Perhaps there is no more influential book in the world of poker than Doyle Brunson's Super System. Many players, both young and old, swear by the book as it continues to shape the game today. But back when it was first published in 1979 the poker landscape was far different than what it is today and few, even Texas Dolly himself, could predict where the game was headed. In retrospect Brunson has expressed some amount of regret in writing the book often stating that it has probably cost him more money on the tables than what he was paid to write it. In addition, he has said in more than a few interviews that he has had to change his playing style due to the fact that so many players have read his book. Modern coaches and authors are in quite the different context than Bruson as the game has exploded many times over throughout the world. Given that an icon such as Doyle Brunson has already admitted that his book has worsened the poker ecology for both himself and other players, it has to be asked why current coaches offer insight into a game where there is a limited supply of equity to go around?
Although I have never been a coach nor do I ever hope to put myself in the same league as Doyle, I found myself in a similar situation a few years back when running a poker room in Phnom Penh, Cambodia. I had a local player base that can largely be considered recreational, with money to spare that did not mind giving a lot of action. Foreign players would sometimes find the game through various online forums, but it was not a widely known phenomenon in the grand scope of the poker world. Ask a random player in any Western country and I doubt that most would have known that one of the best $5-$10 PLO games existed in this humble third world country. But the room was getting on in years and had started to decline. Thus the job that the room's owner charged me with was to grow the player base and increase it's revenue. Towards this end I started a social media campaign unlike any before and while the room had always had a Facebook page, I started an advertising blitz that would ensure that many more eyes would come to see the room. With discounted hotel rooms and free meals also being offered, word quickly got around and we were able to draw players from neighboring countries and beyond. My boss was certainly pleased with the results, but I would come to discover that not everyone was happy with my efforts. Many of the foreign players who had occupied our tables for years would have preferred to keep the room a secret and did not want to face tougher competition in the form of players from Western nations that were very familiar with the game.
Although I fought it at the time, in retrospect I have to admit that the reasoning was sound. Given the nature of my advertising and the fact that I am a foreigner myself, it was not as if I was growing the local player base. The number of local and recreational players I had mentioned previously was largely stagnant, while the base from abroad was growing. Thus it could be interpreted that a larger group of players were now fighting over a smaller amount of resources. My answer to this at the time was simple; not all players are winning ones and in fact the majority are not. Therefore it can be argued that I was bringing in just as many losing players as winning ones, if not more. In essence the advertising efforts were creating a new equity source from which the remaining winning players can draw from. It could be that current poker coaches and authors have a similar mentality, namely that in the end their efforts will not worsen the poker ecology as there will always be more losing players than winning ones and that their coaching will not affect this to any considerable degree. If this is indeed their thought process, there are several issues that need to be addressed. Firstly, given the claims of most coaching sites in terms of how they can help the average poker player, there is then a dissonance between what they are selling and what they know to be the most likely result. But on the flip side if any coaching site is successful and can back up their claims of creating winning poker players, they are then worsening the ecosystem of the game and further reducing the resources available for it to grow. I recently saw a YouTube video from such a site where they were reviewing hands using various Artificial Intelligence (AI) software and solvers to analyze different strategies. It is very unlikely that such videos would be appealing to the general public and in fact can have the opposite effect. Poker is a shrinking game and we have long since passed the days of the boom. These sites and books reach out to a very niche audience within the existing player base and if successful worsen the game while not attracting any new players at the same time.
Of course another possibility is that these sites are basically a complete scam, that they cannot in any way back up their claims of creating winning players and are largely run by those who either never won in the game or at the very least cannot continue to do so. I remember a post on the 2+2 forums several years back critiquing one such coach, who was offering training packages starting at over $1,000. But with some research the forum community was able to discover that he had not been a winning player online for the past 4 years, although he did have some notoriety in the years prior. Poker is a shrinking game and if a player such as myself can read the writing on the wall it stands to reason so can these players that tout themselves as coaches. We have all heard the phrase, those who can do and those who cannot teach. One can readily see how this sort of thinking applies not only in poker but also in closely related fields such as sports betting. Social media is littered with those who tout themselves as sports betting gurus, who promise their clients untold riches if one can simply pay for their picks and consulting services. There is an exhaustive list of why all of these gurus are complete scammers, too many to delve into in this short article. But for those who speak truthfully on this topic they all reiterate the same point; why would anyone who consistently wins give away their secrets when it adversely and directly affects their own livelihood for the worse. The same can be said for coaching in poker as resources in the form of losing players' money is not an unlimited one. Simply put, to coach players to become winners creates competition and makes no logical sense if this game were truly their sole source of income.
All of this is before we even address the issue of cost. In my previous analogy of sports betting, the cost comes in the form of what is known as vigorish (or vig). The truth is that even your average sports fan can come close to having 50% winning results. But what prevents them from being actual winners is the vig, the commission that the sports book takes from the bettor for placing the bet. So in reality to make a wager to win $100 one would have to make it for $110 ($100 + 10% vig) and that is the difference that makes most bettors losers. The vig in the world of poker coaches comes in the form of the cost of procuring such advice and insights into the game. As I see it there are two basic models at work in this industry, the first using charging a monthly subscription that seeks to cast a wide net and the other a more personal approach in which the coach only accepts a handful of applicants but charges much more. In the former model one could argue that price is not a significant issue as it does not appear to be prohibitive. But one has to wonder about the quality of such material when it is so mass produced to attract as big of an audience as possible. In the end it may very well be true that you get what you pay for. The latter model may be more attractive to many as it takes a more personal approach and one can receive training from the actual coach and not just a series of videos from partners and associates. But in these cases the prices are much higher, often ranging well into the thousands. As poker coaching can be somewhat of an ongoing process that does not end with one lesson, the costs can quickly add up. The fact is that poker players already have a vig in the form of rake that most regulars pay into the tens of thousands each year. To have to add to this total the cost of coaching does not make much sense in that the most likely outcome would not overcome the total cost.
I do not mean to denigrate all coaching sites as I personally know those who are sincere in their motivations and actually helpful when it comes to their students. But I find a general contradiction in reasoning and philosophy when it comes to the issue of coaching that most have not been able to address. In the worst case scenario a coach may just be a complete scammer. But even in the minority that is the best case scenario, affective coaches are worsening the poker ecology for both themselves and every one else. One model that I have seen employed that comes the closest to addressing every issue is the staking model. In this practice coaches take on a handful of students to go through the entire course material, but in the end will take the few best ones and stake them into real cash games to split the profits at a predetermined ratio. In this way everyone gets a chance to pay for and review the material once, but then those who will benefit from it the most can continue the relationship and mutually profit from it along with their instructor. In this manner cost is no longer an issue as what the student pays is derived from his winnings. And while this in of itself can be considered a cost, it can be considered offset by the fact that the client's buy-ins are provided by the instructor. For the coach this method can provide verification for prospective clients that they are still keeping up with the game, demonstrating real world results if not from themselves then from those that they mentor. It also demonstrates that the coach's primary income is still derived from the felt and not the instruction itself.
In its conclusion the issue of poker coaching creates too many philosophical issues that cannot stand to sound reasoning. The old adage of "if it's too good to be true it probably is" applies here as so many poker coaches cannot possibly do for their students what they claim. And in the best case scenarios where they actually are helping, they end up making the poker world a worst place. But philosophical issues are often impossible to solve and thus the point of this article should be to address the consumer side of things as there will always be a market for this service as long as poker is still a thing. To those coaches who are of good intent and repute I would advise to follow a model of complete transparency. Those that code may already be familiar with Github, a repository where one can share their programming code for the community to view and even edit. I do not see why the poker coaching world could not follow a similar model by providing the results of their students in order to provide for the community real world demonstrations of their service. In this way coaches can limit the number of students, thus minimizing their impact on the ecology, and avoid the boiler room type of coaching videos that have a limited impact even at their best. And even if some players were to choose not to employ these types of services, such can at least provide real proof and inspiration that it is at least possible that one can improve their game and become winners in poker. In the end, the results will often be what makes for the best marketing tool for those in the coaching world.
My very first hand of poker was in a live home setting in which I learned the game over a $0.05-$0.10 no limit holdem table. Eventually this caused me to open online accounts on several sites and given the faster nature of the virtual felt, I played many hands in a quick amount of time. But as I lived in Los Angeles at the time I would still continue to play live in rooms at the Bike and Hollywood Park. Eventually this would lead me to move to Las Vegas, where I had the privilege of playing professionally for five years. I still maintained my routine of playing both live and online but in my mind they were almost two separate worlds. This is what made what happened at the Excalibur Casino in 2009 so interesting as they laid off the entirety of their 40 person dealing staff, moved out all of their poker tables and replaced them with 12 electronic poker gaming tables. It was a bold experiment by the Excalibur to say the least and as such it garnered much attention. But most of it was negative and the tables did not last very long, not even 6 months. The casino failed to recognize the main reason why these tables would come to fail, namely that live poker is an experience and that electronic tables cannot possibly replace nor mimic this aspect. In the end everything returned to “normal” as nearly every dealer was hired back and all tables returned to the poker room and the phenomenon of the electronic poker table has hardly been heard from since.
My very first experience with electronic tables at the Excalibur was at the beginning of their experiment when they hosted a slew of promotions to promote their new tables. One such promotion was a $100 satellite for events into the World Series of Poker (WSOP). They held these satellites for several events and it presented itself as an inexpensive way of entering the prestigious tournament. When my friend told me about these tourneys I felt as if I had to play one right away. Unfortunately the satellite occurring on that evening was the one for Omaha, a game I had very little experience in at the time. But feeling impulsive and seeing as how it was only $100, we decided to try our luck. They limited the field to 30 players for each satellite to be played over 3 electronic tables. My friend got knocked out relatively early but somehow my chip stack kept growing. Once it was down to five players it seemed like a realistic possibility that I may win this thing. It got down to 3 players and someone suggested a deal, but the chip leader at the time wanted the seat which I also coveted so we could not come to an agreement. But then he got knocked out 30 minutes later and it was down to heads up. Once again a deal was discussed but the woman sitting across from me was the chip leader and wanted the seat so we played on. A few hands later I took a healthy portion of her stack and then on the very next hand I would claim the seat in an all in when my KT98 double suited connected with the flop for two pair. I would go on to play in the Pot Limit Omaha $1,500 buy-in event at the WSOP in what is still my only event played in that tournament. I did not fare well in the actual tourney as I was busted by Chip Jett before the first break when his pocket kings held up against my KQT9 single suited. But what this experience did accomplish was that it gave me a favorable impression of the electronic poker tables, on which I would frequently play over the next few months.
Before we delve into all of the negatives, I should first discuss how the tables worked and some of their positive aspects. Each player had a tablet like screen in front of them where their two hole cards were dealt. They were dealt face down and once the player placed his hand on the screen the cards would peel up to show their value. One could easily place their hands in a manner to cover them so it was very difficult, if not impossible, for a player sitting in the next seat to see someone else’s cards. Then there was a bigger monitor in the middle of the table where the community cards were dealt. Players could assign their bet amounts on their individual screens and that would be displayed on the larger monitor for other players to see. Here is the only video (with no sound) I could find on YouTube of the original tables I played on initially:
As previously mentioned there were positive aspects to these tables and they were not insignificant:
No matter what criticisms people had of these tables, the software was very well developed. In the hundreds of hours I played I cannot recall a single glitch; everyone always got two hole cards, the flop always came out correctly, there was never a delay and the pot was always pushed to the right player. All of this is to basically say that there was never a misdeal nor a mistake made by the software. This leads into my next few points which all have to do with the lack of a dealer on the table, to which there were some benefits. To say that these tables were fast is an understatement. In my experience of managing poker rooms the fastest live dealer I have ever clocked comes in at 25 hands in a 30 minute down, while the average was around 19 to 21 hands. The electronic tables would often put out 50 hands in a 30 minute segment, while never making a mistake. This was very attractive for obvious reasons, especially for those playing for a living and needing to maximize their winnings on the table. Secondly, without a dealer on the table there was hardly a need to tip anyone in the poker room. Granted I would throw the floor manager a red bird ($5 chip) every few days, but that did not compare to the countless number of chips I had to tip to live dealers in other rooms. And I use the phrase “had to” as while tipping was theoretically optional, players that did not practice this custom were universally hated by both players and dealers and basically became pariahs. I have discussed in past blog articles how in a typical $1-$3 NLH game a regular player pays over $20K per year in rake. But that does not even include the thousands of dollars that one would have to pay just giving out $10 per session in tips. The final feature that I personally found attractive was the house bank. As the chips employed in these games were virtual, they did not have to be cashed out at the end of each session. Players could keep their money as recorded on an electronic ledger with the casino, much like how the Bellagio does it with their private boxes for high stakes players. It added a certain premier feel to the experience and made myself feel like a VIP.
One other benefit that I did not mention is that the electronic tables were very attractive to new players. For gamblers that were not familiar with poker, these tables looked like any other electronic table or slot machine on the casino floor and thus were able to lure them to try a new game. These would create very social games with players who did not necessarily care about losing money. And with certain celebrity players who had shares in the company that made the tables often dropping by to play, the outlook seemed positive for this new experiment. But in the end it was this very appeal and the previously mentioned lack of dealers that would cause the downfall of these new tables. While the new players injected life and a high level of softness to the games at the Excalibur, they also did not know any of the rules. This led to much table talk, often of the variety that was not allowed, and the game would slow to a snail’s pace. And with no dealers at the table to govern the action, there was no remedy in sight. The floor managers did the best they could to stem the tide, but in the end gave way to the sea of chaoticness that would come to run these games. And eventually with so many new players on the tables, the games were often kept small as the Excalibur was not exactly known for their high stakes clientele. Initially games started out as $1-$2 and $2-$5, but eventually gave way to stakes as low as $0.50-$1 to appeal to this new crowd.
With games being so small the Excalibur just could not attract the right clientele to run bigger games and generate more revenue. While well known players did initially come out in support, none of them wanted to play in micro-stakes games and eventually stopped coming. And without them the tables had no chance of succeeding as the experiment already faced an uphill battle. Back in 2009 Las Vegas was still very much old school, not in the take cheaters into the back room and cut their hands off kind of way, but much more than it is now in the age of the internet and technology. Online poker was still a relatively new phenomenon for most back then and live poker still ruled the scene with an older crowd of players that had an inherent distrust of technology. I knew several players who would not play on these tables out of principle and in fact my own roommate at the time, who also played professionally, never came to play with me even once at the Excalibur. Another force in play was the unspoken alliance between players and dealers. As a local player living in Las Vegas, one spends a lot of time with dealers with whom they even become friends. This certainly was the case in my life as well as some of the closest friends I had in town were dealers. These tables presented a threat to the livelihood of those in the dealing profession and the players were squarely in their corner against the electronic tables. Below is the only clip I could find of news coverage concerning the Excalibur experiment and one can readily see even in this short segment how the primary concern is over such a threat:
But perhaps the most significant factor in the downfall of the electronic tables was something that I did not fully realize until recently. I have not played much live poker in the past couple of years as I primarily play online. As an online poker agent I often make photo and video posts on social media of my sessions in order to promote my agency. I can track how many looks such posts receive in order to measure what types of posts perform well and which ones do not. Recently I had the urge to play live for the first time in a while and so I went and sat in a local $5-$10 PLO game. I bought in for $1,000, ended up doubling up to $2,000 and posted a photo of my stack as a story on both Facebook and Instagram. To my surprise the photo got a significant increase in the amount of looks it received over similar pictures I had posted from online sessions. I play smaller online in terms of blinds but my winnings are more stable over a longer sample size vs were I to play live exclusively. But no matter how good an upward trending poker graph looks, it does not compare to the tangible nature of a photo depicting stacks and stacks of physical chips. In the movie Rounders, Worm talks about “stacks and towers of checks I can’t even see over” as what cheers him up and not a huge balance on a computer screen. There is a certain level of romanticism concerning this game that is much better represented by live poker and this is the very factor that the Excalibur ignored or could not reproduce when attempting their electronic experiment. While there were benefits to these tables, in the end they could not reproduce the experience and sentiment that is attached to the live game.
Eventually the Excalibur would return to their live format and the electronic tables have not been tried in another casino since. And while the Excalibur would continue to run their poker room for several more years, this is all somewhat moot as currently they have yet to reopen their room after the corona related closures of casinos in Las Vegas. In fact only 21 poker rooms have opened at the time of this writing and live poker faces a very uncertain future. Although I have written of its demise in the past, I do secretly hope that I am wrong and that the game bounces back. As the game has shifted more towards the online realm in the past decade, even pre-corona, it is no coincidence that the game has lost much of its luster and appeal with the general public. And while I personally prefer online play and find it to be more profitable, ironically I recognize how important the live game is to the survival of poker overall. In the end nostalgia and sentiment will always win out over hard numbers and data, especially when attempting to appeal to the general public that could potentially serve as the new lifeblood of this great game. If this cannot be achieved, poker players then face the prospect of a game cannibalized from within in which they are only playing against one another. If the sentiments connected with the live game cannot somehow be reproduced by online players, it is imperative that live poker not only survive but thrive in order to attract new players.