One on One with Phil Gordon

It’s easy to be jealous of Phil Gordon. He made a fortune at an early age and was able to use that wealth to see the world, go on the ultimate sports trip and pursue a career as a professional card player.

But once you talk to Phil Gordon and realize how humble he is and you see that he really wants to share his knowledge with others, it’s hard to stay jealous for very long. The guy really deserves everything he has. Continuing with his generous spirit, Gordon was willing to sit down with us and talk to about life, cards and celebrities who have no business at a poker table.

You launched a network management software company at a young age, which sold for $95 million after only three years. From there, you were able to retire and travel around the globe, doing things other people only dream about like diving with Great White Sharks, rafting down the Amazon and scaling Mt. Kililmanjaro. What is it like to be able to do that at a young age? And what was the most fun thing you were able to do with all of that money?

Well, some people dream about it, some people have nightmares about it, especially in terms of the Great White thing. I’ve led an extraordinarily lucky life so far, but one of the things I’m most proud of is taking advantage of the opportunities presented to me. When my company got bought out, I was 26 and had enough money that I didn’t have to sit behind a desk. I decided to do something for myself and traveling was really it. One of the most fun experiences of traveling, of course, is meeting new people and trying out their culture and seeing what the world has to offer. People say, “What’s your favorite place? What’s your most fun thing to do?” I generally refuse to answer that question – only because when you answer that question, you denigrate the other places that you visited and the other people that you met. Every single place in the world has something to offer and if you go in with that attitude, you’ll get the most out of each place you visit.

We also heard you did something any sports fan would be jealous of – you went on an ultimate sports trip, hitting every major sporting even in one year.

That really was an interesting year. Basically, I’d seen most of the world – 50 countries on six continents. While I was in Africa with my buddy Rafe, who was in a similar situation to me in terms of finances and state in life, we came up with this idea for what we called “the ultimate sport’s adventure.” We were going to buy an RV, trick it out and basically take it on the road across the United States for a year, going to all the different major sports events in the world.

So we started at the Super Bowl. If you’re going to start any sports trip, you’ve got to start at the Super Bowl. And the idea was Super Bowl to Super Bowl – every major event in sports and everything else we could pack in between. Over the course of a year, we did 140 sports events, we visited 41 states and we put 43,000 miles on our RV, which was nearly destroyed by the end of the tour. That was a fantastic trip – we went to the Masters, the Kentucky Derby, the Final Four, the Little League World Series, the college World Series, the professional World Series, 26 baseball stadiums, the U.S. Open tennis, all three Triple Crown races, the Indy 500, the Daytona 500, the Stanley Cup finals, the NBA finals, we played the top 25 public golf courses in the country, including Pebble Beach, TPC Sawgrass and Shadow Creek here in Las Vegas. All I can tell you is the 372 days on the road eating stadium food will do a tremendous amount of damage to your liver. My cholesterol started at about 180 and ended at about 280 and I’m just now, two years later, finally back in fine form after the year of debauchery.

Would you ever consider doing it again? What would you do differently?

I’m not going to be doing that trip anytime soon. I lived in that RV for 18 months and I’m pretty much done with that. Maybe when I get a little older, if I have kids and my kids turn 18 or 20 or something, then I might throw them in the back of it for four or five months and travel around and go see how things have changed, but for now it’s no land yachts.

So from there, how did you get involved in playing poker professionally? Were you just bored and looking for a hobby?

I stumbled into it. I never really set out to be a professional poker player, have a TV show, anything like that. People don’t remember, but five years ago, poker was no big deal and if you told people you were a professional poker player, they looked at you like you were an idiot. Now it’s the cool thing to do. I started playing when I was seven, my great aunt taught me to play and when I moved to California in 1991, obviously the card rooms out here are legal. I started playing at Garden City and San Jose and Bay 101 and a couple of the other local card rooms. My skills improved, I fell in with the right group of guys that were serious about the game. We started taking road trips to Vegas. All those early road trips are chronicled on our website, Tiltboys.com, including pictures, some of which are still haunting me to this day, including the one where we dress like women to play in a women’s only poker tournament.

From there, I just started winning and the stakes started getting bigger and bigger. Then, when my company got bought out, I had some money and I decided I’d give this poker thing a shot after I got done traveling. I got lucky and finished at the final table in the World Series of Poker, then got invited down to Aruba for the UltimateBet deal in season one of the World Poker Tour – I won that tournament. I was winning right at the right time. You could win a World Poker tour tournament now and finish fourth at the World Series and no one would know who you are because there are just so many people that are playing, but because I got that early media exposure, when the guys from Celebrity Poker were putting together the show, they thought I’d be a good host, they called me up, asked me if I was busy. I said call me when you got the show sold, six months later, they sold it to Bravo and I was on set filming a TV show. That’s how it all happened.

You have won over a million dollars in poker tournaments over the past four years and as you mentioned, you placed fourth in the 2001 World Series of Poker Championship. With so many people entering the tournament every year, what do you think your chances are of winning a WSOP bracelet in the future?

A bracelet, my chances are pretty good. It depends on the event. In a 1,000 person field, you’d say the average player was one out of 1,000 to win a bracelet, I would say that I was probably one out of 250. I’m certainly no better than that. I made two final tables last year at the World Series – I finished third in one no limit event and I finished eighth in another event and I won a couple hundred thousand, but any hand goes differently there, I’ve got a shot. That was two events; I only played nine events last year. I don’t know if I can continue that pace – the fields are getting larger, the players are getting better. It’s tough to win these days, man. I don’t know what else to tell you. There’s a lot of luck involved in tournament poker and one hand can put you on the sidelines. It doesn’t matter how good you play. If you get all of your money in with two aces against a guy with two tens, that guy with two tens is still going to spike one on you 18 percent of the time.

Do you think poker will continue to grow in popularity or do you think this is its “15 minutes of fame,” and the bubble will burst at some point?

I think we’ve got a good 18 months left in growth. I think this year at the World Series, we’re going to see 7,500 players. I think the following year we’ll see 9,000, then it’s going to level off at 8,000 or so. That would be my prediction. That comes with no guarantees. But if I wanted to put an over/under line at the World Series of Poker, there should be 7,500 players.

Obviously, poker has been widely glamorized over the last couple of years on television as its popularity continues to grow. What is the life of a poker professional really like? Talk a little bit about the ups and downs of a full-time poker player.

Don’t leave your day job. This is a very hard way to make an easy living. The fluxuations involved and the bank roll that’s required make this an extraordinarily difficult proposition for people that want to come in and just give it a shot. The best example I can give you is Chris Ferguson. Everyone knows Jesus. Easily one of the best players in the world, he’d be on everyone’s top ten list. When the World Poker tour started, Chris thought he was going to tear it up. Chris went 33 World Poker tour tournaments in a row without making the money. Forget making the final table – didn’t even make the money. That cost him about $330,000 in buy-ins, plus probably another $200,000 in travel expenses and such.

You have to go deep in these things, you have to have a big bank roll, big purse behind you in order to make it on tour these days. It is an extraordinarily expensive and grinding lifestyle. The travel will get you. The smoky environments will get you. Most of all, one thing I’ve come to realize is that the world of poker, this really is one of the only professions in the world where it pays an enormous amount of money to surround yourself with the biggest idiots possible. At the end of the day, it becomes kind of a grind trying to find those weak players and exploit their weaknesses. What I’m finding is I’m just a little tired of searching out and destroying weakness. I would rather help people. That’s why I’ve spent more time recently teaching than playing. By teaching poker, I’m still getting my poker fix, I’m still getting the adrenaline rush, but I’m getting it by helping people instead of hurting them. For me, that’s a lot more satisfying right now.

How often do you play poker?

Not very often. I’m playing online at FullTiltPoker.com about 10 hours a week. I play low limit games and every penny that I win online I donate to charity. I donate it to the Cancer Research and Prevention foundation. That’s kind of my time donation to a good cause. Other than that, I’m playing a few tournaments, but I’m not going to play World Poker Tour tournaments for a while until they fix their player release. They are extraordinarily unfair to the players right now. Joining me in that boycott is Chris Ferguson, Andy Bloch, Howard Lederer and probably 30 other top pros. So you’re not going to see us playing in those tournaments until those guys can get their act together and come up with a release that’s fair for the players. I’m going to play some of the World Series of Poker circuit events and certainly I’m going to play 30 or 35 of the events this year at the World Series of Poker. I’m very much looking forward to that. I haven’t been playing very much, I’ve been very busy traveling around and I’m writing a new book that will be out in October. All of that stuff takes time and it takes time away from the tables. But, as I said before, I’ve come to realize that I like teaching the game almost as much as I like playing it and that’s what I’m devoting my time to right now.

In your new book, Phil Gordon’s Little Green Book, you give a lot of insight into the way you play poker. You go into great detail about how you react in various situations and give away a lot of information about your game. You are basically walking people through the way you play. What was the idea behind the book?

I’m not the best player in the world and I’ve never contended to be. I’m definitely a winning player, I’ve made it to the final table more often than most and I’ve been able to win a few tournaments here and there and I’ve had a lot of success at the table. All I want to do in the book is show you how I play. If you disagree with me, you very well may be right, but disagree with me for a reason because the things I’m doing at the table, I’m doing for a purpose. There’s a very mathematical underpinning to the way I play poker. For me, poker is 20 percent mathematics, 70 percent psychology and 10 percent brass balls. I can’t help you with the brass balls part, you either have that or you don’t, but I can definitely help you with the math and I can definitely help you with the psychology. I set out in the book to teach you all of the math you needed to know and I do that in a fairly effective and efficient way in the book – straightforward, you don’t need to be a mathematician, you don’t need to be an MIT rocket scientist, all you have to have is a fourth grade education to do all the math that’s required to play winning poker. So I lay that out and I walk you through the psychology of playing a winning game. For some people that’s different, some people play in an incredibly loose style like Gus Hansen, some people play an extremely tight style like Dan Harrington. I’m not like either of those guys. I’m somewhere in between. I generally let the table dictate how fast or slow that I’m playing and that seems to work for me. I want to outline exactly how I play and give you an inside view of what helps me win as much as I’ve won in the past three or four years.

The book has been out since October 4, 2005 and thus far has sold 75,000-80,000 copies and thousands of people have e-mailed me success stories from the table after reading my book. It’s really an astounding outpouring of support for the book and nearly everyone says that it’s changed the way that they approach the game and they’ve gone from a losing player to a winning player or from a winning player to a more winning player. That’s very satisfying for me.

The thing is – there’s something in there for everyone. If you’re a rank beginner, you can find stuff that will help you. If you’re an intermediate player, there’s a ton of stuff in there that will help you and even if you’re the most advanced player in the world, I personally will guarantee you that there will be things in the book that you will read that you’ve never read anywhere else. I know that to be the case because I’ve read every single poker book that’s been written.

So what is the plan for the new book?

The new book is called the Little Blue Book; it’s a follow up to the Little Green Book. If there is one criticism that I’ve heard about the book, it’s that there aren’t enough real world examples. With the Little Blue Book, I’m going to fill that void. This is going to be 100 plus hands, actual hands that I’ve played in live competition, fully annotated, harking back the principals from the Little Green Book and showing you those principals in action.

A lot of people know you from the Celebrity Poker Showdown. What is it like hosting that show? Do you ever get frustrated with the way some of the celebrities play?

First of all, let me just say that job was the best job in poker, bar none. I reached an extraordinarily large audience on a week to week basis and I think the show was successful because you got to see the celebrities as they truly are. No one’s on there pitching products, no one’s on there pitching their latest movie. They’re all on there to have a good time – it’s Las Vegas, it’s the Palms Casino, everyone’s drinking, cutting up. It’s a comedy and entertainment show more than it is a poker show.

That being said, the poker that is played is sometimes completely abysmal. And that’s okay. They’re not there to be professional poker players. They’re there to raise some money for their charity, get their charity some notoriety, get some TV time and have a good time in Vegas. I don’t really get all that upset with people that don’t play well. I wish they’d play better, but then again, I’ve done a couple of acting appearances here recently and they probably wish that I acted better.

Be honest here, who are some of the best and worst celebrities you’ve seen on the show?

I’ll do the worst first. I’m not at all ashamed to tell you that Scott Stapp may be the worst player that I’ve ever run up against. Adam Rodriguez from CSI: Miami shouldn’t quit his day job. Martin Sheen was incredibly distracted, is a nice way that I’ll put that.

Some of the great players – James Woods is a very, very good player. In fact, I just saw that James finished 18th at the big Commerce Casino tournament recently. Mena Suvari is surprisingly good, Michael Ian Black, Hank Azaria, Matthew Perry, the Masterson kids – Danny and Chris, very good players. Shannon Elizabeth’s got game. People say, “Oh, the celebrities are so bad,” but they’re no better or worse than the people playing in your home game.

We’ve got one last thing for you here. We’re going to do a word association. We’ll just throw out a name and tell us the first thing that comes to your mind.

Las Vegas.

Greed.

Dave Foley.

Drunk.

Kevin Pollak.

William Shatner.

Phil Ivey.

Money.

The World Series of Poker.

Prestige.

Phil Gordon.

Lucky.

The future.

Unknown.

Interviewed by Joel Murphy, March 2006. You can get autographed copies of Phil Gordon’s Little Green Book or private poker lessons over the phone by donating to PreventCancer.org.

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