Nik Persaud meets… Phil Galfond

March cover

08 March 2010

Phil Galfond is the greatest poker theorist of his generation. To Nik Persaud he’s a personal hero: Phil’s strategy articles and training videos on helped to reinvigorate Nik’s game when he felt he needed it most. Bluff took Nik to meet his saviour.

Our very own Nik Persaud talks training sites, theory and Isildur1 with Phil Galfond.

Bluff: Do you think that the advent of training sites has changed the poker landscape?

Phil Galfond: I think, when training sites came along, they were teaching a very exploitable style but a style that really dominated the way most people were playing – 3-betting a lot, check-raising K-6-2 rainbow, etc etc. Now everybody, mid- to high-stakes, has learned those things and a lot of people have shot up in stakes by employing those strategies but not really thinking on their own. Now they’re getting in trouble. If you’re looking to teach someone how to beat $0.25-$0.50 NL, teaching them a system is OK but too many people know the system. Now, if you’re not a member of any training site, you’re at a disadvantage. The cost of training sites, in general, is ridiculously low compared to the amount of money to be made in poker.

But now the training site’s job is to teach players to think about not just exploiting fish but also good players. It’s not just like, “OK, this person is check-raising K-6-2 rainbow, how do I counter that?” What I try to teach is how do you counter that and what do you think about it? How can you take that thought process and apply it to other areas? I try to teach players to be able to find a situation that nobody has shown them and think on their own.

Nik Persaud: I wrote an article for Bluff Europe after watching one of your videos. You were playing a $5-$10 heads-up game against a guy who you thought didn’t know who you were but he probably viewed you as a strong player. There was like $60 in the pot, and everyone bets $40 or $50 here, but you bet $10, and the point you were making is that that bet blew his mind.

Nik Persaud: He’d seen you taking aggressive lines, he’d battled back, he was a relatively decent player – definitely a winner at $5/$10 – but then you bet $10! You were describing the way you could almost envisage him fizzling away, going, “What the fuck do I do? What does that bet mean? Should I raise it or maybe I have no equity… do I call?”

Nik Persaud: You tried to explain that if you just put these regs. in spots that they’ve never been in, it blows them away. It was a gentle way of pushing that guy out of his comfort zone. Then I wrote an article about my career and the fact that I’d just got into this auto-pilot mode because I know mostly what the right thing to do is.

Nik Persaud: There’s a point where kind of everyone knows what to do. Now where do you go? So I’ve been trying things like leading into the raiser from out of position – they end up just calling and you turn a flush draw and you’ve basically won the pot. In the article I was trying to say, “Look, everyone, just stop and think. Everyone should be creative.

NP: Why not start doing weird things, because I think people who treat this like a job aren’t doing these things. Betting $10 into $60 was really bad, from a game theoretical sense, but why not just do it anyway to experiment? I’ve put myself into some weird spots and my opponents too.

PG: In that video I was talking about how, even if something isn’t game theory optimal, you can put your opponent in a tough spot. If you’re playing against someone more experienced, more creative or smarter than you or whatever; if you’ve sat there and thought, “OK, I min-raise the flop in position after this c-bet” that’s a situation he hasn’t thought of because he hasn’t been faced with it. If you take just two hours to think about the kind of hands you would do that with and how he’ll react, then how you should react to him, you’re going to have a huge advantage against him for a while. You really can put yourself in a situation where you have a lot of experience and he doesn’t. Even if the play itself isn’t +EV, he’s going to be playing very -EV against it.

NP: So you make a small mistake to induce a bigger mistake from him?

PG: In general, if you’re going to put somebody in a spot that they never think of but you’ve already thought about, then you definitely have an advantage there, even if you think you’re not as good a player.

NP: Will this whole subject area be a big topic for training sites in 2010? For the last few years they’ve ironed out leaks and got fundamentals correct. You look at $1-$2 now and it’s really aggressive with people playing well. In 2010 will sites step away and branch off into unfamiliar territory?

PG: I think that it could be and that’s kind of my personal goal in video making, to take it to that point. My goal the whole time is to be teaching something that’s not being taught by everyone else. In order for mid-stakes players to break away from the competition and not just grind out rakeback, that’s what needs to happen. If you want to 14-table and make decent money, that’s fine, but people who want to make big jumps have to think outside the box and separate themselves from the competition. I’m going to be taking videos in that direction and encouraging my pros to do the same. There are a lot of video makers who make good videos but can’t take it the way of super-creative thinking. That’s the thing that I think will help separate a lot of the mid-stakes players from the others and a lot of great video makers from others.

NP: One of your articles for Bluff had a real effect on me and my game. It was called “You Are Bad at Poker” [August 2007] and one of the first things that reached me was when you make a bet, what do you want your opponent to do? Before, I’d never thought of poker in those terms. That made me stop and think.

NP: What do I want to have happen on the turn and river? You spoke about a $25/$50 winner who raised, had a flush draw and bet the river when he missed. You said to him, “What are you repping here? Do you expect him to fold?” His thought process was, “I had the nut draw and missed, so I bet because I can’t win with ace-high.” He didn’t consider whether he was expecting his opponent to fold, and it didn’t seem like the opponent had a lot of air. That was the first one, years ago, that made me think. I think I had hit a wall because, self-admittedly, I have X intelligence and, if I’d never watched a video or spoken to a friend, I would have only got so far in poker because I can only work out so much for myself.

NP: But with TwoPlusTwo and training videos, you can learn a lot more and they tell you about things that you’ve never really considered. Little light bulbs go off in your head. About two years ago, I wasn’t going to get any better, but that’s when I started watching all these training sites.

PG: I really enjoyed writing and teaching. That is something I’ve always been interested in – it’s really cool to hear I’ve done things to help your game.

NP: I’m a mid-stakes player, like $5/$10 and stuff, there are a lot of friends that I talk to about poker and one of them has actually kicked onto $10-$20 and $25-$50, so we have that kind of community of people wanting to learn. We’re all… kinda geeks, intellectually interested. The internet is an incredible medium for helping people learn; it’s like someone sitting behind you when you’re playing.

PG: One thing that I found watching videos is that all the top players seem very sure of every decision that they make. Even today, I’ve played a lot of hands and I’m almost never sure what the right play is. People ask me advice and I say: “Well, I think I would bet but here are some arguments for checking…” A lot of times I can’t claim to know the best play but I know the reason I’m making the play. I wonder if this makes people less confident in my teaching if I sound less confident in my decisions when I’m making videos.

NP: But you’re going through a checklist of hundreds of things and maybe bringing up the most important five. It’s like in court: “Based on all the evidence, Your Honour, I think the best thing is to raise and I’m going to make it $2,800.” Game-theory-wise, someone asked me about a hand the other day, but I’m not a huge maths man, and my answer was just “I’ll call sometimes and fold sometimes.”

NP: A lot of people might say “you should call” with good reasons but I think “call 75% and fold 25%” is a much better answer.

I’m older than you, so learning poker is much harder. I only started at 30. I so wish I was 17 in 2001 and had got into internet poker and video training. My fear is how can I compete with these young kids that just eat, sleep and breathe poker? I like going out chasing girls and getting drunk, but this guy just talks poker on AIM and he’s crushing games more than me because he works harder. I’m more chilled out. I’m never going to be at the top of the game, and the day I had that realisation, my heart sank. I’m probably going to be a mid-stakes grinder for a long time because I’m just not committed enough.

NP: I’ve met Ivey and Patrik, these guys are super-computer geniuses. I’m emotionally intelligent, more right-sided than logical. It’s quite hard to motivate yourself when you’re thinking, “I’m always going to be in the middle of the pack.” I do what I can, though, play my games, play tournaments, watch videos…

PG: For probably more than half of my career I was pretty obsessive. I still spend a lot of time thinking about poker. I started six years ago and I played all the time. I was never clearly the best in my group of friends, never really thought about the game much and just had fun playing. I was a freshman in college and a friend of mine had won $25k on PartyPoker. From that point I bought, like, three poker books, one of which was good – Hold ’em for Advanced Players – and that’s how I found TwoPlusTwo. I think TwoPlusTwo helped me learn quite a bit. I was very focused and obsessed with poker. I was still in school but not doing a whole lot, just spending a lot of my time playing and thinking about poker.

Bluff: Tell us more about your development as a player, Phil

PG: The biggest steps I took were during my first summer in Vegas, living in a house with four other players who were as obsessed as I was. That was before I’d watched any training videos so that was the first time I got to see smart people who were doing things I’d never thought of. It was Andrew Robl, Peter Jetten, Alan Sass and Max Greenwood. Dan Flynn, also – he probably helped my game more than anyone because we would talk about poker and watch each other play all the time. I think I have some natural skills, but learning with and from other people is the foundation of my knowledge. I started playing SNG’s for a while, $10, $20, and it took me – rough guess – six months to move up to $33 SNG’s, and I played those for a while, and some shots at $55’s didn’t go well. I played $33’s for a long time before I went on a $55 heater and jumped to $109’s quickly. I was a $100, $200 SnG player for a long time. They used to fill on Party so quickly.

NP: By the time you clicked the box it was full. Party, back in the old days, was absolutely amazing. Gigabet [Darrell Dicken] was grinding there wasn’t he? Very smart guy. He came up with all this stuff about curves and blocks and lines. He just saw poker in a really weird and interesting way.

PG: He was very interesting. He was always very private about things; I assume he won’t mind me saying he was the first guy to ever coach me. I don’t think I was really ready for it, though; he had a lot of ideas. His thought process was very abstract compared to most, but the main thing that sunk in was that there are so many things you can do in poker. To see somebody winning lots of money by doing things that made no sense to me opened my mind a lot.

SnG’s are so formulaic. Everyone back then was giving the same advice – play 10% of hands in the early stages and here’s a program that tells you when pushing and folding is profitable. I was playing $100’s and $200’s, and they came out with “step tournaments” and I went on a heater in some $500 steps and had a good ROI in the $1,000 and $2,000 tournaments under the screennames skinsfootball and sassypants34. Around that time, before my first Vegas summer, Peter Jetten convinced me cash games were way better, so I started playing $5-$10 which I was rolled for but not good enough at. I ended up holding my own because the games were really soft. Then in February and March Tommy Angelo coached me. He ended up not teaching me a tonne about cash games, but more about being a poker pro. My cash game didn’t progress until that summer in Vegas. I was doing a lot of shot-taking at $10/$20 and $25/$50 and not doing well. At the end of that year, after summer, was when I started doing really well at $25/$50. I was 22, so that was 2007. This was on Full Tilt and UB.

NP: So you played with the superusers?

PG: Yeah, I got like $80,000 back. I always just thought I ran terribly on UB. I had no idea.

NP: That’s a lot of money, so you must’ve played a lot. My friend lost $100,000 in a week and it kinda killed him. He eventually got back, like, $25,000 – we talked about it, how they calculated it. You probably should’ve got way more than $80,000.

PG: I feel really bad for guys like Prahlad [Friedman] who got a ton of money back but losing that much when he was at the top of his game probably really hurt his confidence.

NP: If you’re getting called every time you make a bluff that you know is good, the real dangerous thing is that you lose your confidence. It’s the fact that for a year, a guy with four kids, my friend, was a broken man. He should be playing $25/$50 and $50/$100 now but he’s grinding mid-stakes.

NP: He said, “Nik, I’ve gone up to $50/$100 but they’re so good. Every time I bluff, they call and every time I have it they fold.”

Bluff: Phil, you started getting noticed by the poker media around the same time as Tom Dwan. Your names were often mentioned in the same breath, yet you’ve gone on to have very different careers. Dwan seems to want to prove that he can beat anyone at any stakes, whereas you seem to be much more cautious.

PG: I think the big thing that separates us is that I worry more about things. I don’t think Tom necessarily wants to prove anything, but I’m a lot more careful than him. Tom is always confident that he’ll do well. He knows about variance, obviously, and has had some big downswings. I kinda prepare for a lot of what-if’s? What if I can’t beat the games anymore? I go into a lot of games thinking I don’t know I’m a favourite; he goes into them knowing he is.

I’m a lot more careful and cautious, taking a step back if things aren’t going well. I think, also, I’m pretty happy with my life and financial situation. I’m more concerned with maintaining it than pushing it further. I do enjoy playing the toughest players and proving myself but I’m not at the point where I want to do that at the risk of my mortgage or career. I don’t think I have a tonne to gain. One day, if I’ve made enough so that I don’t have to worry about money, I will be playing the toughest players, even if I don’t have an edge. For now, I don’t think it’s worth it.

Bluff: What did you make of Isildur1?

PG: I played against him a few times. He’s very tough. He’s a lot better at NL than PLO. I didn’t feel outmatched in NL but he’s the type of player where if you’re not on you’re A-game you’ll get in trouble because he puts you in a lot of spots where you need to be clear-headed and focused. I wouldn’t go out of my way to play him if I was tired or whatever. It’s so tough to play against a player of that style. Obviously I watched him play Tom a lot.

NP: Tom ran badly. People don’t realise that you don’t lose $6m in that many hands without bad luck. Your A-game isn’t there if you’re running bad, either. It was great sport: the new kid versus the online veteran. Do you think Isildur is kind of a genius… the way he adapted?

PG: He has to be a genius. He’s definitely a great player. I haven’t followed the numbers, but he’s a losing player on Full Tilt now, which I think means nothing. It’s just variance.

NP: He definitely got in situations – he 8-tabled Patrik, durrrr, Ivey. That can’t be smart. Sickest match ever, though.

PG: I don’t think the best player in the world has an edge 8-tabling the next three best players.

NP: To rank them like “durrrr’s better than Isildur1 at NL, Ivey’s better at PL, Antonius is better at PLO…” it’s all a bit silly. We have to hit the long run at some point, who really knows? I’ve never met Tom, but a lot of people who have met him say he’s super great.

NP: Phil Laak I know quite well and he says Tom’s a genius. That’s why I wanted to know what you thought of Isildur.

NP: Most people can’t comment on the matches because they’re so sophisticated and played at such a high level that it’s quite difficult for the average player to say anything on their lines and adjustment.

PG: They were both playing styles that were very abnormal. Money was getting in everywhere. I looked at some stats that said Tom had been checking back, like, 90% of flops, which creates a totally different dynamic.

NP: There was a reason that he felt, through the streets, that checking flops was fine.

PG: He must’ve thought Isildur played aggro against c-bets or played badly against check-backs.

NP: That’s where it gets really interesting – Isildur becomes so aggressive to c-bets… because that’s what we learned years ago: raise before the flop, bet the flop. It makes lots of money, even today. Now you’ve got this guy and probably the most aggressive player in the world, durrrr, checking back flops! He’s changing his game, thinking on his feet. Then Isildur was reacting to being trapped and can’t just monkey off the turn and river. I’ve never seen so many overbets!

PG: Isildur overbets more than anyone I’ve seen. Tom started doing it more too. Was Isildur tilting a lot? It’s tough to know because I don’t know him personally, but probably. It has to have an effect on him.