What I learned at the WSOP by Jay Greenspan

This past summer, I had the good fortune to cover the World Series of Poker* for PokerWire.com and Full Tilt Poker. For six weeks, I watched world-class players ply their trade and, in that time, I learned a ton about poker. What follows are three lessons I learned from watching Full Tilt Poker’s pros during their long days of play.

Never Rush a Big Decision

Even in the top ranks of poker, there’s a tendency among players to act rashly and blurt out an action – "All in!" or "I call!" – without having taken nearly enough time to carefully consider the situation. Of course, a player shouldn’t delay while holding the nuts. But I was often surprised to see the time the pros took to mull over situations that seemed to have only one clear-cut action.

One of the best examples of this came in the final hand of the WSOP*’s first event. Allen Cunningham was heads-up with Scott Fischman. Fischman bet the flop of T-6-3 and Cunningham raised. Fischman called, then checked the turn, a 4. Cunningham made an aggressive bet, but Fischman then quickly check-raised all-in. Cunningham stopped and thought. He had two-pair, 3s and 6s – a hand that usually requires a call in heads-up play. But, he didn’t rush the decision. After a few minutes of thought, he called. When Fischman showed 4-5, it was clear that Cunningham made the right choice. The river, an Ace, gave Cunningham the pot and the bracelet.

I was impressed that after 13 hours and 300 hands of play, Cunningham didn’t automatically put his faith in a fairly big hand. He took the time to stop and review the conditions in their entirety. This sort of thoroughness is one reason the pros are less likely to make big, costly mistakes.

Never Talk During Play

In one of the early WSOP* tournaments, Mike Matusow was playing very aggressively. He had a huge stack and used it to bully the table. In one early orbit, he raised on the button. The big blind re-raised all-in.

Mike had spent most of day chatting up the table. He turned to the man and asked, "You gotta hand?"

The man replied, "Best hand I’ve seen in hours."

"Best hand in hours," Matusow echoed, "That means you don’t have Aces… I only have King-five, but I think I have to call."

And Matusow was absolutely right. The big blind had pocket 10s, and given the size of the pot, Matusow correctly determined that with one over-card, he was getting the right price to call the bet.

Through a seemingly vague and innocuous statement, the big blind had given Matusow vital information, which he was able to use to make the best possible decision.

The lesson here; when playing, keep your mouth shut and don’t do your opposition any favors.

Bet Your Hand

The great players – Phil Ivey, Erik Seidel, Chris Ferguson, etc. – usually err on the side of aggression. That is, they sometimes find themselves betting with hands that are underdogs to win. But, in my time at the WSOP*, I can’t remember a time when I saw a top pro miss a bet in a vital situation.

By contrast, many novice players in this year’s WSOP* seemed determined to check-raise or slow play their hands. They were trying to be tricky. But often, their failure to bet was disastrous. Opponents were permitted to check down hands with which they might have called bets, and others were allowed to draw for free.

The best players are aggressive, and by following their lead, you’re less likely to make mistakes that could cost you valuable chips.

We’ve all heard that poker is a game of skill rather than luck, and watching the top pros play – either live or on television – only proves the truth of that statement. Watch how they act at the poker table, and it quickly becomes clear why the same players consistently finish in the money. Follow their examples, and it’s a good bet that you’ll pick up a few tips that can improve your game.

Jay Greenspan

* World Series of Poker and WSOP are trademarks of Harrah’s License Company, LLC (‘Harrahs’). Harrah’s does not sponsor or endorse, and is not associated or affiliated with The Hendon Mob or its products, services, promotions or tournaments.