How do you feel heading into this year’s Main Event, which begins July 5?
Every year I’m confident going in. The field has gotten tougher over the last 11 years—the average player is a lot better. Eleven years ago when there were only 800 people, the field was relatively tough. From 2004 to 2008, it got really soft; you had all these new players who didn’t know what they were doing, which can be dangerous. The average field is better now, which is good. You don’t have guys over-betting pots all the time, forcing you to make tough decisions. You can last a little longer and play more secure. But it’s definitely a grind. It’s a little over two weeks to be out there for one tournament. I’m just trying to get my sleep patterns in gear, and hopefully I’ll be ready.
How have your strategies changed over the years? Are you playing more small-ball than the aggressive style you played in 2003?
The game has changed so much since 2003. If it hadn’t, I’d be selling cars right now. A lot of people I know who were pros back in ’03 are no longer in the game, because the game has evolved so much. My game now is completely different. [In ’03, it] was literally ABC poker, no three-betting, no four-betting light. Playing premium hands, playing position, and my strategy was pretty much if people checked to me, I bet, and if they bet into me and I didn’t have anything, I folded. I played a lot of fit-or-fold. Today’s game [involves] a lot more creativity. If you play fit-or-fold, people will catch on to it pretty quickly and they’ll chew you up in ways they would not have in ‘03. You’ve got to be flexible.
My game now is patterned after whatever my table will allow me to do. Sit back and be patient on some tables, or be active and play lots of pots on more passive tables.
When people sit next to you in the Main Event on Day One, how do they react?
Anybody who has a name in poker, people react differently to you than they do to somebody they don’t know. They might stay out of your way, or they might try to go out of their way to play pots with you, depending on who they are and who you are. Some of them want a story about bluffing out a pro, and some want to avoid getting in confrontations.
Can you use that to your advantage?
Of course. I’m trying to pick up information on my opponents, [see] if my opponents do things differently against me. I’m trying to figure out how they react to other people. They play a different style, a very polarized style. I figure out real quickly who wants to play pots with me versus people who are straightforward versus people who want to stay out of my way. Up until recently, there were just two classes. People were trying to play pots with me or stay out of my way, but there are so many pros in today’s game and so many people playing on the Internet, people play pretty much one way, and they’re not going to change based on a pro sitting down at the table.
Do you still get excited about playing the World Series, or is it just another tournament at this point?
I get excited when I play any big tournament. I just enjoy the game. Poker is still fun to me, partly because I take breaks—I haven’t played a hand of poker in a week and a half since a country-club game. I won’t touch cards again until I get to Vegas. I’m taking two weeks off. … If I was out in Vegas right now and I had been grinding every World Series event for the last three weeks, I’d probably want to put a gun to my head and end it. I would not enjoy poker if I did that. I like chocolate a lot, but I can’t eat chocolate every night.
What do you know now as a veteran player that young guys playing the Main Event for the first time don’t understand about the tournament?
Just how big of a grind it is. Most tournament players play two-day or three-day tournaments at the most. The Main Event is a different animal. Even when I [first] played it was 14-hour days. You play one day, then you take a couple days off, you come back, you take another day off, then you come back for a week-and-a-half straight. It wears on you mentally. You have to be in good shape mentally to concentrate for that many days. You can’t win a tournament on Day One. Just pace yourself.
How often do you play now living in Tennessee without an online outlet?
I don’t play in Tennessee at all. I’ve picked up my travel schedule since Black Friday [April 15, 2011, when a federal indictment shut down Internet poker]. It’s that or not play, and not playing isn’t an option. Most of my travel has been out of the country.
Have you ever considered moving to Vegas?
No, never in a million years would I move to Vegas. Honestly, I only come to Vegas twice a year: for the Main Event and [NBC’s National Heads-Up Poker Championship]. Vegas was nice when I was in my 20s. Now I’m married with three kids. I’d rather just go back to my condo and get away from it all. I’m there to play that tournament and lay low. I’ll probably watch movies and things of that nature, but I won’t do the Vegas scene anymore.
What’s going to be poker’s next big thing?
It has to be full [online] legalization in the U.S. Once that happens, you get it back on TV. The problem with poker back in the day on TV was they saturated the market. It got to the point where you didn’t know if you were watching a tournament from four years ago.
Everybody wants to say a woman winning the Main Event [would be big for poker], but I don’t think women are going to start playing poker because a woman won the Main Event. The number of women playing poker has grown a lot in the last 10 years, but it’s obviously [still] a very male-dominated sport. I think it will stay that way.
Are you active in the Poker Player’s Alliance?
I used to be real active. I went to Washington, [D.C.], several times. I still do things, but I haven’t been as active the last couple of years.
The Moneymaker Effect is an oral history of your stunning 2003 WSOP Main Event victory and how it led to a poker explosion. However, some of the guys quoted in the book, including fellow pro Howard Lederer, were pretty blunt in their assessment of you as a player at the time. Was that difficult to read?
Not really. I played home games. I was very inexperienced. I was playing over my head, against guys who played daily, and I literally played one day a week. Back then, online players were considered second-class citizens. We weren’t really poker players; we were playing video games. People were very critical of my game. It’s weird to hear someone like Lederer say I’ve never been very good, but whatever. It is what it is.
The boom for a while seemed to sanitize the game from old notions of shady characters, but then you had situations like the Full Tilt scandal and Russ Hamilton. Did the boom really did clean up the game, or did it allow those kinds of stories to get more easily swept under the rug?
It definitely made it more respectable. You have shady characters in every line of work. I remember when I worked, I couldn’t tell people I played online poker. It was really frowned upon. In today’s world you can tell people you’re a poker player and people don’t laugh at you or think you’re the scum of the earth. You have doctors, lawyers. Everybody’s playing. That being said, as things become more acceptable and out there, the stories that come along with it, good and bad, get moved to the limelight. A poker player’s lifestyle is very different than any other lifestyle you could ever imagine.
Poker players will go and borrow $100,000 on a handshake or a promise. It’s done on a daily basis. In the everyday world to everybody else, it’s completely unheard of. If you’re a poker player and you don’t borrow or loan money, it’s going to be tough to survive. The game, by nature, has a lot of money trading hands. That’s the way the game has always sort of been, and that doesn’t translate to people outside of poker. But again, with the more exposure we get, with the Full Tilts and the Russ Hamiltons—I mean, the energy industry had a big black eye with Enron. It’s not exclusive to poker. We’re going to have bad things happen, but we’ve got to promote the positive things. Myself and [fellow pro Phil] Helmuth and other guys raise money for charity. We’re not all just bad guys.
You raise a good point: You hear those stories about guys who hit a big score and are broke not long after, or stories of guys deep in debt, but you also have the TV fantasy of a regular guy hitting it rich. How would most people’s perception of the life of a pro differ from the reality?
In today’s world, it’s a little bit more known. Back in the day, it was a big shock [when] you’d see someone on TV win all the money then wake up broke later. It’s like someone who wins the lottery and you hear about them going back to their old jobs. There was definitely a big misconception as far as what it really meant to be a poker player and what that entailed. In today’s world, all players know what it is, and even recreational players have some understanding. People still think poker players are all walking around with flush bankrolls, but the thing you learn real quickly being a player and being an observer of the poker world, is that people you think have money don’t, and the people you don’t think have money usually do. According to the rumors, I’ve probably been broke 15 million times. I basically lived under a bridge. People are wise to the fact that most poker players are not as well off as they seem to be, and poker is a tough game.
Since you won that bracelet 11 years ago, how many people have told you they quit their jobs to go pro, or moved to Vegas because of you?
There’s more than I could count. I probably ruined a lot of marriages, a lot of lives and also made new professions for people. I always tell young people I run across who have aspirations of going pro, “Don’t!” I warn them of all the dangers, of all the things that could happen even if you’re successful. You might love the game when you’re 21, but are you going to love it when you’re 31 or 41 and you have a family? Most every poker player knows being a poker player isn’t conducive to having a family. You don’t see that many married poker pros out there.
The Moneymaker Effect by Eric Raskin
is available at ShopLVA.com, Amazon.com and at the Gambler’s General Store. Moneymaker, along with several principals in the book, will be signing copies at the World Series of Poker’s main stage in the Rio from 5:30-7:30 p.m. July 7.