yourself you become.
I have competed at the highest levels of poker against the greatest players to have ever graced the felt. I’ve won and lost small fortunes in a single hand and have been knocked down more times than I can count. This book is the story of how I got to where I am. It’s the playbook I’ve built from my many hard-fought battles in the green felt jungle.
The first part of this book is something of a life story that includes many of the successes and tribulations I’ve experienced throughout my poker career. If you are one of the many readers who bought, borrowed, or stole this book looking for the nitty-gritty poker tips to increase your earn, you’ll find most of that in the second part of the book. I won’t hold it against you if you skip ahead to Part Two.
My life story started in Missouri, Christmas Eve, 1980. I was the firstborn son of my dad, Phil, and mom, Eva, who were both barely out of their teens and into life way over their heads. My dad had just been fired from his police unit for wrecking his cruiser into a telephone pole while filling out a form and steering with his knees. He’d leave his family unit about a year later, right after having my little brother Bobby.. My mom was given a classic bait-and-switch deal, promised one life and given another.
I was too young to form memories of the fighting and crying that must have come along with the transformation of our family of four into a family of three, but I can only imagine the sheer dread my mother must have felt staring at two baby boys and feeling very alone.
After the divorce, my dad stayed out of the picture. No phone calls. No letters. No weekends split between two different houses trying to feign normalcy. Abandonment issues? Yeah, I’ve got those.
As I grow older, I’m learning to forgive my dad, little by little, for abandoning my mom. My dad turned her into a stereotypical single mother and I grew up mirroring the anger that my mom felt towards him. I came to realize that dad was just a dumb kid who made the very common mistake of jumping into a life-long commitment before fully understanding how painfully long life is. I don’t begrudge my dad for leaving my mom anymore, but I still deeply resent his near complete absence in the life of my brother and I growing up. I did learn one valuable lesson from him, though, which has served me well in life.
Never drive a car and write at the same time.
We were in and out of welfare growing up. But Eva Boyd was the kind of strong welfare mom that libertarian hard-liners like to pretend are every bit as much myth as bigfoot. Mom hated thinking about herself and our family as a drain on society. She was a hard worker and a natural artist. I learned fairly early on that these are two skills that society does not reward. My mother would slave away at a grocery store bakery, decorating birthday cakes for minimum wage. Then she would work a second job at a fast-food chain or a factory to pay for childcare for us two boys. Mom would return home tired and emotionally beaten, sometimes with burn marks from a bakery stove on her arms. All for minimum wage.
Shit rolls downhill so there was plenty of yelling in our home growing up. Mom was constantly under a tremendous amount of stress as she wondered how she was going to make rent or the next utility payment. There were many times when our house was heated by the stove. There were countless breakfasts of birthday cakes that were salvaged before being tossed into the grocery dumpster. I don’t begrudge my mom for not always whistling a happy tune. She did the best she could… and she always came home.
I don’t like cake.
When Bobby and I were four and five, the Nintendo Entertainment System launched in the US. One of our neighbors in the apartment complex got one for Christmas. We loved going over there to play Nintendo, even if that actually meant just sitting and watching him play through Metroid. Our neighbor heard that if you beat Metroid three times in a row, the main character would take off his suit to reveal that oh-my-god Samus is a woman. This turned out to be true. It’s the first memory I have of my mind being blown.
Our neighbor also heard a rumor that if you beat Metroid ten times in a row, the woman would get naked and we’d all see 8-bit tits. This turned out to be a lie. I know this because Bobby and I watched our neighbor beat Metroid twenty times in a row and the girl never got naked. Our neighbor left his Nintendo on for a whole week being extra careful not to turn it off while he slept so he wouldn’t lose his progress. Bobby and I didn’t get to play more than a half hour during that whole time. He said he was worried we’d mess it up, but the real reason was probably because it’s boring and frustrating as shit watching someone else play Metroid while you are sitting on the couch doing nothing. Video games are a lot like poker in that regard.
Bobby and I came up with a plan to get our own Nintendo. Our mom had recently taken us to the dollar theater to see Back to the Future. We came up with the idea that we would build a time machine and travel into the future and ask our future selves for a few hundred bucks so that we could go to Toys “R” Us and buy the system (and a few games).
We scavenged our apartment complex dumpsters for any material that could possibly be parts for a time machine. We filled up a shoebox full of rusty screws, broken shards of glass, and aluminum cans. Then we got to tinkering.
It didn’t work. But I still think that if I’m ever just chilling out and some kid approaches me claiming to be my former self from the past, and asks me for a couple hundred bucks so him and his little brother can go buy Zelda, I’d take that little kid to Best Buy and send him back to 1985 with an Xbox 360… and strict orders not to let that asswad next door play.
The only constant in my life was family. My mother spent every minute she could with Bobby and I, and devoted herself to teaching us about the world and raising us right. She taught us to read when we were two and three years old. She would also drag us to church every single Sunday. My mother was, and still is, a devout Mormon. She gives 10% of her income to tithing and 50% of her weekend to church meetings. It’s the only leak that I think she’s ever had, besides her addiction to Pepsi.
Whenever my mom wouldn’t be able to make rent, we’d move to a different place. We moved around a lot. Something like two dozen different places before I was ten. Sometimes it would be a small move across town. Other times it would be a longer one to a different state. I got used to constant change. The temporary nature of friends. The uncertainty of where you will be in the short term. This outlook would come to serve me well as a professional poker player.
When I turned eight, my dad and my grandma sent me a package containing a combined Christmas and birthday present for Bobby and I to share. It was a Nintendo. I loved my dad that day.
You can buy a kid’s love with video games.
It was shortly after we got our Nintendo that I made my first bet. I had my eye on a new video game called Double Dragon, where two brothers battle a violent street gang with bats and knives to rescue a kidnapped common love interest. It didn’t seem weird to me then that both brothers would share a common love interest. Double Dragon just called to me. I had almost saved up enough money from my Christmas and Birthday checks to buy the game. I was only ten bucks short, but I was also eight and unemployed.
One day I came home from school and my mom asked what I’d learned that day. I told her that in science class I had learned the average temperature of the human body. “And what is it,” she asked.
I responded with a certainty: 97.8 degrees.
I have very little doubt that my school teacher did NOT tell her class that the human body was 97.8 degrees. The actual average core temperature of the human body is 98.6 degrees, and my mother knew this because prior to getting married and having kids, she spent a year in nursing school. She told me as much, but I was completely confident that she was wrong and I was right. The actual average core temperature of the human body is a fact that will forever be carved into my brain because of what my mom said next. “Uhhh… wanna bet?””
I did. I did wanna bet. How much? Ten dollars. That’s the amount I needed to start playing Double Dragon, and that’s the amount I was sure I was going to win off of my mother. We drove to the library and looked it up in the Encyclopedia Britannica. I was wrong.
Losing that bet was about the worst feeling I can remember ever having. Now I’ve had a lot of experience with losses. Several times at the WSOP I’ve had big pocket pairs cracked near or even at a final table, sending me on the rail to watch the lucky bastard soar to a bracelet win with the resulting chip lead. Once, in a big Tunica PLO cash game, I had a guy catch a four-outter on the river to snatch away a $40,000 pot. Once, while playing outside with Bobby, he accidentally dropped a brick on my foot and I lost my big toenail in the resulting bloody mess.
All of those negative experiences paled in comparison to that sickening feeling of losing that first ten dollar bet. It was the first and only time I’ve ever actually cried over a gambling loss.
My mom must have felt pretty bad for me. After I had stopped crying, she took us out for pizza. Then she drove me over to the local high school and told me she was going to give me a chance to win my money back. She pointed to a hurdle on the empty track and said if I could jump over that hurdle she’d give me the $20 I needed for Double Dragon. It seemed like an impossible feat. The hurdle seemed to be as high as my shoulders. I asked her for three shots at it, and she agreed.
On my first attempt, I ran full-speed and tried to clear the jump. I hit my shin on the hurdle, and crashed and burned. It hurt, but I was numb to pain. I got up, dusted myself off, put the hurdle back upright, and tried again. The second time, I ran even harder and jumped over it like an Olympic athlete would perform a high jump. I cleared it.
The extreme feeling of elation after “winning” that twenty dollars almost equaled the profound sense of loss I had felt earlier that day. I was giddy, and so was Bobby for that matter. He wanted to play the game just as badly as I did. My mom took us to Kmart and Bobby and I spent the rest of the night and all of that weekend glued to the television as we fought through waves of gang members, beating them with bats and slicing them with knives, working to rescue our common love.
By the time I was 10 years old, after some time in Utah and California, the three of us moved back to Missouri to a small rural town north of Kansas City called Orrick. My mom had met a guy from the area named Albert. The two had gotten engaged and my mom moved our family to Orrick to be closer to him. Then Mom and Albert broke up and we stayed in Orrick because we didn’t have a better place to go.
Bobby and I were oblivious to the adult drama going on in my mom’s world. It was a good and simple time in our lives. We would spend the days playing pickup baseball games in the neighborhood and spend the evenings playing video games. When the school year started, we were given placement tests and we scored highly enough to enter the gifted program.
Orrick was such a small town that each grade in the elementary school only had about 25 kids. The gifted program actually just meant that every day, during the reading hour, three or four of the kids in each grade who had scored highly enough on the placement test spent an hour with the school’s principal, Mr. Brown. He was a great educator and the gifted program was like a little laboratory where for an hour Mr. Brown would have us focus on any special project that he thought would be worth doing. One week we’d read high-school books, the next week, Mr. Brown would teach us a little programming on a few old computers, and the following week we would perform a play on Lincoln. I looked forward to that hour every school day because it was always filled with something new.
For one project, as part of a scholarship program for Duke University, Mr. Brown decided to have us all take the ACT. The ACT is a college admittance test similar to the SAT. Mr. Brown worked with us through several of the ACT review books. Picture a handful of 10, 11 and 12 year old kids receiving a crash-course in high-school algebra from a zealous, full-bearded farmer-turned-teacher and you have a good idea of what our ACT review was like. When the scores came back, I scored 23 out of a possible 36. It wasn’t an amazing score by any stretch as the average high school graduate nationally scored a 21 and I remember there being four 13 year olds who snagged a perfect score as part of the same Duke program. But 23 was decent, especially for an 11 year old kid.
The next year, my mom decided to take me out of school and enroll me in a community college located near Kansas City, about an hour away from where we lived. The college had an open admission policy which meant anybody could enroll as long as they had obtained a GED or an 18 score on the ACT. But I had just turned 12 and I did not feel ready. I expressed my misgivings to mom telling her I didn’t know enough to be a college student. She just smiled and responded matter-of-factly, “That’s why you go to college, to learn.” I still wasn’t convinced. Then mom told me that being a full-time college student meant spending only 12 hours a week in class, as opposed to 35 hours a week at middle school. I was sold. I started part time at Metropolitan Community College in January 1993, and moved up to full-time in the summer semester.
Orrick was a farming community right next to the Missouri River. The river would end up flooding the town along with the two bedroom house we were renting. Before the flood, Bobby and I spent a weekend with the rest of the town, filling canvas bags with sand and reinforcing the levee. There was an energetic feeling as the community banded together to save their homes from the slowly rising waters. It felt like a Frank Capra movie, with everybody working hard towards a noble goal and a happy ending.
But nature isn’t sentimental. The levee broke.
It was about this time that I was first introduced to poker. After the flood, we didn’t have much of a reason to stay in Orrick….not that we had much of a reason before. We moved to a Kansas City suburb called Raymore. Our house was about an hour away from my dad’s mother, and she arranged for us to spend a weekend with her. I liked my grandma right away.
That Friday night, Grandma Sue pulled out some old board games and taught us to play Stratego. After the game was finished, she pulled out a worn deck of cards and a bag of Tootsie Rolls. Grandma divided the candy like a dealer would divide poker chips. Then she taught Bobby and I how to play five card draw. She dumped off her “chips” and went to bed. Bobby and I played through the night.
I don’t remember who won in our first games of poker. I just remember that Tootsie Rolls won taste better. I was hooked.