Marty Smyth: The Skill of the Irish

Marty Smyth

01 October 2008

Marty Smyth never really played a lot of poker tournaments; he always preferred to battle it out at the highest online cash games he could find, back in his bedroom in Belfast. Every year, however, he’d go on a beano to Dublin – just for a laugh – and would usually end up on the final table of the Irish Open. In 2007 he won the whole thing. Then on a trip to Vegas in summer, he in inadvertently became the Pot Limit Omaha World Champion and the only Irishman to collect a bracelet in 2008.

When Bluff caught up him we were able to confirm what we’d always suspected: that behind the affable demeanour of this likeable Irish lad lies the heart and stomach of a champ.

Marty, tell us about your earliest poker experiences…

I started playing poker in secondary school, playing for small amounts of money with school friends at lunchtime when I was 14 or 15 years-old.

Did you show an early aptitude for the game?

Yeah, I was probably the best player and I won quite a lot of my friend’s lunch money and dinner tickets. Then I got involved in a regular home game when I was about 17 or 18, and when I went to University I got involved in a game there, and I sought out other home games in Belfast – there were no casinos in the city at the time, and still aren’t to speak of. Then I found out about these games called Hold’em and Omaha, which at the time I’d never heard of before, on a trip to Dublin. That first night I won a lot of money – maybe a few hundred punds, as they were then – so I thought, “I’m pretty good at this!” I realised over the next few months that I wasn’t good at all – I’d just got lucky. Over the next few years, and after many trips back to Dublin, I began to pick it up. Slowly, I became a decent player, then a break-even player and then a winning player.

I never considered poker as a career early on. I was making a little bit of money in Dublin while I was studying, and to be honest, university was pretty much an excuse not to get a job. I started out studying Mechanical Engineering and then changed to Chemical Engineering… or maybe it was the other way around… I can’t remember… but I was doing a lot of “dropping out”. It was useful money for a student, though – I was probably making maybe five or ten grand a year.

But I then discovered online poker. I deposited $500 on a Ladbrokes account and pretty much turned it into a couple of hundred grand in a couple of years.

Can you describe the learning process to us?

It was very much trial and error. Until recently, I’d never read a single poker book. It was all about thinking over the hands I’d played. Every time I lost a hand I’d sit there and think, “Why?” I’d think about what the winning players were doing that I wasn’t doing.

For the first three or four years online I always played at the highest tables available. Back then, it was $1-$2, and then they made a $2-$4 table, so while most people were playing $1-$2, I went straight up to $2-$4, then $3-$6, then $5-$10 – I just moved up the levels soon as I could. So I was always playing with the best players out there.

Did you ever have a crap job?

I worked as a clerk for a bit. That was pretty dismal. Really shit pay as well.

From lowly clerk to WSOP PLO Champion! Be honest, were you playing for the money or the bracelet?

At that time I was playing for the money, but looking back on it now I think the title means more. In 20 years I probably won’t have the money any more but I’ll still have the title and the memory of winning it. I mean, I don’t think I’ll ever wear the bracelet – it’s just sitting in a drawer next to my bed and I’m not really a jewellery type of guy – but the title is important. There aren’t that many people out there who have the same title.

Poker’s is a fiercely individualistic game, but when you’re over in Vegas at the WSOP is there a sense that you’re playing not just for yourself but also for your country?

Yes, and I think that if there was an Irish player who was really unpopular out there on a final table, all the Irish would still be behind him. Even an Englishman – there’s a strong rivalry between England and Ireland, but the Irish always support the English, and vice versa. Although, of course, if an Irishman and an Englishman went heads up they’d be fiercely competitive.

So we’re united by our desire to beat Americans?

(Laughs) Yup!

Tell us about the tournament itself. Any sticky situations?

Not really. I got off to a good start and was never really in trouble. There was one hand when I was all-in against Tom Dwan, which was a 50/50 shot, and I was able to double through him, and from there I pretty much cruised to the final table.

Are you willing to take those coin flip situations for a lot of chips in the middle stages of a tournament?

I’m willing to take a coin flip for a lot of chips at pretty much any stage of a tournament! The final table was probably a lot tougher than most. Even though there weren’t that many renowned Omaha players there, there were still a lot of world class tournament players.

The World Series can mess with your head if you’re there for a long time. How do you stay sane?

I think it takes a couple of years to get used to Vegas. The first time I went out I treated it as a holiday and just arsed about and spent most of the time boozing. This year was the first time I took it seriously. I hired a house off the Strip with a few other Irish guys, and that makes it a lot easier to take it seriously. If you’re staying in the casino, you wander down stairs and you see people hanging out at the bar and playing the blackjack tables and it can become difficult to…er… stick to your plan.

You’re a Hold’em and Omaha player. Which is your best game?

Two years ago I would have said Hold’em – especially for tournaments – but now I’d say Omaha, and that’s not just because I’ve got a lot better at the game, it’s because an awful lot of people have got a lot better at Hold’em. I don’t have as much of an edge at now Hold’em as I do at Omaha.

Is that the way forward? Do we need to become proficient Omaha players to make money because everyone has read their Hold’em books now?

I think so. People have figured out Hold’em and the standard is very good, so there are a lot of players migrating to Omaha who don’t fully understand the game and the skill levels aren’t that good, and there are players who are used to playing high at Hold’em and so they play too high for their skill level at Omaha. But in a few years’ time we’ll probably be facing the same situation with Omaha too. Everyone will have figured it out and we’ll have to move on to another game.

Americans have always had a reputation for being bad Omaha players, especially in tournaments. Is that still the case or are they getting better?

Last year at the WSOPE I sat at a table with some real world class players like Annie Duke, John Juanda and Johnny Chan, and I really didn’t think these guys were particularly good at Omaha. Not that they were really bad… but it surprised me. I remember thinking at the time, “I’m glad this isn’t a Hold’em tournament with all these guys here!” That was the reason I didn’t play any of the Hold’em tournaments at the WSOPE – I didn’t think I had any particular edge. But I think the Americans will catch up. More and more are starting to play the game online and it will only take a few years.

What are the most common errors people make when playing Omaha?

Basically, they overvalue their hands. If you’re used to playing Hold’em, you often don’t realise how vulnerable a made hand can be to draws and you don’t realise how vulnerable, say, a second or third nut flush is. People overvalue hands like K-K before the flop or top pair on the flop. You can’t play Omaha like it’s Hold’em; it doesn’t work.

You’ve made your name as a live tournament player, but what’s your bread and butter? Are you a big cash player online?

I’ve made a little bit of a name for myself as an online cash player and, certainly for the first few years I was playing on the internet, I was one of the biggest winning players in the games I was playing, but of course that was before the days of 100-200 and 300-400. I actually play tournaments very rarely – you can play a tournament for ten hours and end up with nothing and I’m not really interested in doing that. I do seem to do well in the ones I play, though.

How many tables do you play at once online?

I play six-handed cash games – usually only two or three tables.

So you're not one of these freaks that plays nine tables simultaneously?

I’m not really very good at multi-tabling. These guys, they use Poker Tracker and stuff and I never really got into that at all. It’s too much like a job – sitting there all day, pressing a button. I need to be involved in the game; to be watching the other players and looking at the whole picture. Multi-tabling takes the fun out of things. It makes it the game mechanical. It’s a very well paid job but probably a very boring one.

You’re also an Irish Open winner. In fact, your record in that tournament is amazing…

Well, it was one of the tournaments I would always play. Even when I was solely an internet player, I’d still be at the Irish Open every year, playing the Main Event and all the side events. I never really ventured to any of the tournaments outside Ireland then. I made the final table a few times before I won it, and in those early days I always had a feeling that I would win it one day – that it was “my tournament”.

It’s a fun tournament, too. I wouldn’t quite say people don’t take it seriously – I think everyone wants to win it – but I don’t think they mind too much when they bust out because there’s so much stuff going on the side. It’s a great atmosphere and it’s certainly the best tournament in Europe as far as I’m concerned.

Now you’ve won the bracelet and you’re a representative of, you have to do all these interviews. Do you enjoy the publicity or would you rather just be left alone to play poker?

When I first started playing TV tournaments, I didn’t really enjoy them – I’d be nervous and I’d just want to get the interviews out of the way. But I’ve been doing this for a while now. Obviously things have come on a bit recently, but you just get used to it. I didn’t decide to play TV tournaments to gain sponsorship, though – sponsorship was never something I thought about because I was making so much money online and I thought that would always be the case. But as we’ve said, over the last couple of years the games have got tougher and I realise what a big thing it is to have sponsorship, but I never really set out to get it.

Do you think it weird that tournament winners are thrust into the limelight, whereas often be more accomplished cash game players can remain anonymous?

I guess it’s understandable. Perhaps I did used to think it was a little unfair when I was making good money online and all these other guys, who maybe weren’t doing as well as me, were big names and had all this sponsorship, but, like I say, that wasn’t something I deliberately went after anyway. I mean, look at the last five World Series Main Event winners; how many of them are actually consistently winning poker players? Some are, certainly, but not all of them…

Which players do you admire?

A lot of the players that most unsettle me when I play pots with them are guys that I don’t even know – big internet players. The first tournament I played in Vegas at the World Series, however, was a PLO event and I ended up sitting beside this girl in her early twenties. I didn’t know her at the time but it turns out her name was Vanessa Selbst and she ended up winning the event. I’ve never been more impressed by an Omaha player, and I’d never heard of this girl – she didn’t play the big games on Full Tilt or anything. She was probably the best Omaha player I’ve ever played with.

What qualities do you think you have that make you a good poker player?

I’m not sure how to answer that. I think it’s that I don’t have very many weaknesses. If you look at someone like Andy Black, he’s as good as any player in the world on his day, but there’s probably nobody better in the world at blowing up at the wrong moment. There are a lot of players who are really, really good, but maybe they have a big tilt button, or something else that holds them back. I don’t think I’m the best in the world at any single aspect of the game, but I’m pretty good at everything. I don’t have any fatal flaws. I’m also very competitive – everything I do I want to be good at it. I’ve got into golf over the last couple of years and it’s become like an addiction. I don’t even enjoy the game when I play because I’m agonising about shots and throwing my clubs about and talking about packing it in, but I still feel compelled to go out and work at it because I wasn’t to be good at it. Poker was like that as well.

Would you say you’re a maths guy or a “feel” guy?

I’m not really into all those complex statistics and I’m not a maths geek, but most of the decisions I make have mathematical reasoning behind them: what type of hands my opponents should have and how likely they are to have them, and how the hand I have fares against the type of hands they’re likely to have… that kind of thing…

You get guys in tournaments who’ll make calls because it’s mathematically correct, even though they suspect they’re behind and it might damage their stack. Will you always make the call if the maths dictates it?

I think a call can only be mathematically correct of you’ve factored in the damage it will do to your stack if you make it and lose. It’s always something I think about before making a decision. You do get some players who call an all-in bet with a small pocket pair, the other guy will turn over A-K, and they’ll say, “Ha! I knew you had A-K!” which is just bloody rubbish. These guys only say that after their opponents turn their cards over, never before, and they never say it when their opponents turn over tens or jacks.

Do you think you’ll be a professional poker player forever?

I don’t know. I don’t think I’ll ever go back to a nine to five, anyway. Hopefully in the next five or ten years I’ll amass enough money to set myself up securely, and then maybe I could start some kind of business and semi-retire. I’ve always liked the idea of owning my own bar…

What’s the biggest Bluff you’ve ever made in life?

I got challenged to a race once. I was really unfit at the time and I knew I had absolutely no chance to win. When we started off, the guy was a little bit ahead of me, so I decided to sprint past him as fast as I could and him and give the impression that I intended to run the whole race at that pace. I even gave him a little wave as I looked back over my shoulder at him. He immediately gave up, thinking he had no chance, even though there was no way I could have finished that race. In fact, if I’d carried on for another 20 seconds I would have been dead (laughs). There was absolutely no way I would have won the race if I hadn’t bluffed the hell out of that guy.