Barry Shulman: Confessions of a Card Player


01 November 2009

There was a time when the very mention of his name would make us shudder, but these days, Bluff lives in harmony with Barry Shulman of Card Player Magazine.

We always had a grudging respect for Barry, of course: He bravely supported poker throughout the nineties, those dark days before it was fashionable. And last month, he was rewarded for all his hard work with a World Series bracelet and, freakishly, a spot on the cover of his old bête noir, Bluff. We never thought we’d say this, but Barry, we salute you! Now, if you’ll excuse us, we have to go and throw up.

Congratulations, Barry! Was it your first time at the WSOPE? How did you find it?

Yes, it was my first time playing the event and it’s a far, far tougher field than the fields in Las Vegas. The last three tables were ultra tough – which is always fun. The Main Event at the World Series in Vegas is actually one of the easiest events in the sense that there’s more dead money than in any other big tournament. But this was all top pros. It’s a very high buy in and there aren’t a lot of satellites into the tournament, so the field was super-strong.

How do you prepare for such a tough event?

I’m 63-years-old and I knew it was going to be hard, so before I even left I knew it would be critical to be in pretty good shape. For my own personal health I’ve recently being doing a lot of diet and exercise and I feel a lot better physically; I haven’t been as fatigued as I have been over the last several years. So I focused solely on the Main Event. I purposefully didn’t come and play in any preliminary events because I wanted to minimise fatigue and maximise my focus on just one tournament, so I came over, gave myself a day to acclimatise, and then I played it.
Because of the structure, this is a long tournament. Some of the days lasted 15, 16 hours – that’s pretty tough. Frankly, I felt that my focus was at least as good as all the other guys I was playing with. I didn’t think I was giving up anything to the younger guys. I was there! I wasn’t drinking coffee or Coke – just green tea, and I felt good. I’m a lot fitter than I’ve been in the last ten years and my poker game is more focused as a result. I enjoy working and doing deals and I spent way too much time in on the phone during tournaments and so on. The thing about being in London was that I didn’t have any business over there and so my phone was off.

So you were treating it like a holiday…

Yeah, absolutely. And I love London so much. It’s such a great city and I had such a good time, and I was just feeling really good about being there. That took some of the pressure off. Then when I got heads up with Daniel he had a 2:1 chip lead and that took pressure off too – I’d already come second, so I couldn’t do any worse. I mean, obviously I was playing to win. I wasn’t going to embarrass myself, but it’s almost easier when you come from behind to win than when you’re expected to win.

Did you have a gameplan?

Because the good players are very, very aggressive, it was my gameplan to be patient. Rather than be overly aggressive back, I would wait for good hands and situations. I’d play some pots but I’d make sure I’d win them and get it in with the best hand. What actually happened was that I felt like I was a spectator for days. I didn’t pick up very many hands, so I had to pick my spots and do a lot of bluffing. But because I was only playing one hand an hour, I got a lot more respect than I normally get and that carried me through the entire tournament.

At the final table Daniel kept knocking people out. All these guys were just getting up and leaving and so, like I say, to me it seemed like a spectator sport, and I was just going up one notch at a time.

Tell us about heads up. There was the big hand where you had A-5 with the flush draw and Daniel hand aces…

I don’t know. Sometimes you make a flush, sometimes you don’t. You make it about one time out of three and that time I made it, so obviously that was thrilling. But just to be there was thrilling. Three-handed I had check-raised Praz [Bansi] for quite a lot of money and he came back over the top to put me all-in. I had to lay it down, and it looked like I was pot committed, but I had purposefully left myself with 1,000,000 in case I had to lay the hand down. Even though I lost a huge pot there I was happy that I still had a million because it allowed me to have enough chips to double up, which is indeed what happened.

Praz thought I was playing pretty wild at this point, or at least he made a statement to that affect on TV afterwards. Then I had KhJh and he had K-4os. A king came on the flop and I check-raised him all-in and he made an insta-call and that crippled him. He was out just a few hands later and we were heads up.

As well as the Ah5h versus A-A, there was a hand which I hope makes it onto TV, just because it was extremely fun. Daniel bet before the flop and then he bet on the flop. Then he bet the turn when the board paired a six – he obviously had a good hand – and I moved all-in. He was visibly upset and he said to the crowd, “Oh no! Barry put a cooler on me!” and he made a big laydown. I had absolutely nothing. Of course, I’m sure the same thing happened in reverse several times, but had he called there he would have broken me.

Have you had much experience of playing Daniel heads up?

I’ve played with him quite a bit through the years and he’s one of the best players in the world – obviously. He’s outstanding at reading people and engaging them in conversation, and that’s not one of my skills at all – I don’t try to out-trick the pros. So I wasn’t letting him engaging me in conversation because I didn’t want to give up any information. I know he’s better than me at that game so I just stayed away from him. I really respect his play.

Your son Jeff made the November Nine. You must be very proud…

I was very proud. I was very happy for him. He doesn’t play in a lot of tournaments – he only tends to play in big buy-in, deepstack events. He’s outstanding at deepstack events. Ever since he was really young he just never had a tilt factor. He was due to win a big one one of these days and hopefully this’ll be it. I was very motivated for my tournament, also, because my son is in the November Nine. If I were going to win a big one this year, this seemed like a great one to win – a great one for the family.

Did you teach him everything he knows?

I think he learned a lot from me many years ago, even before he was in Las Vegas – the basics, at least. He has the innate numbers ability that I have, but on the other hand he’s very spatial and I’m not. His mother’s quite artistic and he picked up something from her so that he’s much better at reading people than I am – he just knows what people have and he sees things that I don’t see.