This article first appeared in Card Player magazine.
I’ve been thinking back about my life as a poker player. Today, I’m so involved with my University of Poker, consulting, producing publications and videos, and doing research that I play only about 50 times a year. I usually play from $75-$150 to $200-$400 limits, rarely higher, stakes that I can easily afford. My lifestyle is never going to change for better or for worse as a result of a single night’s poker play.
I’m older and wiser than I was as a kid, when I would risk my entire bankroll at the hint of a challenge, like an Old West gunslinger called out to Main Street for a showdown at sundown. Someone must die. It must not be me. No practical reason for this fight. Ego against ego. No reason. Risk it all. Be a man. No reason. Be strong. No reason. Yes, I remember, but I survived those days, and now those days are dead for me. Their passing many years ago made me feel more secure, but sadder. There were exhilarating moments mixed with monumental risk. I liked it then. But I like things better now.
And now I sit down to list for you the things I would do differently if I were to live my poker life all over again. Let me think. Well, I’m betting that I won’t be able to list everything, but I’ll try to hit on as many things as I can. Here’s the list:
1. I wouldn’t enter games that I worried about. In old Gardena, cheating was rampant. You dealt your own cards, and not everyone dealt fairly. Not every deck remained unmarked. Collusion among players was legendary. I was reckless. As an honest player, I didn’t believe the cheaters had any right to be in my game. Even when I was quite sure that I was being scammed, I simply stayed seated and seethed. I vaguely knew what was going on, but I hated to be run off.
Sometimes I’d spend months building a comfortable bankroll in an honest game, only to be lured into a crooked one. If I had to do it over again, I would run away.
2. I wouldn’t consider cardroom management to be adversarial. There’s a partnership that exists between a professional poker player and cardroom management. Both make money off the same business, and they need that business to be profitable. In my early years, I thought of management as an outside force, with different interests.
If I had to do it over again, I would make lasting relations with casino management from the very beginning, and I’d go out of my way to help make the cardroom successful.
3. I wouldn’t give women money to gamble in order to skip the preliminaries. In the ’70s, it was easy to pick up women. One-night stands were common. I wasn’t looking for lasting relationships. Weird time. Different planet. You had to be there. One of the quickest ways I knew to skip even the basic preliminaries of getting acquainted was to tell women I had faith in them as players and give them money to play poker. I usually agreed to keep half of what they won.
The problem was, they almost never won, and I came to believe that I wasn’t always getting an honest count. Also, all of these short-term relationships began with a lie — that I believed they could win at poker. Usually, I didn’t. If I had to do it over again, I’d spend a little extra time, save a little money, and go to dinner and a movie like everyone else.
4. I wouldn’t write books. Believe it or not, I never wanted to write poker books. I did lots of research, and it was time-consuming. It made winning easy. I didn’t want to share this information. But in 1977, two-time World Poker Champion Doyle “Texas Dolly” Brunson talked me into contributing to his soon-to-be bible of poker: Super/System — A Course In Power Poker. After that, my vow of silence was broken, and I decided to continue to help players win who didn’t have the opportunity to do research.
It’s been rewarding, and I enjoy teaching, writing, and lecturing. But if I had to do it over again, I think I’d just stay off stage and not let opponents know what strategies I use. Of course, that’s assuming I would want to remain a relatively obscure poker player for the rest of my life. There are, I admit, financial advantages to the path I’ve taken. Still, poker was simpler before I shared secrets.
5. I wouldn’t have gone through my FPS phase. I teach avoiding FPS, which stands for Fancy Play Syndrome. This is where you often choose the fanciest play, rather than the most profitable, in order to impress your opponents. I suffered from this myself for many years.
If I had to do it over again, I wouldn’t try to impress poker opponents. I’d just be satisfied with winning their money.
6. I wouldn’t gamble above my bankroll. When you gamble too big for your bankroll, you frequently lose and must rebuild. The net effect is that you win less money than you would if you were more cautious.
If I had to do it over again, I would seldom risk more than 10 percent of my bankroll on any single poker session. Usually, the amount would be much smaller.
7. I wouldn’t spend too much of my bankroll. Poker players tend to underestimate the amount of money they need to cover a bad run of cards. They build a bankroll to $40,000, spend $25,000, lose $15,000, and find themselves broke, even though they won.
If I had to do it over again, I would be much more miserly in keeping my bankroll ridiculously padded. I believe extra profit comes from that extra comfort.
8. I wouldn’t flash money and get robbed. One of the big thrills for me was carrying around $40,000 in my pocket while doctors and lawyers might not be able to produce a single $100 bill. This made me feel rich, and I loved to flash money. Of course, many of my opponents had much more money than I had when I was young. They just didn’t carry all of their assets in their pants pockets.
This youthful exhibition of false wealth caused me to be tied up and robbed at gunpoint twice. And I don’t think it impressed many people. If I had to do it over again, I wouldn’t flash money. If I hadn’t, maybe I wouldn’t have been robbed.
9. I wouldn’t be embarrassed to jump down in limits. One of the worst things players can do is test a larger limit because that limit looks profitable at the time, then refuse to return to their previous limit when the conditions worsen. Ego causes us to think of ourselves as a $5-$10 player or a $20-$40 player or a $200-$400 player. Once you’ve established yourself at that limit, it can be psychologically damaging to jump down. Jumping down is embarrassing. That’s how it often was for me when I was younger.
If I had to do it over again, I would just find the most profitable game at any limit my bankroll could justify, and if it turned out to be a smaller limit than I could afford, I wouldn’t care what anyone thought. Often, there can be more profit in a $40-$80 game than a $200-$400 game, or in a $2-$4 game than a $10-$20 game. It depends on who’s playing.
10. I wouldn’t burn money. I’m known for taking a match and burning $100 bills at the poker table. I’ve done this to convince opponents that I don’t care about money and, therefore, to gain psychological dominance.
If I had to do it over again, I’d burn only $20 bills. It’s more cost effective and accomplishes almost the same thing.
11. I wouldn’t have been the Harlem Globetrotters of poker. Many times, I’ve played poker just to put on a show. Sometimes I even do that today. I like to prove my superiority by doing magical things that nobody else ever envisioned. I call this “putting on poker exhibitions.” While I’m usually able to win, despite the sacrifice, I wish my nature were a little more conservative.
If I had to do it over again, I’d almost always play purely for profit, not to show how good I am.
But, if I hadn’t done all of those things, I wouldn’t be writing this to you today. Maybe I’d live in a different town, read a different newspaper, and drive different roads to the shopping center. Maybe I wouldn’t be known as a poker player. And I wouldn’t be me. — MC