Poker chose me to be her slave when I was but a boy. Oh the pain, as the hours became years and the years became decades; then came my revolt against anything that hurt. The pain of losing, the pain of playing bad, the pain of bad luck, bad people, bad nights, bad food, bad sleep. To be done with the pain, to distill the greatest game down to its most enjoyable, profitable form – that was my quest, and I did it. And I’ve been teaching pain reduction – in poker and in life – ever since.
Who first taught you to play poker?
I annoyed my older brothers into allowing me to play poker with them when I was seven years old. That was in 1965. Seven years later, I was playing poker for money with older kids. I got a job at a grocery store on my 16th birthday and the first thing I bought was a poker table. From then on, my house was where my buddies gathered to play poker, even while I was still living at home.
When and where did you realize you had what it took to compete with professional players?
The first time I heard that such a thing as a professional poker player existed was in a magazine article featuring Doyle Brunson and other big names from that generation. I was 22. From that moment on, I knew pro poker was in my stars. Then came a 10-year career as a stage-and-studio musician (Rock and Country). And in 1990, I changed jobs. I went from being up all night partying and playing music to being up all night partying and playing poker.
If all variants of poker were equally well-renumerated, which would be your favorite?
Live no-limit hold’em cash games.
What was your biggest or most memorable win?
One time, back when almost every game in every casino was limit hold’em, I lost 20 days in a row at $20/40 and $40/80. I was living off money that I was borrowing from credit cards. My best buddy was about to take a shot in a game that was way above my typical bankroll. He asked if I wanted half his action and I said sure. He won $24,000 that night, which means I won $12,000. At that time, the most I had ever won in one session was $7,000 and that took 40 hours. So this was my biggest win by far, and a life-saver, and I was sleeping when it happened.
What was your biggest or most memorable loss?
The most I’ve ever lost at poker is everything.
Can you describe a reality of being a professional poker player that you think other people are not aware of?
Depression. Self-doubt. Thick scars, built up from enduring countless injustices. When you have unlimited time to play and you must win to stay in action, but no matter what you do, you lose – only then are you truly tested. Until then it’s all apprenticeship. That’s half the reality of being a pro. The other half is that the freedom is well worth the pain.
Do players really need to ‘keep a poker face’? Or do the good players simply ignore everything they see on the other players’ faces?
I am a consistent victor in the information wars by way of observing nearly every action during and after every hand and by giving up as little information about my thoughts and feelings as possible by way of stillness and silence. As to what is optimal for others, unless I’ve been asked to help, I form no opinions.
Which ‘tell’ do you see most frequently with opponents at the poker table?
Frustration, giddiness, impatience, smugness, boredom, anger. It is often plain to see how opponents are feeling at any given moment. As to tells during a hand, I don’t categorize or label them. I react to each situation within the situation, and I coach my clients to do the same. A calm, attentive mind will interpret the signals well and react accordingly.
Do you enjoy playing poker any more or less than when you first started out?
I was a poker junkie for 30 years. I’ve played hundreds of sessions that were over 20 hours long. The “enjoyment” I derived from poker then is quite a bit different than what I experience now. I went from total degenerate to total discipline. The transition took 10 years; the change started when I took up daily home meditation 15 years ago. A few years after that, I started meditating at the poker table. Now I rate my poker performance based on how well I pay attention to the betting action, and by how often I remember to sit up straight and exhale consciously before every hand. When I start to feel a little frumpy, I remind myself how awesome it is that I am even playing poker at all, surrounded by poker lovers all doing what we want to do right now.
I never play more than two hours without a significant break; I never play more than six hours a day; I have never played better or enjoyed it more.
Do you ever get bored?
Rarely and not for long. I used to get bored though. A lot. And impatient. Those are thought patterns that I have learned to shoo away when they arise.
How do you stay motivated to keep playing?
Are you kidding me? It’s poker! 🙂
What advice would you give to an aspiring poker player?
Most people work on their A-game for five years before they start working on their C-game. Do both from the onset and never stop. Keep rooting around inside your worst self at the table. If you work hard and you develop a great A-game, you still might not be able to earn steady, reliable money at poker because you have deadly leaks that you haven’t plugged yet. You have to keep making your worst better than it was before. You have to make yourself into a consistent performer, no matter what it takes, or else all the brilliance and knowledge in the world won’t be enough to make you a winner.
World-class coach and author Tommy Angelo is considered a modern master of poker’s mental game. Called “the seminal poker text of the 21st century” by The London Time, Angelo’s Elements of Poker has revolutionized how serious poker players approach the game. His latest book, Painless Poker, is already a best seller.
Tommy is now offering pain relief to everyone. To schedule a video call to talk to Tommy about bad betting, bad quitting, bad tempers, or whatever else is hurting your game, go to TommyAngelo.com. You can also connect with Tommy on Twitter.