Sunday, September 09, 2007

How To Make Up To 10K Per Student, Teaching People How To Play Poker Professionally

AFTER a whole afternoon playing No-Limit Texas Hold ’Em poker, this was the moment that Donny Campbell had been waiting for.

Hunched over a poker table in a back room here at Caesars Palace, Mr. Campbell, 29, looked down at his cards to see a pair of queens. One of his two opponents had bet $300 in chips, and the other $600, and now the bet had come around to him.

Mr. Campbell stared into the distance, as if to bore a hole through the wall with his eyes. He paused. Then he looked at his cards again.

“I re-raise,” he said, pushing $1,200 in chips to the center of the table.

This rattled the others. The first opponent folded his cards quietly. The second, sighing, did the same.

But before Mr. Campbell could celebrate his victory, Mark Seif, a prize-winning poker player who was dealing the hand, interjected a stern dose of advice.

“That just worked out, but that re-raise might have been risky considering which cards could have beaten you,” Mr. Seif said. “Position is important, but just because you’re last to act doesn’t always mean you need to be the aggressor.”

Mr. Campbell, of Tampa, Fla., smiled with gratitude. Under normal circumstances, he might have been embarrassed after making such a strategic gaffe in the presence of greatness. On this day, however, Mr. Seif’s evaluation was exactly what Mr. Campbell had paid for as a student at the World Series of Poker Academy.

The academy, run by the World Series of Poker and held in different cities throughout the year, is essentially a two- or three-day poker sleepaway camp — a chance for up to 200 amateur players to improve their games with advice from the pros. The World Poker Tour Boot Camp, affiliated with the World Poker Tour, is organized much the same way, and offers similar opportunities for smaller groups — up to 60 players at a time.

As more people take up poker as a hobby, the two camps are hot commodities. Combined, the schools have offered nearly 40 camps since January, and nearly every one of them has been sold out.

Tuition for these experiences isn’t cheap, generally ranging from $1,695 to $4,300. But Jeffrey Pollack, commissioner of the World Series of Poker, says that for people who are serious enough about poker to take a class, the money is a stake in the future.

For those players thinking about playing in events where the buy-in, or cost of entry, is $5,000 or $10,000, Mr. Pollack said that “a couple thousand dollars for valuable instruction is almost like an insurance policy,” noting that both schools offer classes in a variety of poker games.

“The truth is that we can’t set these things up fast enough,” he said.

For some poker fanatics, returns on their investments are subtle: a new strategy for hiding the starting hand of ace-king, or a new approach to semi-bluffing, which is a bet or raise on a straight or flush draw.

But for other amateurs, the experience has been soon followed by major winnings.

Consider Bill Spadea of Easton, Mass., who paid $3,000 for a seat at a World Poker Tour camp. Days later, he won $429,114 for finishing 13th at the World Series of Poker “Main Event,” which cost $10,000 to enter.

Then there was Lee Childs, who said he paid $1,500 for a different World Poker Tour camp and bagged $705,229 at the Main Event for finishing seventh. Mr. Childs, who lives in Reston, Va., said that he bought a seat at the boot camp only to “brush up” on some fundamentals.

“I’d say it was money well spent,” Mr. Childs said of the tuition. “I knew how to play poker going in, but hearing these professionals teach discipline got me out of a bunch of hands in the tournament that I probably would have played if I hadn’t just been reminded to stay away from them.”

The curriculums at the schools are similar. Every day starts with a keynote speaker — a poker professional, in most cases, but sometimes an expert on statistics or gambling strategy.

At the World Series of Poker Academy in July, Joe Navarro, a former special agent for the Federal Bureau of Investigation, spoke about reading body language. (One of Mr. Navarro’s classic tips: when a player has a good hand, he usually looks down at his chips.)

Around lunchtime, students at both schools hit the tables for live demonstrations. These sessions are just like cash action in a poker room, except that the dealers at each table are professional poker players — like Mr. Seif, Greg Raymer, Linda Johnson, Clonie Gowan, Scott Fischman and others.

THE pros serve as instructors and ask students to play hands the way they would in a regular game. Instead of having students surrender (or “muck”) hands when they fold, however, the pros ask the players to move their cards to the edge of the table until the hand is done.

Finally, when someone wins, all the students show their cards, and the professionals deconstruct the hands, asking each student to explain his or her decision-making. They also review how body language unintentionally reflected strategy to opponents. Then the instructors offer their opinions — however critical they might be.

T. J. Cloutier, a professional who teaches at the World Poker Tour schools, said that while the step-by-step review can be harsh, it offered a great way for students to learn how they should have played their own hands and how opponents could have played theirs.

“Poker is a situational game,” Mr. Cloutier said, “so talking about how someone should have handled a certain hand in a particular situation could help you down the road, too.”

After a catered dinner, each day concludes with a tournament in which students put their new skills to the test. Prizes vary by school, but usually involve a free seat to a future tournament. In some cases, the cash value of these seats exceeds $5,000.

Of course, success at poker schools doesn’t automatically translate into success in live games. Steve Berman, vice president of the World Poker Tour Boot Camp, said that in poker, as in other sports, practice makes perfect.

“Our camps are great ways for players to sharpen their skills,” Mr. Berman said. “Whether they apply what they’ve learned when they walk out of here is up to them.”

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