Interview with Michael BingerBy Steve Marzolf
Michael Binger, who first picked up cards as a blackjack player in college, has been riding the poker wave for more than a decade, raking in more than $7 million in tournament winnings in the process. We caught up with him to talk about riding tough swings, staying mentally sharp and learning how to balance the stress of a poker lifestyle.
- How's your game going these days?
- I feel like I've been playing really well lately, which is great, because the previous six or seven months didn't reflect that. Unlike cash game poker, where if you're a winning player you're going to win over a reasonable amount of time, in tournament poker, the variance is so high...I feel like I'm doing all the right things, but it just hasn't swung my way. Despite the fact that I haven't done much myself in the tournaments, I'm actually having a pretty good year because I back a couple players, and some of them have had pretty big scores.
- What kind of mix have you been playing - online vs. live and tourney vs. cash?
- It really varies. I play all forms of poker and enjoy them all. In practice, over the past few years, I've been playing live tournament poker and traveling around. When I travel less, I play a little bit more online. I used to play more cash games years ago, but now it's just the occasional session. There's no really thought-out reason for my mix...I'm basically just a tournament junkie. There's just an excitement and thrill with tournament poker that you don't get in cash games. In a tournament, if you make one mistake, you bust out and your tournament life is over. It's harder for me to bring all my focus and attention to cash games because you can always just reload.
- You were introduced to cards as a blackjack player - how did that happen?
- As an undergraduate, I was studying physics, and I convinced my professor to let me do my final project on card-counting in blackjack. I never made a bunch of money doing that, though. It's not hard to learn to play blackjack, but it's tough to get in the hours at a casino with good table conditions. You have a lot less of an edge if you're playing at a full table, and you have to fool them enough that they don't catch on and bar you from playing.
- You did get barred from some places, right?
- Yeah, it was in graduate school in '01 or '02, and I'd take three or four trips a year to play blackjack and win or lose a couple thousand. I discovered poker in the card rooms in the Bay area in 2001 and played small stakes. I wasn't really taking poker all that seriously, and I jumped into some bigger games I shouldn't have and lost...a lot more money than I'd have wanted to. Then I decided to go out to Reno and recoup my losses playing blackjack. Back then I was a lot more analytical, and blackjack was a solvable game...so I went to that. Then lo and behold, I had the worst run ever in blackjack, and I lost even more. Then I started getting a little desperate and pushed my bets higher and higher, and they caught on that I was counting and barred me. On that trip, I had like a half-dozen casinos either bar or flat-bet me. At that point I realized I was never going to get rich playing blackjack, so I decided, 'I think I'm going to take poker more seriously.'
- How did you elevate your game at that point?
- I bought a bunch of books on that trip to Reno and started reading them. My goal was to win back my losses from that painful week. I studied for a week or two and came back and started winning steadily and making progress.
- What were the big milestones for you when you were learning?
- The first stages were getting some good books and realizing that - even though it wasn't solvable in the true mathematical sense, like blackjack - there are definitely winning strategies and losing strategies. If I were doing it today, I would start online with small stakes and start reading strategy upfront. My original thinking was: 'I'm a smart guy. I'm just going to outwit my opponents.' But that's not really going to cut it when you're playing serious poker. You really need to know the odds and study up.
- What have you learned over your career?
- Staying healthy and positive is my main thing. I think I'm only going to play when I want to now - when I'll enjoy it. For a couple years there, I think I pushed myself so hard, in some sense chasing the dragon and wanting the next big score. I played too many tournaments and wore myself thin, so I wasn't playing my A game all the time. So now I'm just trying to enjoy life, get a good night's sleep, work out and get a good breakfast. It helps for maintaining focus for the long haul over those 12-hour days.
- Have you broken any bad habits at the table?
- My whole mindset and attitude at the table has changed. It sounds so cheesy, but there are a lot of 'life lessons' you learn through the game, as far as emotional and mental discipline. Being able to make good decisions quickly with incomplete information...that was hard for me at first. I wanted to know everything and find the optimal answer. But sometimes you can spend too much time thinking, and it's better to trust your instincts and develop a rhythm.
- You've had a few big swings throughout your career - how have you weathered those?
- I'm in the midst of one now. I started off 2010 hot - in the first three months of the year I had six or seven final tables and one small tournament win. And then I had had zero final tables...It's kinda hard to fathom. But major poker goes like that. I spend a fair amount of time on different projects, some in poker some out, to keep myself sharp. I've picked up some physics research and some poker mathematical models I'm working on. It helps keep my mind active and focused. Being focused solely on poker is not a winning recipe for me. I have to have some things outside of poker that I'm putting my time and attention into. Then the poker just falls into place. And even if I am in a poker slump, it doesn't affect me as much. I'm just trying to get into different things. For instance today, I got my ass kicked at Brazilian Jujitsu.
- Liv Boeree told us that you're a much better physicist than she is - have you been keeping up with the field?
- I try to keep up. I spent a good deal of my adult life pursuing that. I feel like I'm winding down with full-time poker and am going to spend more with other things, quite likely including physics. But it's hard to say. I recently told my friends the same thing and then went on a two-month binge traveling around and playing poker.
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