Interview with Phil Gordon
By Steve Marzolf
How did you first get started playing poker?
"I first started when I was 7. My great aunt taught us to play over her poker table. We'd rake leaves on her lawn, then she'd sit around the poker table and take all our money from us. She busted me just about every night when I was a kid. She was a poker fiend, and she had no remorse."
How did the learning curve treat you when you were first starting to take your games seriously?
"Badly. I started getting serious around 1995. I was very young and didn't really know the forms of poker. The card clubs in California at that time were populated with a bunch of sharks, and it's impossible to beat a $1/$2 holdem game with a $3 rake. It took about three years before I was winning on a consistent basis at middle-limit poker. I think the best thing that happened to me was meeting the Tiltboys. I was living just a few miles from Stanford University, and I met a group of guys that played every Wednesday night. I got invited to the game, and they became my best friends. They were extraordinarily bright and very thoughtful about the game as well as being great fun. We started going to Vegas three or four times a year as a group to work on our game. Any time you spend a significant amount of time around smart people talking about a subject, you're going to get smarter just by osmosis."
So, you advise other people to surround themselves with smart players?
"I don't think that's particularly good advice at the poker table, but it's a great way to learn. Poker is unique in that it's the only profession in the world where it pays immense amounts to surround yourself with the biggest idiots you can find."
How often are you playing these days?
"Not too often. I'm playing on the internet about five days a week. I'm going to play almost every tournament in the World Series of Poker this year, four or five World Series of Poker circuit events, and zero World Poker Tour events until they change their player release."
What's the problem with the player release?
"Basically the problem is that they want you to warrant that they can use your name, likeness, and image for anything under the sun. And it's not reasonable. It's not legal for me to sign that considering the contracts that I have with a couple other companies for endorsement possibilities."
Well, endorsements are a big part of poker now, right?
"They are. I'm very fortunate to be in a position where people want me to represent their products. Legally, I cannot sign the WPT release and risk them creating a competitive product when I've signed exclusivity deals with other companies. There are quite a few people - and the number is growing everyday - that are boycotting the WPT until they get their act together. I don't expect Steve Lipscomb to miss me. But at the same time, I'm not going to support an organization that I think is doing the wrong thing to the players and the game."
The premise of your "Little Green Book" is that anyone can be a champ. What are the first few things that a complete amateur should do to get on the road to becoming a winner?
"Number one is read the 'Little Green Book.' Number two: Understand that aggression is the key to the game, and the people that bet and raise are the people that win. Playing in a passive manner is not winning poker, so if you can get yourself in an aggressive mindset, you have a really good shot at winning. Number three: Understand that the mathematics of the game dictate that you will lose, and lose badly. You're going to go on long losing streaks and that's just a part of the game. You have to have the psychological courage to face those losses - and the bankroll, by the way - and bounce back."
Another tenet of the book is that you don't have to be the world's greatest player. Do you think a lot of the players are pursuing the glory they see on TV rather than just trying to focus on winning hands?
"Well, you know, first of all I think the people who watch the players on TV give them more credit than they deserve. Although the greatest players in the world are fantastic and world class, there's not that much of a difference between a guy who's picked up the game and played ten times and the best player - maybe Phil Ivey or whoever you think it is. There's just not that big a difference. I think that gap, for just about anyone that is going to take the game seriously and put the time in, can be closed. If you want to be a great player you can be. The players on TV are awarded much more skill and level of proficiency than most deserve. Including myself."
Was there a point in your career that you looked up and said, 'Wow, these guys really aren't that great'?
"Yeah. Every time I play in a poker tournament and I see them making classic mistakes. I see them going broke and having to borrow money because they played too high for their bankroll. I see them tilt all their money away after taking one bad beat. I mean, come on. Just about every single time I enter a poker tournament I see one of the 'best players in the world' making classic, fundamental mistakes. By the way, I make those same mistakes."
It's an intense game.
"It is. But when you look back on a play and you're like, 'Oh my God, I'm such a dingbat. How could I make this stupid play,' you realize even an amateur player would make the same play you made. But, it's something you can always strive to improve, which is a great thing. You know, Howard Lederer says he's never played a perfect session. I don't think I've ever played a perfect round."
How does playing celebrities differ from playing normal, run-of-the-mill poker pros and just people off the street? Is there any unique strength or weakness that you find there?
"The only thing I can say is that if they don't know what they have, you can't know what they have."
It's that bad, huh?
"For some it is; for others it's that they play no better or worse than the average guy. And there are some people in the celebrity world that are very, very good players and can compete at any level."
What about psychologically? Do you get intimidated?
"Oh, no. There's only been one person in my life that I've been star struck by and couldn't talk. I met Harrison Ford at his house at his sixtieth birthday party a couple of years ago. And I legitimately could not speak when I met him. But he was really the only one. I've met a lot of famous people in my life, and I don't know why it happened."
Because he's Indiana Jones, man!
When you walked away from the internet boom, you sold your company for $95 million, is that right?
"Yeah, you know, first of all I was one of ninety employees. I was the first employee, but still. People overestimate the amount of money that I made off that deal, believe me."
But then you went on adventures around the world. Tell me some of the wildest stuff you did.
"I climbed Mount Kilimanjaro. I went cage diving with Great White sharks. I did skydiving, paragliding; I basically tried to kill myself just about every month. I spent a month in Ethiopia. Did Machu Picchu and the Inca Trail, went hiking in the Amazon for a week with just me and a guide. I had the freedom and the desire to see what the world had to offer."
What's more nerve racking: Swimming with Great Whites or facing a table full of poker pros?
"You do not want to be in a cage with a sixteen foot Great White Shark next to the cage, especially when the water is like thirty seven degrees. That was not much fun. You're in a wet suit and stuff, and they chum the water and bait the Great Whites to try to get them next to the cage. Very interesting experience, but not much fun."
If you could snap your fingers and make some changes to the world of poker, what would they be?
"No tyrannical outbreaks at the table. You know, the trash talking is getting worse and worse every year because people realize that's how they get on television. I would make it a much harsher penalty to berate your opponents, throw a chair, stomp up and down, drop the F-bomb and all that kind of stuff. That has no real purpose at the table. I would also reduce the entry fees that players pay for televised tournaments. I think it's criminal that we pay 6 to 10 percent entry fees for events where people are making tremendous amounts of money on our money. It's just not very fair."
Do you have any personal rivalries with pros or celebrities from the show?
"There's no one I want to beat worse than Phil Hellmuth, but I would not say that I'd go out of my way to ensure that I'm at his table. I know he's one of the best in the world, and I just want to beat him. I want to beat him worse than I want to beat other people."
What's your motivation?
"You know, he's just one of those people. I look back at my days as a Tiltboy. Putting people on tilt is considered an art form, and there's no one better to put on tilt than him, in my opinion. Anytime you put a bad beat on him, you're likely to cause a meltdown."
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