Erik Seidel first came to my attention in the same way that many poker newcomers do. I was watching Rounders, a 1998 Matt Damon film about a brilliant law student who pays his way through school by playing poker and eventually quits law to play full-time.
A real-life poker game is being played in the background of several scenes. It’s the final table of the 1988 World Series of Poker, between a young Seidel and Johnny Chan, the “master,” as Chan is repeatedly described by the commentators. This is the most famous non-poker match, in which Seidel’s set of queens loses to Chan’s straight after the older player sets an expert trap for his less experienced victim.
Chan was the reigning world champion, and Seidel competed in his first major tournament. He’d beaten out 165 other competitors to make the final table and was the last man standing except for one. Seidel is the master thirty years later. He has eight World Series of Poker bracelets—only five players in tournament history have more—as well as a World Poker Tour title.
He is one of only 32 living members of the Poker Hall of Fame. He has the fourth-highest tournament career winnings in the game’s history, as well as the fourth-most WSOP cashes (114). Many people regard him as the GOAT—the greatest of all time.
Seidel stands out among other players because of his longevity: He is still a contender for No. 1, as he has been since the late 1980s. That takes some effort. The game has evolved dramatically over the last 30 years. The qualitative aspects of poker, like so many other aspects of modern life, have taken a back seat to the quantitative. The tables are now lined with Caltech Ph.D.s. Printouts of statistics columns are commonplace. A conversation rarely lasts more than a beat without someone bringing up the terms GTO (game theory optimal) or +EV (positive expected value). Despite predictions that his psychological style of play would doom him, Seidel maintains his dominance.
Seidel began teaching me how to play poker three years ago. Why would a professional poker player—the professional poker player—agree to let a random journalist follow him around like a hyperactive toddler? It’s not for money or fame. Seidel is notoriously reticent, and he despises divulging his strategies. In a few ways, I was an ideal student.
Most importantly, I have a Ph.D. in psychology, so I was well positioned to comprehend Seidel’s playing style. I’d also never been interested in cards, so Seidel wouldn’t have to break me of any bad habits. My academic training and lack of experience made me an ideal test subject for determining whether Seidel’s psychological game could still triumph over a strictly mathematical style.
My personal life was a mess at the time. It wasn’t the best time to ask an esoteric question about a game I knew almost nothing about. My husband had recently been laid off, and our lives were in flux. But I quickly became obsessed with poker. The game was the ideal testing ground for my own inquiries into the role of chance in our lives.
Poker isn’t a game of pure chance like roulette, nor is it a game of mathematical elegance and perfect information like chess. Poker is based on the nuanced reading of human intention, interactions, and deceptions, in addition to the underlying mathematics. It provides you with just clean enough parameters to deal with uncertainty.
So Seidel and I devised a strategy: he would train me to compete in the game’s single most important tournament, the World Series of Poker, with its infamous $10,000 entry fee. With his second-place finish to Chan, this is the tournament that catapulted his own career. I’d have less than a year to get ready.
On my first training day, I woke up at six a.m., bleary-eyed and with my tail decidedly un-bushy. The WSOP is held inside a casino, complete with tables, chairs, green felt, real cards, and chips. The online version, where I begin to learn to play, is a mediocre imitation. The poker table is flat and pixelated, surrounded by avatars, which are hard-to-see photos uploaded by users to represent their virtual selves.
Virtual cards fly out of a central location and flip over in front of you. A small number beneath the cards indicates each player’s chip count. It’s all kind of drab, made worse by the fact that I had to schlep to a coffee shop in New Jersey to play, where online poker is legal. However, it is the quickest way to learn from scratch: hundreds of hands and scenarios unfolding as fast as I can click a mouse.
After playing all morning, I traveled to Upper Manhattan to meet with Seidel and discuss my performance. There are no lesson plans available. There are no specific topics to cover or objectives to achieve. Instead, Seidel and I go for a walk. He’s been religious in hitting his daily step count since he got a Fitbit a few years ago, come rain or shine, in New York or Vegas or anywhere else in the world, whether he’s in between games or in the middle of a tournament. It’s not just for fun. His way of thinking is to go for a walk.
I try to keep up with Seidel’s long strides while strategically perching my phone on the side of my bag to record the conversation as the majestic Hudson glitters blue on our left and the flowered carpets of Riverside Park open up on our right. I alternate between pulling a dog-eared poker strategy book—right now, Harrington on Hold’ em—from the bag to find the relevant pages and carrying a mini notebook to jot down critical thoughts I want to revisit.
We must appear to be an odd couple
Our earliest walking conversations are, predictably, the most basic. I’ve already learned the fundamentals of Texas Hold ’em: You’ve been dealt two cards. You decide whether or not to play them. If you do decide to play them, you must call the “blind” bet or raise. Everyone else follows the same decision-making process, beginning with the player to the left of the big blind, a position known appropriately as “under the gun.”
Then you have to make the same decision every time new information, in the form of new cards, appears. Finally, if only one person has cards, She wins the pot when the betting is finished. If the hand goes to showdown (the final bet is called), the person with the best cards wins.
But that’s about the extent of the simplicity. Poker appears deceptively simple to the untrained eye. Every time I talk to Erik, he tells me about another bartender, server, or Uber driver who recognizes him and tells him that he could play just as well; that “lucky break” simply hasn’t materialized.
Seidel doesn’t give me much concrete advice, and our discussions are more theoretical than I would prefer. He is more concerned with the process than with the prescription. When I complain that it would be nice to get his opinion on how I should play a hand, he smiles and tells me a story. He says he was speaking with one of the most successful high-stakes players on the circuit earlier that year. That player gave their opinion on how a particular hand should be played. Erik listened quietly before saying, “Less certainty. More inquiry.”
“He didn’t take it well,” he admits. “He became quite agitated.” But Seidel was not being critical. He was presenting the method he’d honed over years of experience. More questions. Maintain an open mind.
These Zen koans can be challenging. I do need answers. I’d like to know what I should do with my pocket tens from the small blind after a raise from under the gun and a re-raise from the hijack. Enough with the philosophy! I want to scream. Give me assurance! Tell me if I should call, shove, or fold. Please let me know if I’m making a big mistake! Seidel, on the other hand, will not be moved. And I’m left with that frustrating not-quite-rage that miraculously coalesces into knowledge weeks later. After all, poker is all about being at ease with uncertainty. But I didn’t realize it wasn’t just apprehension about the outcome of the cards. It’s apprehension about doing the “right” thing.
Erik learned about Mike Caro’s seminar several years ago. Caro is well-known for his book on tells, live, in-the-moment reads of others at the table. Erik describes him as “a pretty eccentric guy.” “And he walks around the stage, and he begins by asking, ‘What is the object of poker?'” I agree and nod. A question I’ve been asking myself regularly.
Erik goes on,” ‘Winning money,’ someone says. ‘No,’ he says. ‘Winning a lot of pots,’ someone else says. ‘No.’ ‘The object of poker is to make good decisions,’ he says. That’s a great way to look at poker, in my opinion.”
He pauses for a moment to reflect. “It’s fine to lose because of the run of the cards.” It is not a major issue. It hurts a lot more when you lose because of a bad decision or a mistake.”
Seidel won’t tell me how to play a hand, not because he’s mean, but because doing so would jeopardize my developing ability to make sound decisions. I need to learn to think through everything on my own. He can only provide me with tools. I’m the one who has to figure out how to get through. And then, hopefully, I’ll be ready to play for real money in a real casino, putting me one step closer to the World Series of Poker.
Vegas should not exist. The incongruity strikes you the moment you see it from the plane. Then there are mountains, deserts, and neat squares of identical houses that look like they were plucked straight from Monopoly. And then, in the midst of it all, there are green, lush oases: golf courses. The most obvious visual cue that you are entering a place that was not intended by nature is the stark contrast between the vibrant green forms and the yellows and browns.
I despise Vegas, I think as I wheel my suitcase away from the slot machines and toward the airport’s exit. In a burst of disbelief, the cold air hits me. It’s winter in Vegas. Nobody ever told me that Vegas could get cold and that I’d be shivering on top of everything else. That just goes to show how little I know about desert climates.
“I think I despise Vegas,” I say as I lift the suitcase into the back of Erik’s car. He’s decided to pick me up at the airport for my first trip out West.
“I know how you feel,” he says.
Suppose flying is a lesson in perspective, seeing the tiny Earth from above and realizing how insignificant you are as a part of it. In that case, the Vegas casino is the polar opposite. It’s meant to catch your attention and make itself appear to be the entire world. Its interiors are designed to drain your decision-making abilities and emotional reserves. The slot machines, the free alcohol, and the amenities are designed, so you never have to leave the casino. (“So casinos aren’t designed for making good decisions?”) Erik inquires about my reservations. “Who would have guessed.”)
It’s November, and I’ll be here for weeklong stretches on and off for the next few months. It’s my first time playing real poker—real casinos, real tournaments, and players who’ve been doing it for years, some longer than I’ve been alive. I suppose I’ll have to overcome my dislike for the place.
In my notebook, I make a poker schedule: Caesars or Planet Hollywood at 10 a.m., Monte Carlo, Mirage, or MGM Grand at 11. I’m looking through the daily tournaments to see what I can fit in so I can watch Erik play with the high rollers. There are numerous options. Here’s one from Aria! Erik spends his time there. It’s a lovely poker room, and I’m glad they’re hosting something more affordable than his $25,000 and $50,000 buy-ins. I eagerly scribble it down and mark it with a star.
Erik responds, “No.” “You’re not going to be able to play that one.” But why is that? It’s both convenient and thrilling. “You aren’t prepared for Aria,” he says.
So why not? I’ve been playing online nearly every day. I’ve even made nearly $2,000 doing it! How can he expect me to play a $10,000 buy-in later if I can’t even play this?
“First and foremost, the players here are far too talented. You must begin at a lower level.”
“Secondly, $140 is far too expensive. You’ll need to build up a larger bankroll before you can play at that level.” My ego has taken a hit. He doesn’t believe I’ll be able to pull off a baby tournament. Also, what exactly is a bankroll?
My first few weeks in Vegas aren’t going so well.
I try my luck at Excalibur, Harrah’s (Erik laughs when I tell him where I’m going, not because of the location, but because I’ve pronounced it “hurrah”), and the Mirage after an inauspicious start at the Golden Nugget—I promptly bust out of my first-ever live tournament without much fanfare.
Each location provides a slightly different experience, and with each hand, even as I lose more and more money—funny it’s how expensive fifty-dollar tournaments become once you realize how many you’ll be entering without receiving a single penny for your efforts—I begin to see more and more of the patterns I’ve been learning about play out in real life.
There are active players, passive players, aggressive players, conservative players, active players, and loose players. Some enjoy drinking. There are those who enjoy playing and never fold. There are those who are on vacation and are here to have fun, those who are here to win, those who are here to take advantage of others, and those who simply want to make a few friends at the table. There are those who talk, those who stalk, those who bully, and those who are friendly. I watch them all and take careful notes after the game.
At Bally’s, I enter a $60 daily tournament. It’s small, with only two tables of players, but I take pride in watching the numbers dwindle to a single table, then eight, seven, six, until I’m in the final four.
And it’s difficult for me to keep my excitement in check when I flop a set (three of a kind) of nines, an excellent hand if ever there was one. There’s a bet in front of me, and I joyfully throw all my chips in the middle. That’s it. My education is paying off. I’ll finally have my first tournament winnings. I’m called by a player hoping the dealer completes his flush, and the flush hits to my horror. I’m done and heartbroken.
I almost leave it all there and then. This game is incredibly unfair. But somewhere deep down, I know that it was to confront that very apparent unfairness that I turned to poker in the first place; I resolved to play on. I spend the next week playing daily, taking meticulous notes and discussing them with Erik. I’m a warrior, a storyteller, and an explorer, not a stranded minnow about to be devoured by sharks. It’s a mantra I keep repeating, hoping it will eventually stick.
Tuesday morning, I get up early to prepare for my next tournament, which begins at 10 a.m. at Planet Hollywood. I’m surprised any real poker players are up this early. I cross the Strip walkway that connects CityCenter and the Miracle Mile Shops, get lost in a two-story Walgreens that I mistook for the casino entrance and eventually emerge into the actual Planet Hollywood.
The poker room is located in the heart of the casino floor. I go to the desk and ask to sign up for the daily.
Today has a good turnout. I’ve learned over the weeks that these morning events sometimes only have one or two tables of players, and we already have three. The blind bets increase every 20 minutes. It’s a “turbo” structure designed for aggression and speed. If you sit around for too long, you’ll run out of chips, so you have to act quickly—but act too quickly, and you’ll be out.
I’ve gradually adjusted to the fast pace of the daily tournaments and am doing my best to follow my lessons within the time constraints. It finally feels like it’s coming together today. I concentrate. I keep an eye on the players. With the rising blinds, I try not to panic. Before I act, I imagine myself explaining the why of any action as each hand is dealt. Some players begin to bust. I’m still interested.
We’re down to one table now, and I’m looking down at pocket queens, a great hand. I raise my hand. I’m called. Another player decides to shove, bringing all of his chips to the center of the table. Past me would have folded, assuming one of the two players had me beat and not wanting to jeopardize the rest of the tournament. But today’s me is confident enough to call. I’ve been lied to all week.
The player after me folds, and we turn our cards over. My opponent has an ace-king hand. Short of him having a worse pocket pair, it’s about as good a situation as I could hope for. Sure, he can hit an ace or a king, and no, I’m not overjoyed. I’d rather he had ace-queen or ace-jack, reducing his chances of beating me. But, for the time being, I’m a little ahead. It’s a coin flip, a classic race: does the pocket pair hold, or does the ace-king outdraw it to win? This time, the variance is on my side. I more than double my chip stack. I’ve suddenly become the table chip leader.
There are only five of us remaining. I notice some eye contact between the four others. Of course, they are all men. “Do you want to talk about a chop?” asks the player to my right.
When the remaining players in a tournament agree to split the prize money rather than continue playing, this is referred to as a chop. It’s sometimes done in what’s known as a chip chop, where you get a portion of the prize pool proportional to your portion of the chips.
Other times, it is done in accordance with the ICM, or Independent Chip Model, in which each chip is not created equal: Your payout also considers the tournament payout structure (the percentage of the prize pool allocated to each position) and your likelihood of finishing in your current position. You divide the money and call it a day in either case.
As the chip leader, I’m the one who has to persuade people to chop. I take a look around at the other participants. I have more than twice as much as the next stack. My head shakes. “No, please.” “I’d like to participate.”
Another player goes bust. “Come on, let’s chop,” my neighbor says.
“Yeah. “Let’s just chop,” my other neighbor suggests.
“It’s best if you just chop,” says the third remaining player. “You’re now in a position of power. You will receive more money. But you already know you’ll lose all those chips as quickly as you won them. You just have to wait.”
Why are colleges betting big on video games
That’s the end of it. I shake my head emphatically no, not trusting myself to make a coherent verbal argument. (Little do I know that this is just mild banter compared to what I’m about to face—being propositioned; being called a cunt; being dismissed as a “little girl”; poker is a man’s world, and if you forget it, someone will remind you right away.) We’re soon down to three players—again, the others inquire: Chop, chop, chop? No, then two, and finally, the miracle of miracles, one. I won my first tournament and $900 in prize money. I am completely overjoyed.
“Will the Hendon Mob be informed?” I inquire of the man who is calculating my pay. The Hendon Mob is a website that keeps track of all poker players’ tournament winnings, and I’m excited to be Hendon-official, a badge of honor in my mind.
He looks at me with pity in his eyes. “I’m sorry, honey. We don’t send Hendon our daily reports.”
I’m temporarily saddened by the news, but the feeling of having more than $900 in my hands and the knowledge that I’ve won for the first time is enough to make me forget the slight. With one win, I’ve now paid for my entire trip. I’ve got money! I am a participant! This is far more thrilling than winning online.
I walk out into the sunlight and send two text messages, one to Erik and the other to my husband. The messages are the same: “I won my first tournament!!!!”
I followed up with Erik. “Can I participate in the Aria tournament right now?”
“You deserve it.”
That evening, I’m finally sitting at Aria—not watching, but sitting! I’m overjoyed. I busted quickly enough; there was no miraculous switch from losing to winning. But I play the next day again. The next day, and the day after that. And then I got it: my first ever Hendon cash. I finished second, and this time it’s worth far more than $900. I have $2,215 newly added to my account, and I am ecstatic.
“It would be a good idea for you to start playing some higher buy-ins and see how they feel,” Erik suggests. Even I am not naive enough to believe that the game I play at my level is the same game played at higher buy-in tournaments, where the skill level and complexity increase.
These small wins in the Vegas newspapers aren’t enough to guarantee success elsewhere, nor are they enough to sustainably fund any kind of stakes increase. However, they are a start, and for my purposes, that is sufficient. I realize now how grateful I should be that Erik initially restricted me to sub-$100 buy-ins. I’ve been in Vegas on and off for nearly two months—the time it took to get here.
When I returned from Vegas, it appeared that a shift had occurred. After I got off the phone with my speaking agency a few weeks later, I noticed my husband quietly observing me. I’ve just declined an engagement for the first time in my speaking career, telling them I was worth more than what they offered.
“Is everything all right?” I inquired about him.
“You know, you take a lot less crap from people these days,” he says thoughtfully, with something I interpret as admiration. “That’s fantastic.”
I plan to visit Vegas several times in the coming months. My first major international event takes me to Monte Carlo. I’m in Dublin, Barcelona, and the wilds of Connecticut. I’ve had some minor successes. And some bigger blunders. But I press on. I want to earn Erik’s trust.
In January of 2018, almost a year after my first live poker hand, I descended on one of the poker tour’s oldest and most prestigious stops, the PCA, or PokerStars Caribbean Adventure.
The Bahamas are lovely, but I only see them for the few minutes I walk outside between my room and the casino. They say that the more sightseeing you do on a poker stop, the worse your chances of winning are. I’ve been spending a lot of time inside lately. I made it to day two of the tournament after 16 hours of grueling play. I stumble into bed, only to discover that I can’t sleep for more than a few hours. The adrenaline rush is excessive. I enter the familiar spiral of I need to sleep to play well, oh no, I’m not sleeping; this is terrible that anyone who has ever experienced insomnia is familiar with. Day two begins, whether you sleep or not.
My caffeine-fueled brain is a jumbled mess today, but I make some hands and manage to avoid busting. That means—drumroll, please—I’ve made it to the final table. I’m one of the last eight players at a major international tournament. That night, I jerked awake, dreading a particularly disturbing nightmare. I start laughing, a hint of hysteria creeping in when I realize I’d dreamed of playing out a bad beat in my head.
My phone rings at 11 a.m. Erik here. “Today’s task: relax, focus, and think.” You worked extremely hard for this. Allow no distractions.”
I nod, temporarily forgetting that he can’t see me.
My phone rings once more. “Ru and I are both very excited.” Ruah is Erik’s wife.
I gather my belongings and proceed to the casino. I’ve previously attended final tables but never at a major event. When I look around, I have entered an alternate timeline.
Chris Moorman is seated to the left of the dealer. Moorman is a feared tournament crusher previously ranked as the world’s best online tournament player. Two seats to my left are Harrison Gimbel. I’ve never met him, but I know he’s won the coveted Triple Crown of poker: a WSOP bracelet, a WPT (World Poker Tour) title, and a European Poker Tour title. He actually won the main event at this stop. He’s back on familiar ground. To my right is Loek van Wely, whom I recognize from researching him the night before—a basic step in preparation. Van Wely is a Dutch chess champion and chess grandmaster who was once ranked among the top ten chess players in the world. Another player is a Canadian pro with nearly a million dollars in earnings. Another is a Chicago pro who has earned over a million dollars. I feel like a complete fraud.
My mental-game coach, Jared Tendler, would not approve of my thinking, but I can’t stop myself. This is exactly what we worked on. “Everyone was lucky at some point,” he explained. “Dismantle the mythology that surrounds their greatness.” They still have flaws. They are people first and players second.”
I try to gather myself. I take a few deep breaths. I consider how far I’ve come. Surprisingly, I’m second in chips, with over 70 big blinds to work with—exactly where you want to be before a final table. A big surprise gives me a boost: Seidel greets me when I walk into the tournament room. He hadn’t told me he was coming. He also has a final table today, but it isn’t for a few hours. He might be sleeping. I’m overjoyed. I told him I couldn’t eat breakfast because I was so nervous and afraid I’d vomit.
He says, “One hand at a time.” “When you’re focused on the game, the nerves fade away.” You can do it.”
His numerous final tables and titles make it easy for him to say. I put on a brave face and asked him for last-minute advice.
He is correct. “Don’t be a fish,” as poker slang for a bad player says.
And with that, he’s off to begin his day and observe the action from a distance. Because you can’t see the hole cards, watching final tables in person is a nightmare. I repeat silently, “Don’t be a fish,” as I sit down and smile for the cameras. Don’t be like a fish. Don’t be like a fish.
The hours tick by. I misplaced some pots. I make errors. I organized a rally. I concentrate. I retrench and rebuild my stack. I should rightfully bust when I get a pair of sevens all in preflop and find myself up against a pair of aces. I’m halfway out of my seat when a miraculous sequence of cards helps me make a straight. I make more errors. But the players keep busting one by one, and I’m still alive.
I’m going to get some chips. I doubled up against an opponent I’ve nicknamed Aggro Oldie because of his overly aggressive approach, which plays on his image of an older man who can’t possibly get bluff. He tries to intimidate me before the flop, but I stand firm with a suited king-jack and hold against his queen-10. I knocked him out of the tournament a few hands later. He raises from the small blind, and I’m in the big blind with the ace-king of hearts, a monster hand under any circumstances, but especially so right now. I place a large bet, and he decides enough is enough and goes all in. I dialed right away. Off suit, he has ace-deuce: I’m in great shape going to the flop. I make a right, and there are suddenly only two of us. I’m at my first major final table, competing for a major title.
I texted Seidel before we resumed play. “Wake up! “I’m the chip leader,” I ask him if I should consider discussing a deal. “If you think he’s good,” he replies. “You’ve been practicing, though,” he adds briefly.
He is correct. I have, in fact. “I think I’ll stick with it for now,” I responded. This is how I feel.
“That’s the spirit!” says one. Seidel responds. “We’re on our way!” “It’s so exciting.” He and Ruah are on their way to the casino to support me.
The thought of them watching gives me a boost of energy that propels me through the next few hands until I face a potentially game-changing decision. I raise with the ace of clubs and the king of spades before the flop. Alexander Ziskin, a professional poker player from Chicago, calls. The flop consists of two tens, a seven, and two spades. He double-checks. I bet again, knowing that my hand is still very strong and that even if he has a pair, I have plenty of room to improve. Instead of folding or calling, which are the obvious options, Alexander raises to nearly three times my bet. I’m unsure. Is his score a 10? If he does, I’m in big trouble. I decide that he’ll call with a 10 instead—on such a dry board, why not let me hang myself? I have two overcards and a flush possibility. I request the raise. The deuce of spades is the turn, putting a third spade on the board. “I’m all in,” he declares. Oh no. I only have an ace high. What should I do?
My mind begins to calculate
My mind begins to calculate. If I call and am incorrect, he has the chip lead and momentum. This is a big decision, especially since I don’t even have a pair in my hands. But I do have a spade—the king of spades, to be exact. That means, even if I’m now behind, I could improve to the best hand if another spade is turned over on the final card. I agonize for several minutes, counting the possible bluff combinations he might have and whether or not they outweigh his value hands, before deciding that I simply cannot fold. The pot odds are stacked in my favor. The numbers are on my side. And he probably knows how difficult this is for me, which makes him even more likely to try to make a move. He’s the expert. I’m a newbie. He’s been here before. No, I haven’t. I called.
Alexander flips the jack of spades and the eight of spades. He has a gutshot straight draw and a flush draw, but my hand is still the best. And my flush draw is superior to his. All I have to do is hang on in order to avoid being dealt one of the eight cards that will make him the winner (a nine, a jack, or an eight, as long as they are not spades). The cameras are getting closer. The reporters congregate. I look for Erik and Ruah, but everything is moving so fast that they haven’t yet arrived at the table. The dealer waits for the floor manager to signal her that she can flip the next card.
We take a seat and wait. It seems to go on indefinitely. Finally, she receives the signal. The river has been dealt with. It’s the heart king. I still can’t believe it. Alexander stands up and walks over to shake my hand, and I haven’t registered it yet. I recently won. I have $84,600. I won the PCA National Championship in 2018. And I’ve already paid for my World Series of Poker entry.To see a comprehensive Poker Guide click on the link, your Pohon Pokers.