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A Winning Poker Approach from a WSOP Champion
By Jonathan Duhamel, Christina Palassio
ECW PRESSCopyright © 2011 Les Éditions de L'Homme
All rights reserved.
"Lots of pros aren't passionate about what they do, and it shows. I love poker. I love everything about it. It's the best game in the world. I'm always trying to improve my game and to move up. I have a huge advantage over those of my opponents who only play because it's their job." — Phil Ivey
Everything starts with passion ...
That said, this kind of passion isn't one that I seemed predestined to have. We often assume that children inherit their parents' quirks and qualities, even though it's seldom the case. But neither poker nor any other betting game ever made it past the doorstep of our house while I was growing up. My father, Luc Duhamel, who has worked as a machinist at Pratt and Whitney for the past 30 years, and my mother, Johanne Grenier, a teller at the Desjardins credit union in Boucherville, taught me from a very young age that money doesn't grow on trees ... or on cards.
My parents instilled in me the values of hard work, self-discipline and integrity early on. They taught by example. At 13, I was spending most of my summer picking strawberries on farms in the Montérégie region. At 16, I was putting in more than 30 hours a week in the stockroom of the Provigo grocery store in Boucherville. I've never been afraid of work, be it physical or intellectual. That's still true today. It wasn't until I was in my early twenties that the idea that I might be able to make a lot of money playing poker started to germinate in my mind.
* * *
I remember very clearly the first time I played poker. I was 15 or 16. It was a Friday night in Boucherville, and I was hanging out with some friends in a friend's basement watching TV. A totally typical night, one like so many others from that time in my life. And that's when my initiation took place. The older brother of the friend whose house we were in came down to hang out with us and suggested we play a game of five-card draw. We ended up playing all night, without any stakes — just for fun.
I don't know if you can use the term "love at first sight" to describe such unremarkable circumstances, but let's just say that I was immediately taken by the game. It was simple and complex all at the same time. It had strategy, suspense, doubt and excitement, and it involved calculations that appealed to my mathematical side. And then there was the luck factor. The game might not have been so appealing if it wasn't for that key element. It was like a game of chess with a dose of chance thrown in. The combination of all of those elements led me to fall in love with poker, and it's a feeling that has never wavered.
Soon after that night, I started playing several nights a week with some kids from the neighborhood, but always for very small stakes. Betting made the game more complete and thrilling, but it wasn't the heart of why we liked to play. That had more to do with the game itself. We started out playing five-card draw and then moved on to all sorts of other variations. Initially, Texas Hold'em didn't appeal to us much because we thought it didn't offer much action. We preferred a variation where we could bluff more, which seemed to open up the game and make it a lot more exciting. But as we got better, Texas Hold'em became our favorite variation. Hold'em requires much more skill and strategy than the traditional five-card game, partly because five of your seven cards are community cards that are shared by all players. And the fact that it's easier to play and to understand makes it easier to find other people to play. That's why it's become so popular over the past decade.
I think back fondly on that period of learning and discovery. I spent a lot of time on the internet in those days, seeking out information, adding to my body of knowledge, studying strategy and, eventually, playing at free-to-play tables. At some point, one of my friends put down $20 online, and I watched as he played it. After that, I started betting small amounts, and participating in online tournaments in which I had a moderate amount of success. I think I've proven by now that I have the qualities necessary to get to the top of the game, but you'd be wrong to think it all happened by magic. It isn't magic for anyone. I lost more than I won, but I was constantly improving and, more importantly, my thirst for knowledge and my passion for the game always remained strong.
* * *
Passion for the game can take many different forms. For people who are motivated by risk, that passion can extend to any game of chance, from roulette to blackjack to backgammon. But that passion can also begin and end with poker, as it does with me. Or it can be conflated with the allure of easy money, which, I should stress, doesn't make for a very long career. And then there are people who have a real and ongoing infatuation with poker but who never feel the need to scale up their study of the game.
One thing's for sure though: anyone who's ever had real success at poker started out feeling that passion for the game, and they still feel it in one way or another. It's the trigger, the first step and the prerequisite for moving forward and winning in a consistent way.
ACCORDING TO JONATHAN: "I believe passion is a prerequisite for success — it's the fuel for the fire. You can work to keep it lit, but you can't create it if there isn't already a spark. That's what makes it such an invaluable asset."
The passion I'm referring to here is for the game of poker itself. I'm not talking about a lust for money or fame or victory, even though they tend to be the goal of most competitions. I'm also not talking about the enthusiasm of the casual player who likes to play but doesn't feel like investing in the game. What I'm talking about is an unquenchable thirst for knowledge and self-improvement. The foundation of that passion is humility, an awareness of one's weaknesses and shortcomings and the unshakeable belief in the possibility for improvement that comes from devoting time and effort to the game and being willing to make all the necessary sacrifices. Passion isn't the sole factor, but everything else follows from it. It's what compels you to do everything it takes to move forward, to acquire discipline, self-control, a good sense of observation and all the other skills I'll talk about in this book.
In this respect, the poker player's passion is no different from the passion that drives people to excel in other fields. Think of hockey players who start off with a love for the game and the skills to advance, but who have to put in years of practice and sacrifice to get to the NHL. Think of those young players who at 16, or even sometimes younger, leave their families and friends to go play in the junior leagues, where they spend hours every week traveling on buses from one small town to the next, bound by a rigorous routine and required to put in the effort that's needed to excel in an extremely competitive environment every single day. And they all do it without any guarantee they'll make it to the NHL. The thing that makes these kids willing to give up the regular life of a teenager is passion for the sport, and the hope that they might one day be part of an elite group.
I'm thinking here too of Guy Laliberté — founder of Cirque du Soleil — a man I'm lucky enough to know and whose company I enjoy immensely. Here's a guy who turned his dreams into a global empire, creating a market from scratch while he was at it — a man who's not afraid to see his passions and talents straight through to the end. His dedication is obvious not only in the Cirque du Soleil empire, but also in his skills as a poker player (which are much better than the average player's), and in the self-discipline he needed in order to train for his trip to space in October 2009.
Another person who comes to mind is Georges St-Pierre, an exceptionally intelligent man who has taken a lot of risks to follow his passion for mixed martial arts. That passion has become much more than a career; it's a way of life that involves lengthy and challenging daily training sessions and a philosophy that's both contemporary and of the past. Georges lives the life of a warrior. When he's in the ring, it's more important to him to put in a good effort and to meet his own expectations than it is to win the fight. I think his attitude is instructive for anyone who wants to live their passion in a healthy and productive way.
There's no doubt in my mind that anyone who's ever succeeded in their field has felt that spark of passion from which excellence springs. We often think of passion as a messy, all-consuming emotion that can lead to destructive excesses. It's easy to imagine someone being overwhelmed by passion if they're not careful. For me though, passion is a fuel, a source of positive energy that I use as a motivator to achieve my goal. That goal is to be the best. In every hand, in every game, in every tournament.
As Phil Ivey said in the quotation that starts this chapter, the challenge is to maintain that beginner's passion for the game. Appearances can be deceiving: it's really not as easy as it seems. It's not natural to maintain the same level of interest in the same task for many years. And money can change a lot of things. Passion is often compromised when profit becomes the primary goal. The minute poker stops being a hobby and starts becoming the way you make a living, there's always a chance it can become more rote. Whether you're playing a game or in a tournament, sitting down to a poker table can end up feeling like just another day at the office. When you become a full-time player and start spending 50 or 60 hours a week at a table or in front of a computer screen, you risk becoming blasé. And then there's the greater stress of playing at higher levels, which can wear down even the most seasoned players.
Lots of players lose their passion along the way. It's a risk anyone who's considering throwing themselves into professional poker should seriously think about. I've known lots of passionate players who lost their spark when they tried to make poker the center of both their life and their livelihood. That kind of situation can affect both your life balance and your performance. The intense passion a poker player feels and the success he experiences make him want to do nothing but play, which then threatens his inner balance and his initial passion. It's a cruel irony. Poker starts out as a passion, but it often also becomes a place of refuge. You look forward to it all day long and it becomes an oasis from your daily responsibilities. But how do you stay balanced when poker becomes a responsibility instead of a hobby? Many professional players take up another sport or hobby. With Johnny Chan, it's photography. Daniel Negreanu plays golf. Chris Ferguson dances. Me, I still love to play hockey — even though I'm an average player at best — and to watch Canadiens games. And though I like it, it's a passion that remains far inferior to poker.
Of course, your passion for poker changes when you start winning more often, playing for higher and higher stakes and comparing yourself to some of the world's best players. You still like the game, but other factors start to come into play, like making sure you're still moving up in spite of stiffer competition and increasing risk. It becomes a matter of continuing to accept bigger challenges, which, though difficult, also motivates. Every time you get to the next rung in the poker hierarchy, you're immediately compelled to continue to the next step, to stay on top. Since poker is constantly changing, staying in the same place really means you're moving backwards. The things that make me a good player today won't be enough to guarantee me a win tomorrow. There are always new challenges.
The other thing that ends up mattering a lot more when you get to elite poker circles — and this is also probably true in most fields and careers — is the esteem of the public, and especially of your peers. When pros that I respect and admire — people like Daniel Negreanu, Jason Mercier, Barry Greenstein and Vanessa Rousso — make me feel like I'm part of the club, it makes me extremely proud and motivates me to try my best to stay at their level of play.
When I won the 2010 World Series of Poker, I not only became a poker ambassador for the year, I also had to prove that my win wasn't a fluke, that I really was part of the elite, even if my odds of winning the 2011 tournament were very low. Thankfully, I placed first in a tournament in Deauville, France, in January 2011 and took home &8364;200,000 (about US$260,000). I also did well in a few subsequent tournaments, most of them in the U.S., which helped me deal with the pressure that's inevitably placed on a champion after a big win. Given those outcomes, it's tough not to stay addicted to poker.
There are other situations in which passion for the game can become temporarily dulled. Losing streaks and financial losses can greatly affect a player's self-confidence and his desire to play. They're situations every player deals with. Amateurs tend to take a break in order to rebuild their confidence. Pros, on the other hand, tend to play through the losing streak as best they can — while trying to limit their losses, of course — in order to rediscover their love of the game and their success at the table.
You shouldn't put too much pressure on yourself during a losing streak. You have to keep paying attention to what's happening around the table, stay focused and continue making good decisions and playing in a methodical way. You also have to spend the hands you're not playing watching your opponents and familiarizing yourself with their strategy so you can get an edge on them. Things may not sort themselves out right away, but if you keep playing the game like it should be played, they'll eventually fall back into place.
Everything starts with passion, but that doesn't mean it's easy to maintain. It disappears and reappears. It's largely subject to success at the table and to the laws of probability. But you have to ensure that it doesn't ever disappear completely, in large part because it's so closely linked to your self-confidence. And the last thing you need when you're playing poker is a lack of confidence.CHAPTER 2
"I've always had confidence, but I never let my ego get to the point that I think I'm the superstar, because I know that ego has destroyed many a poker career."
— Jim Boyd
The minute I sit down at a poker table, whether with friends or in a WSOP tournament, I'm keyed up. I'm there to win, not there to play a part or to fight over a few dollars. I'm there to take control of that table. End of story. Things don't always turn out the way I want, of course, but you can't play poker at a high level without having a lot of confidence in yourself, your skills and your ability to beat your opponents.
Here too you can draw lots of comparisons between poker and sports, or poker and other areas of life. When Roger Federer walks onto the court, he's not going to be satisfied with anything less than a win. When Céline Dion gets on stage at Caesars Palace, she's not thinking about the possibility that she could make a mistake or miss a note. When Steve Jobs launched a new version of the iPad, the possibility of commercial failure likely never crossed his mind.
You can't succeed if you doubt yourself. You become shy, fearful, hesitant. You become paralyzed by the fear of losing everything. As they say, fear is a poor advisor. Fear prevents you from thinking clearly and making good decisions. That can be particularly dangerous in poker, a game where you have to make a series of decisions based on an established strategy and incomplete information gleaned from a combination of your own cards, the community cards, the laws of probability and the betting habits of other players.
Your self-confidence is closely linked to how good your opponents are — or how good you think they are. Every time you move up a rung on the ladder you feel a bit of self-doubt, because you know that you're about to play against better players. So you ask yourself: Is now the time to move up? Am I at the level? Am I about to get schooled? It's normal to ask yourself these questions, but you can't dwell on them if you want to keep moving forward.
Excerpted from Final Table by Jonathan Duhamel, Christina Palassio. Copyright © 2011 Les Éditions de L'Homme. Excerpted by permission of ECW PRESS.
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