Phil Hellmuth has won a record 14 World Series of Poker (WSOP) bracelets, has more than $21 million in live tournament winnings, is a member of the Poker Hall of Fame, and even has his own brand: He's known as the "Poker Brat," a nickname even he makes fun of.
As Phil says, "They used to say in the 1990s, 'Who improves players better than Phil? Just sit at his table and he'll tell you all the mistakes you're making.'"
In his new book, Poker Brat (his previous book, Play Poker Like the Pros, was a New York Times bestseller), Phil will also tell you all the mistakes he has made. It's a great read even if, like me, you're not a poker player: The strategy and analysis he describes, and how he reads other players, is fascinating.
So is Phil's approach to decision making, money management, controlling emotions -- and staying the course even when the chips are, um, down.
Your profession means sifting through the known and the unknown to make hundreds of decisions. How do you deal with decision paralysis?
That's a good question. There are two schools of thought: math and reading ability.
[Jeff Haden notes: Generally speaking, "math" players base decisions on pot odds and probabilities; "feel" players base decisions on tells, psychology--the "mental game."]
Recently, I played against two of the best math players in the world. I'm known for my reading ability.
What gets lost is that half of poker is reading people. When you're reading well and you're making counterintuitive plays, a strictly math player will get scared and start making fewer moves, and then the person is even easier to read.
For me, on one hand I sift through the math and logic and deductive reasoning, and the other I factor in reading ability.
That happened when you played Daniel Cates.
My deductive reasoning said it was too easy for him to have me beat on that hand, but my instincts told me something was wrong. Reasoning and logic and math should have outweighed my read, but fortunately I stuck with my read.
I'm so much better off when I trust my instincts. But they're not perfect. You have to look at both and make a decision, and then when my "white magic" [what many call Phil's reading ability] is really strong and I trust it, I end up winning a lot of tournaments.
But other times I'm not as on.
It's like a hitter in baseball. He can hit the cover off the ball for six weeks and then go into a slump and play badly for two weeks, and then start hitting the cover off the ball again. Reading ability and poker ability are kind of like that. Every poker player has ups and downs because luck is also involved. When a great poker player smashes, he's making the right moves and making the right reads and he's getting lucky.
There are times when success doesn't make sense on a purely mathematical basis. I've played absolutely perfectly before, put in a masterful performance, and then my perfect play evaporated because one guy lost his mind and got lucky.
Of course, I've also won that way. [He laughs.]
Allowing intangibles to play a part in decision making can also keep you going when others would probably give up.
In the finals of Poker Night in America, Dan and I were tied at 1-all. In the third match, I gave away almost all of my chips. [Hellmuth was down to 5,800 chips, and Cates had 194,000.]
Most people figured it was all over. The commentator said, "If Hellmuth could pull off a comeback from this place, it would be one of the greatest comebacks in poker history."
I knew it was a long shot, but I just decided to try to play great until the very end.
And the next thing you know, I was back in it. [Skip to the 4:27 mark.]
Most people give up. It's easier to give up.
Not for me. I've been low on chips many times. Coming back is not impossible, because there's something magical about playing great.
Whatever you're doing, just do it to the best of your abilities. When you do your best, no matter what is going on around you, you always have a chance.
That means you have to manage your money well -- just like entrepreneurs do.
Poker is a lot like business. Money management is a huge factor.
Great investors keep themselves in the game so they can keep making really good moves. So do great poker players. One of my rules is that I will never lose more than $10,000 in a day, regardless of how much I might have won in previous days.
Granted, there are times that I appear to take pretty big risks, but they aren't blind risks. I don't just decide, "Oh, f it." I apply reasoning and logic, and my skill at reading situations and reading people. Do I 100 percent know I will be right? Of course not.
But when you feel really strongly -- when your experience and knowledge tell you there's an opportunity -- don't be afraid to trust yourself.
And if it doesn't go well, feel free to beat yourself up for a few minutes, but then make sure you learn from it so that next time you add that piece of information to your decision-making process.
I sometimes play for a syndicate of backers, which is a lot like an entrepreneur who raises money to start a company. When you raise money, you raise it from people who believe in you. That pressure is good for me -- but it also means I need to do everything I can to come through, and that starts with managing that money wisely.
How do you deal with the ups and downs?
Poker is an emotional game. You will have bad days.
The key is to find a way that works for you that helps you refocus. One thing I do is just focus on what's next. Work out the limits, work out my strategy for the next hand. Absorb the hit, and then think about what you will do next.
That's the thing about poker, and really about anything you pursue. If you aren't constantly improving, then you're going backwards.
Commit to putting in the time to constantly improve and the downs are easier to deal with -- and you'll have a lot more ups.