You may remember Spencer Sun from the outrageous hat that he wore when he won the 2000 Tournament of Champions. That win netted him $239,400 as he outlasted 486 other players to capture the 2nd annual TOC crown.
With that kind of payday many of us would be tempted to tell our boss to take this job and… But the then 27-year-old kept his full-time computer programmer job and has no intentions of giving it up to pursue a career in poker.
What I would like to do in these interviews is occasionally break away from the strict question and answer format and delve into our own reasons for playing poker. This has been done before, just look at some recent issues of Poker Digest, or psychologist Alan Schoonmaker’s work: The Psychology of Poker.
But my question is what we, as beginning or intermediate players, hope to get out of poker.
My first interview for Pokerpages.com was of David Roepke, a mostly full-time UFA player, who has a mostly part-time construction business. David cut his teeth on hard-scrabble, high-stakes Texas poker (like everything else about Texas, bigger than life). He plays mostly tournament poker now.
My second interview was with ex-lawyer Randy Holland who started playing small-stakes poker, then $40/$80 hold ’em, then small buy-in tournaments before graduating to big-time tournament poker. He now plays poker full-time.
Three very different types of players.
I teach Economics at a community college. I draw lessons from poker that I include in my Economics’ lectures. Some of my students accuse me of being a compulsive gambler with no control over this “addiction.” Most are kidding; some are dead serious.
So why do we play poker? The vast majority of us are nowhere near compulsive gamblers. In fact, I would not hesitate to bet that a much higher percentage of slot machine and video poker players have a gambling problem than poker players.
I would also bet that most of us do not want to be full-time players, where making the rent payment depends on how well we did at the table last night.
Anyone who has ever read Jesse May’s fascinating fictionalized action about the life of a full-time, high-stakes poker player knows: It is a tough life.
There are bad beats that can run on seemingly indefinitely. There are just plain bad cards that can hit session after session, hour after mindless hour of play. It is inevitable that the bad beats and bad cards lead you to question your basic game and ultimately lead you into bad play.
From Jesse May’s “Shut Up And Deal:”
“But look, I mean it’s always been the same with me. Ever since I started playing poker it seems like it’s always been the same. Win a little, lose a little. Stay in action, afford the buy-in, keep my head above water and keep moving, always moving. And watch people go broke. Watch ’em fold up and go broke.
“Then I go on a losing streak. Or have one bad night, or whatever. Just something that makes me question everything I know about poker – no, everything I believe – and consider giving up and be scared to go in the card room and not know when to fold or when to raise or when to play or when to stop.”
This contradicts our illusion of a poker player who gets up when he feels like it, goes to the card room when he is in the mood and, through his superior mental prowess, beats the other players day in and day out.
Obviously, this is not Spencer Sun’s chosen path.
Here is the text of my interview:
Randy Glover: Spencer, tell me what has happened since your win at the 2000 TOC?
Spencer Sun: I’ve actually cut back a lot on my poker hours — part of this is a function of being busier at work, part of this is just having other hobbies and activities I wanted to spend time on. I’ve always tried to approach poker mostly as a hobby, so that I can take it or leave it, so it doesn’t really bother me that much if I haven’t played in a while.
Nowadays, I work poker into my schedule when I have free time and the inclination strikes me, whereas in the past I might have tried to schedule other things around poker to allow me to spend more time pursuing my poker hobby.
As far as major tournaments go, I’ve played in the 2000 Legends of Poker $1,000 NL, the 2001 Bay 101 Shooting Stars NL, the opening $2,000 limit hold’em event at the WSOP last year, the $10,000 main event last year, and a couple of the events at the Reno Hilton WPC this year. Didn’t cash in any of them — maybe I used up all my luck 🙂
RG: In a previous interview you say got you started playing poker in home games. Can you expand on your progression from home games to winning the TOC in 2000?
SS: I started out playing just for fun with friends, where 25 cents was the max bet/raise. After a while, some of us decided to try out “real”card room poker. Gradually, as I acquired experience, read books, exchanged ideas, etc. I became comfortable moving up in stakes.
Also, I often like to try out new and different things, so I tried to learn some of the different forms of poker, and that’s sort of how I got started playing tournaments also, just as a change of pace from playing ring games all the time. Obviously, being familiar with each of the limit games as well as no-limit hold’em was a great help during the TOC.
RG: Can you tell me which two or three poker books influenced you most and why?
SS: Hmm…Winning Low Limit Hold’em by Lee Jones was one of the first poker books I read, and was definitely helpful when I was getting started. And then, as I got more into poker, Hold’em Poker for Advanced Players by Sklansky & Malmuth and The Theory of Poker by Sklansky were pretty helpful — lots of good ideas and concepts. I think the important thing is to approach reading as an active participant. Don’t just mindlessly accept what the authors say, think about the material they present and think about whether you agree or disagree and why.
Having access to the rec.gambling.poker newsgroup was a big help also. There are a lot of smart people there. Sadly, the quality of discussion has deteriorated in the last couple years.
RG: Do you have another player or two whom you regularly communicate with about your game?
SS: I think it’s definitely helpful to have people with whom you feel comfortable discussing your game and who will give you honest feedback.
RG: What did you think of the demise of the TOC?
SS: I’m sorry to see it go — I thought it was a great concept and a great event and it’s too bad they couldn’t keep it afloat. But I hold out hope that it will be eventually resurrected in some form or another.
RG: Tell me about your style of play?
SS: I think it depends somewhat on the situation and the opponents. I know people who think I’m a rock, and I know other people who think I’m a maniac. Generally, I try to maintain an analytical approach to the game, but I have been known to gamble from time to time. People will say that there is more to poker than math, but I am in the camp that says the math is always there, whether you realize it or not.
For example, when you say you have a read on someone, in essence what you are doing is making a calculated guess as to what they have, weighing in various factors based on your experiences playing them in the past, tells you might have picked up, etc. Just because you aren’t aware of calculations at a conscious level doesn’t mean they aren’t there.
RG: Do you primarily play in tournaments, or are you a ring game player as well?
SS: Actually I primarily play in ring games.
RG: What is your favorite poker game?
SS: I’ve logged the most hours playing limit hold’em, and that’s the game I’m most comfortable with. However I do also enjoy playing 7-stud, Omaha/8, and big bet hold’em. I haven’t really played much PLO. However, limit hold’em is what’s most widely available at the stakes where I feel comfortable.
RG: What dollar level do you play?
SS: My usual game is $15-$30 hold’em.
RG: You mention that Hockey is one of your favorite games. Is there a hockey game regularly “spread” in Novato, California?
SS: We have an informal weekly pick-up game every weekend that’s been going for something like 5 years now, where everyone knows each other really well and it’s a lot of fun. However there’s nothing really seriously organized for adults. A bunch of us are now playing in a roller hockey league in Alameda one night a week also.
RG: Thanks Spencer
Sun for an insightful interview.