Chris Sparks: High Stakes Online Poker OG

Chasing Poker Greatness Podcast Episode 213

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Today’s guest on the Chasing Poker Greatness podcast is OG high stakes online poker crusher Chris Sparks, and it’s one of those conversations that I live for.

I don’t exactly know how Chris, a man whose network of friends includes a who’s who of poker royalty (including nosebleed live destroyer of worlds, Garrett Adelstein), managed to slip underneath my radar for so long, but I am so grateful I got a chance to right that wrong.

In my defense, while Chris still battles in both the digital and live arenas, these days he spends most of his energy outside of poker in the startup space, where he focuses on streamlining systems and processes so that these businesses can efficiently maximize their resources (Gee, I wonder where he first started learning & developing those skills?).

If you’d like to dive deeper into what Chris is up to these days, you should check out his home base on the world wide web forcingfunction.com which includes an incredible & forever relevant poker article titled, Play to Win: Meta-Skills in High Stakes Poker.

With that said, in today’s conversation with Chris Sparks you’re going to learn all about Chris’ journey through the world of online poker, the hard-won poker lessons he regularly applies to his daily life, lessons he’s learned in the world of startups that you can apply to your poker game, and much, MUCH more!

Now, without any further ado, I bring to you high performance and leadership wizard… the one and only Chris Sparks.

For more on Chris and his many endeavors, feel free to visit the following resources:

Click any of the icons below to find the CPG pod on the platform of your choice. Then sit back, relax, and enjoy my conversation with Chris Sparks on the Chasing Poker Greatness Podcast.

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Transcription of Chasing Poker Greatness Podcast Episode 213: Chris Sparks

For hearing impaired fans of CPG, or for those who simply want a good read instead of a listen, we're taking steps to transcribe as many episodes of the Chasing Poker Greatness podcast as we can. Watch this space for a transcription, and by all means, contact us using the form at the bottom of the page to make a request for an episode transcription and we will do our best to push it to the front of the queue.

Note: transcript is slightly edited for clarity.

Speaker (00:01): Poker’s legendary champions, next generation stars, and tireless ambassadors of the game sharing their wisdom and guiding your journey to high achievement on the green felt. This is Chasing Poker Greatness, with your host, Brad Wilson.

Brad (00:24): Welcome my friends to another episode of the Chasing Poker Greatness podcast. As always, this is your host, the founder of chasingpokergreatness.com, coach Brad Wilson, and today’s guest on CPG is OG high-stakes poker crusher Chris Sparks. And it’s one of those conversations that I live for. I’m not exactly sure how Chris, a man whose network of friends includes a who’s who of poker royalty (including Nosebleed Live Destroyer of Worlds Garrett Adelstein), managed to slip underneath my radar for so long, but I’m so grateful I got a chance to right that wrong.

In my defense, while Chris still battles in both the digital and live arenas, these days he spends most of his energy outside of poker in the startup space where he focuses on streamlining systems and processes so that these businesses can efficiently maximize their resources. Gee, I wonder where he first started learning and developing that set of skills.

If you’d like to dive deeper into what Chris is up to these days, you should check out his home base on the world wide web at forcingfunction.com, which includes an incredible and forever relevant poker article entitled “Play to Win: Meta-Skills in High-Stakes Poker.” With that said, in today’s conversation with Chris Sparks, you’re going to learn all about Chris’s journey through the world of online poker, the hard-won poker lessons he regularly applies to his daily life, lessons he’s learned in the world of startups that you can apply to your poker game, and much, much more.

So now, without any further ado, I bring to you high performance and leadership wizard and OG of online poker, the one and only Chris Sparks.

Chris, welcome to Chasing Poker Greatness, sir. How are you doing?

Chris (02:15): Doing fantastic, Brad. It’s an honor to be here.

Brad (02:18): Thanks, man. It’s great having you. You know, typically when we start this show out, we talk about your journey through the world of cards, and from my research it sounds like a long journey with a bunch of winding paths. So why don’t we just start by telling the listener a little bit about yourself and then how it was that you entered the world of cards.

Chris (02:45): Sure, yeah. I think the straight line journey is saved for the biographies, but the reality is always a lot more messy. Let’s see. My introduction to cards, I—I mean, I loved playing games as long as I can remember. I was always the kid, maybe four or five, sitting at the kids’ table wanting to be at the adults’ table, whether they were playing, let’s see, like, Scattergories or Hearts or Pictionary or Trivial Pursuit, I was always trying to butt in and be one of the guys, be the adult. Played some video games growing up. Nothing crazy compared to some of these, you know, Magic or Warcraft or Starcraft pros. My major game that I played from probably age twelve to age fifteen was called Microsoft Ants. It’s kind of like a kids’ early version of Starcraft. I was number one rank in that game for a couple of years. I started getting into more traditional games. Started off with chess. Never had like a ton of success there, but I always enjoyed learning it. Then I moved into Gin, which is a two-player form of Rummy. I achieved a perfect—kind of like the equivalent of ELO rating in Gin at age fifteen, primarily playing on Yahoo Games back in the day.

And some of my Gin friends tipped me off to this thing called poker. This was, I think, probably 2002 or so, and PokerStars had just started, and there was the possibility of playing these freeroll tournaments. There were like ten thousand people entering, and if you made the final table then you had the opportunity to play for a thousand bucks. So, being like fifteen at the time, this sounded pretty awesome. That was a lot of money. Started playing those, and then moved slowly into playing some small-stakes tournaments. I started college at Ohio State in 2004, just in time for the Moneymaker boom, when—everyone listening to this knows poker’s on every station, and if you wanted to hang out with your friends, which I certainly did, a lot of that was playing poker. Could be dorms, could be frat house basements. Even the college itself was hosting poker tournaments. Poker was everywhere. These are pretty small-stakes games. You know, like fifty, hundred dollar buy-in. Beer money, essentially. But I did really well, both having a gaming background as well as having put a lot of thought into the game, and just generally people weren’t very good at this time. If you had a pulse, you could win.

A couple people from my home game started playing on Party Poker and winning money, and the obvious conclusion is, “Wow, if this guy can win money on Party Poker, I can definitely win money on Party Poker.” Threw like fifty bucks on there, ran it up to 10k in a weekend, and the rest is history.

Brad (05:53): So, let’s—yeah. Let’s go back a little bit. Why do games resonate with you so much? Like, why do you feel this impulse to find games so that you can play, improve your skill, rank up?

Chris (06:11): I think games are an amazing sandbox for understanding human behavior. Something that I like to say is that creativity comes from constraints, so when you have a game you are agreeing to put these constraints on reality. Here are the things that you are allowed to do. These are acceptable within the game, and everyone agrees to play within the construct. But within these constraints emerges creativity. How can you find a way to be superior, to win, to out-compete within these rules? And I always find that there’s interesting kinds of intrinsic threads to games. When you look at the structure, you always discover patterns or underlying mechanisms that allow for uncovering an advantage. And I’ve always been hardwired to try to discover, you know, what makes this game tick, in essence, and how do other people approach it?

I’ve always been incredibly curious about talking to other players, getting a sense for how they think. I think that just is a good way to go about life, is to assume that everyone has a superpower, that everyone has something to teach you. And every game that I play, my style becomes an amalgamation of everyone else’s strengths. I take one aspect from this guy, I take one aspect from this guy, and kind of cobble that together into my own style that works. Like, the best of what one person does, and adding all of those pieces together, the product is greater than the sum of the parts.

So, yeah. I’ve always just really loved to try to understand these underlying mechanisms. I’m really driven by it.

Brad (08:09): Yeah. What does that look like, for you? You know, deconstructing a game, like understanding how this works and then figuring out like, you know, all the right buttons to press?

Chris (08:20): I call that experimentation. I think from the outside it looks like a lot of trial by error. I say “trial by error” because most of the things that you do when you’re experimenting aren’t going to work. There’s a framework that comes from machine learning which is called “Explore, Exploit.” So early on, when you see some of these machine learning programs attacking a new game, it could have been like Break Out, most recently Go—you know, AI is kind of taking over all of these finite games. The early learning where all they do is just say, “Hey, your primary initiative is to increase your score.” It just looks like bumping into all these walls, falling into the pit, just doing lots of things at random. But obviously as humans we’re doing a little bit better than random, but still, there’s a lot of false starts. But you start to identify the paths which lead to interesting places, and you double down on those paths. You leave some breadcrumbs, so you can come back.

So I think a lot of improvement at games comes from a willingness to look really stupid by just trying things that others aren’t willing to try. And even if it doesn’t work, the learnings can uncover very interesting things about how someone thinks or where someone perceives—you know, like the old maps back in the day, they had parts that hadn’t been explored, and they would put “Here Be Dragons.” But places that are just completely outside of someone’s paradigm, while doing things that are a little bit random-seeming, can identify these unexplored places on the map where the alpha lies. So it’s a lot of trying things, but I think important to that is that you close that loop.

So, improvement in anything, games included, is proportional to the tightness of your feedback loops. So when you try something, you see what works, you pull that feedback back into what is the next experiment, based on this learning: “What am I going to do differently next time?” So even though you’re doing a lot of wrong things, your improvement speed is faster. So that’s what I’m always looking to evaluate a player—say, I used to do a lot of poker staking back in the day. I’m looking at their trajectory. Like, how fast is this person failing and improving? Because it’s very easy to plateau if you stop this curiosity, the process of trying things. So yeah, that’s in essence, is just trying a lot of things and being willing to look really dumb, and taking all those learnings and incorporating them into your personal models.

Brad (11:09): Yeah. Like, I love this, and it’s exactly how I think about poker as well, or just games in general. You know, and if you think about how a solver works, right, a solver is going to try something and then kind of get information back and then try something else and then try something else. It just happens very, very quickly, so it’s like trying, failing, learning, trying, failing, learning. You mentioned the, you know, the feedback loop, too. You know, that’s—I have my own coaching-for-profit operation that’s ramping up right now, and like one part of it is looking at a model for a reflective process. Right? Like what you were describing is reflecting on what happened, what went wrong, what went right. When this situation comes up again, what are you going to do differently, right?

So try something, and then learn from that experience. And try to avoid, you know, like status-quo bias, right, of like, “Wow, I don’t wanna do this, because nobody else does this, and I’m going to look stupid.” Who cares? Like, the way to learn, the way to find edge in poker, is doing things that people don’t understand that you understand quite well, and understanding how people mess that up.

And like, there’s still lots of opportunity, I think, just like today there’s lots of opportunity to explore your curiosity, to learn, to do things differently than other people to do them, figure them out, and like in a worst case scenario, right—Like, I think one problem I think with pros specifically is, like, they’re afraid of looking dumb, they’re afraid of, you know, like I said, violating the status-quo bias. Like, just move down. Like just play like twenty-five No-Limit, right, and mess around and see what happens. Do things differently. See what you could learn. How are people reacting? Are they reacting optimally? Are they doing things that are obviously wrong? Right?

I just can’t really overstate how valuable this is to like a learning-and-growth process in poker, and yeah. It’s just one of the more underrated things that people can do to improve their poker game, even if you’re playing at an exceptionally high level today.

Chris (13:27): Couldn’t agree more, especially in a field that rewards relativistic skill, like poker. If you aren’t improving, you’re slowly dying. So I’m always thinking in terms of, “Am I improving faster than my competition?” And you particularly—Like, because I can choose my ecosystem, am I improving faster than the people that I’m competing with? Am I exploring new dimensions? So I think there’s this constant push and pull. I mentioned this framework of “Explore, Exploit” earlier, right? So when you see the computer, all that they’re doing is exploring, but sooner or later you come across a strategy that really, really works, and you just move into exploit mode, where you find a weakness and you just exploit that over and over and over again until the person adjusts. Obviously, trying to uncover and take advantage of this weakness in their defenses without them discovering this weakness. Right? If you discover someone’s tell, you don’t go and tell them their tell. Or you find that they’re over-bluffing in a spot or they’re under-bluffing, et cetera, et cetera. You try to take advantage while not closing that window of opportunity, but recognizing that all of these windows are temporary. So if you stop exploring, sooner or later you stop having sources of advantage.

So those mechanisms that you uncover, hey, play stakes that you’re very comfortable losing in and treat it as tuition and opportunities to learn and grow, as well as continuing to assume that many of the things that you’re doing are wrong, these classic unknown unknowns, and doing everything you can to uncover these blind spots, whether it’s getting coaching or talking to other high-level players or putting your hands into the solver. Just assuming that many of the things you’re doing are wrong, and go from there.

Brad (15:27): Yo. What about Mike McD battling KGB, though? What if you need to rattle his cage by morning time by telling him his tell, you know? That’s—

Chris (15:38): Well, there’s lots of dimensions in poker. A very multi-dimensional game. And clearly one of the dimensions is time, where the longer you are going to be playing with an opponent, the more it makes sense to play the long game and to not reveal advantages that you may have. But if you are playing a player in a heads-up match that maybe was a couple hundred hands for your entire bankroll and you don’t expect to have this opportunity again, then of course you gotta rattle the cage a little bit.

Brad (16:13): That was more of a joke than anything, I think. I think just keep beating KGB I guess until he puts them under the ground. That’s another part of the downside of just crushing KGB over and over again is you may do okay monetarily, but you end up six feet under eventually.

Chris (16:35): Gotta stay in the game.

Brad (16:36): But, yeah. It’s like, you know, it’s like you’re searching for a button. Right? Like you’re searching through the Himalayas for this button that you can press that makes money, and then you find it, right? Like you said, you explore, you find it, and now that you have this button to press to make money, you just press it, as much as you can, While also trying to disguise what you’re doing versus the opponents that you’re playing against. If you’re concerned about them catching on and you know, upgrading their game in that specific situation, my experience has been that players typically take longer than you would imagine to fill those holes in their games for one reason or another. Probably just because of arrogance, I think, is probably the main reason.

But another thing that you hit on, too, that I’m very passionate about is curiosity. Right? Exploring curiosity. Like when something happens and you’re playing poker, like you run a big bluff and you’re like, you know, “I think I’m gonna fold out the top of villain’s range.” Right? And then they make a hero call, or they call a hand that’s totally unexpected. Right? Like you’ll see it on Twitter, people are like, “What an idiot.” People just never fold. Like, what an idiot. Right? But like, what did you learn from this experience, right? What did you learn about your thought process, the way you felt the villain would respond, and they responded with something totally different, outside of your expectation, that there’s an opportunity to learn from that experience. And most people just like to try to blame somebody else for a decision that they made that they feel is horrible or bad, and the reality is like, “Why are you not adjusting? Why are you not learning? Why are you not engaging in curiosity and asking, like, you know, “What can I learn from this? How can I get better, you know, based on this data point?”

Or you know, sometimes it’s, “Should I change what I’m doing here?” Because in poker, the feedback mechanism is distorted, so you don’t—You could make a lot of good decisions and get bad results, so you have to be careful about over-adjusting, but always engage your curiosity, ask yourself, “What can I learn? How can I get better? How can I just grow from this thing that just went down?”

Chris (19:02): There’s a lot to unpack there. First, you touched a little bit on process orientation. I find the average player and the average person is very results-oriented, when anything that occurs is just one permutation of reality, so the results in themselves, like you said, don’t necessarily reflect a good decision-making process. And as well, because we’re talking in terms of probabilities and ranges, one occurrence doesn’t necessarily mean that something was good or bad. Not to mention that approaching a singular hand in a vacuum is a very large mistake, because all behavior is contextual, and any play can be good or bad depending upon the context and the adjustments afterwards. So it’s pretty much a good summary of why the vast majority of poker analysis is completely worthless.

Brad (19:54): Yeah, it’s, think about your thought process, how you’re thinking about the hand, and if something happens that you didn’t even consider, maybe you should reflect and try to learn from that experience. Right? Maybe it’s an opportunity for you to grow.

All right. So tangent completed, now we can go back to—

Chris (20:12): Many more to come.

Brad (20:13): Yeah. Go back to you in 2004, I believe you were at, during the Party Poker days. Speaking of, you’re about three years younger than me, if my math is correct. I’m thirty-eight, so I guess you’re thirty-fiveish.

Chris (20:30): Yeah.

Brad (20:31): So, you graduated high school in like 2005, I assume?

Chris (20:35): 2004. Yeah.

Brad (20:35): So, yeah. So what was your, you know, what were your plans after graduating high school? Did you want to go to college? I know you loved games, and obviously poker was on your radar. So, what did that look like?

Chris (20:50): My dream was to make television commercials. This was probably from my mid-high school years. Before that I had a lot of, you know, be a professional baseball player, go into medicine, this type of stuff, but about I’d say from sophomore year on, my dream was I wanted to make television commercials. I’ve always been really fascinated by human behavior, and you know, living in the capitalistic society that I thought we were, like, what better way to apply storytelling skills than to, you know, encourage people to buy things that they don’t need. And so, yeah. I was kind of the super, you know, involved with everything kid, going to college—

Brad (21:32): One second.

Chris (21:33): Yeah.

Brad (21:34): What do you mean by, “The capitalist society that we thought we were in”?

Chris (21:39): Oh, no, yeah. It’s just an aside. I think that you might have just misheard me. Yeah, I mean we’re clearly in one, yeah.

Brad (21:45): Oh, okay, okay. I thought that like there was some, like, gaining of knowledge over time or change of perspective there, but.

Chris (21:54): Yeah. I mean that’s a potential divergence, as well as, you know, your reality is a matter of perspective, and if you surround yourself with people with differing values then perhaps you can decouple from the cultural zeitgeist. But, yeah. I mean, let’s put that aside for the time being. So, yeah. I wanted to make TV commercials, studied marketing and psychology in college, and you know, classic guidance counselor is, “Well, you know, the best that you can do is to go to an in-state school and then you know, maybe like work for a corporation, and after twenty, thirty, forty years at the same company you can retire.” Right? This classic outdated model. So yeah, I checked all the boxes, you know, president of the student organizations, fraternity, all this type of stuff, and just any poker playing that I did during college was just sort of like a guilty pleasure.

The first couple years, let’s say through junior year of college, like a lot of these games either campus in person games or online was just like foregoing sleep. You know, playing late into the night and then sleeping in my class. My junior year I did a reality TV show which pitted Ohio State versus Michigan in a marketing reality show for Ford. Riveting stuff, but the nice outcome of this was that I was able to connect with the founder of Team Detroit, which is Ford’s advertising agency, and they gave me the role that I wanted, essentially on a rotational program where I would have the opportunity to make television commercials for Ford.

It’s like, perfect. This is my dream. And I just coasted for the remainder of senior year. I started—I moved up to mid-stakes cash games. So, you know, backtrack a little bit, early on in college I started with Sit and Gos, and then I moved into MTTs. So, playing anywhere from like eleven-dollar rebuy to the thousand-dollar Super Tuesday, if you guys were around back in the day. And I had some success where I won two tournaments in one month, and decided that I had conquered the tournament world and it was time to move on to a new challenge. Obviously I was pretty—I was that kinda kid. So I hopped into cash games, which I had never played before, and immediately started twenty-four tabling, which was the maximum that you could do on PokerStars at the time. Started off at one-two Full Ring, and then I added in Full Tilt. So with Full Tilt I added another twelve tables. I was playing between thirty and thirty-six full ring tables at a time, and at the end of Senior year my main game was like two-four to five-ten full ring.

I won the Sunday Million on PokerStars—It was a tournament, I don’t know if it still exists. Two hundred fifteen buy-in, seven thousand players. I won this the last month that I was in college at Ohio State for a hundred thirty-five thousand, and I was like, “Oh, cool. I have a little bit of coasting room here. I’m gonna take the summer off to play some poker, and I’ll start my full-time role at Ford in the fall.”

Brad (25:15): Sure.

Chris (25:16): They were very generous about that.

Brad (25:18): Yeah. Playing thirty-six tables on the side of cash games with your full-time career rolling too.

Chris (25:24): Yeah. I mean, I just assumed this was a very temporary thing. I had no conception that being a professional player was a possibility, despite making you know, really good money, especially for a college student living in a four-hundred-dollar-a-month apartment. I had an experience that started to reshape that. I entered a tournament by accident on PokerStars. I misclicked, and this was a satellite tournament for the LAPT, so Latin American Poker Tour in Rio de Janeiro, and once I’d entered I couldn’t unregister, so I played to win, and I ended up winning the seat, which was an all expenses paid trip to Rio, which forced me to get a passport and a Brazilian visa, which is non-trivial. And through that experience (this was right after I had won the Sunday Million), I ended up meeting some real professional players. So the moment that I like to share is when I walked into the lobby of the intercontinental hotel on Copacabana all deer-eyed and naïve, and all of these guys were hunched over their laptops in the lobby of the hotel. Remember, this is like early days, before—Like, this would be a little bit strange.

And I was like, “Wow.” Like, you could see the backdrop of these beautiful waves hitting the beach, everyone in there, very Brazilian, swimwear, like, “What the heck are these guys doing on their laptops in paradise?” And everyone—They were all really pale, they were like—”Oh, man, these guys are just totally doing it wrong.” And then I realized, like, this is so normal for them to be sitting in paradise with their laptops at a poker tournament that this is just another day for them, and a realization, it’s like, “Oh, I’m a young, pale, white kid. Like, I could probably do that too.” So that really got me starting to think in the summer that, hey, this was actually a possibility to become a professional poker player.

So I started to harbor these dreams that maybe I would do this someday, but still I was very dead-set on the traditional path. I hit a very, very lucky occurrence, what felt like a big setback at the time. And this was 2008. Not the best time to graduate from college. And the auto industry in particular was hit very hard. So, Ford went on a government-mandated hiring freeze at work before I was supposed to start, so my sabbatical was extended. I had moved up to Detroit where I didn’t know anyone, and all of a sudden I didn’t have a job to anchor myself to. So it’s like, “Cool, I have a little bit more time. Let’s try to become a professional poker player in the meantime, while I wait for my job to go through.” And that very first month that I went pro, I made more than my annual salary would have been at Ford.

So you know, a couple months later when they finally came around, were able to hire me, it was very much a, “Thanks, but no thanks.”

Brad (28:27): Yeah. How come—You mentioned earlier, by the way, I never dug in, but you said you ran up like fifty dollars to like 10k over a weekend. So I guess, firstly, how did that go down, and the follow-up to that is like, why did it take Brazil and paradise to realize like, “Oh, I can just do this thing” instead of the traditional path?

Chris (28:53): Well, two questions. I’ll answer the second one first. Again, I cannot know this, I can only infer my beliefs, but I had never really considered being a professional poker player as a possibility. I come from a very traditional family where, hey, first parents to go to school, everyone who was around me was going to traditional jobs. This was considered the high-status thing to do. And I always just considered poker as a temporary hobby that, you know, allowed me to pay my tuition and to be a big man around campus, buying up all the Natty Lite for parties. It wasn’t until I had encountered people who looked like me and played against them and realized that like this is actually a possibility. I had never really entertained it ’til that point.

Brad (29:49): Yeah, it’s interesting. You—If life is a game, you know, we didn’t see the path of poker as even an option that was sort of on the piece of paper, right? We just, like, didn’t even consider it. Yeah. Now we can talk about the fifty dollars to 10k weekend. Not a bad weekend.

Chris (30:11): Yeah. I mean, if you had a pulse at this time, you were a winning poker player. My strategies were very, very rudimentary, which is, if they checked I would overbet the pot, type stuff. And just winning with raw aggression. So I mean running it up to 10k was just like—I put fifty dollars in my account and I entered into a fifty dollar Sit and Go, and if I won that I would put it all into a five hundred dollar Sit and Go. It wasn’t like this, you know, strict bankroll management type of thing.

Brad (30:46): Oh, it can’t be.

Chris (30:47): It was a little bit more degen.

Brad (30:49): Yeah, yeah.

Chris (30:50): I didn’t really start managing my bankroll seriously until I quote/unquote “turned pro” my senior year.

Brad (31:00): Yeah. And so after, you know, you told Ford “thanks, but no thanks,” you—This was around 2008, so the financial crisis, you’re playing cards professionally. What went on—How did that decision go?

Chris (31:19): Yeah. I got a call from my recruiter, who said, “Hey, we’re ready for you to start, your salary’s gonna be X.” And I was like, “Wow. I like, I made that this month.” And I was like, “No, I’m out. I think the corporate world can wait.” And I just started taking poker much more seriously.

So, up until this time, I’d been really, really unhealthy. For those three months. Only in hindsight did I realize just how unhappy and depressed I was. Just to put the picture into perspective, during these three months I never went outside, I ate delivered pizza, when it came with a two-liter of soda every day. I didn’t even drink any water, I just had only soda. So sometimes I would wake up, and I had fallen asleep on my keyboard in the middle of a session. Very unhealthy.

And I realized, “Hey, if I want to be a pro, I need to start acting like a pro.” It’s like I say, if I’m going to be a cognitive athlete, I need to start being a physical athlete. So I started to actually think about diet, and went into the gym for basically the first time ever, and added a lot of players on Instant Messenger, so I could start to build a community, and talking about strategy. I started getting involved in TwoPlusTwo forums.

And a huge accelerant in my career is I started coaching other poker players. I coached probably about a hundred and fifty players over a couple years, and I became known as a full-ring guy. Like, if you wanted to win in full-ring cash games, you worked with me. Essentially, if you didn’t work with me you weren’t going to win, because all the winning players were employing my strategies. So that allowed me to set pretty good market rates, and allowed me to later on become, you know, one of the leading cash games stakers, because you know, essentially I had worked with so many people that I had developed a really good system that seemed to work, so I had this proof of, “Hey, all the players who are winning have worked with me, maybe I should work with Chris as well.”

That was just like a really, really huge accelerant for me. Not only it was nice to, you know, have friendships off the table, testing my assumptions, but I just had the opportunity to understand how all of the other good cash game players thought, and being able to incorporate some of those things that they were doing into my game, learning just as much from them as they were learning from me, but also needing to explain things to people. These concepts that I just took for granted, I realized that if I couldn’t explain it in a clear manner to someone, I didn’t really understand it.

So having to explain nuanced things like playing three bet pots as the caller in position, and you know, what flops are good to raise versus flops that you would never raise, things that I just kind of like, “Oh, this is what I do.” Needing to understand the rationale for it really started to excavate these invalidated assumptions and turned me into a much, much better player. So within this first year of quote/unquote “being a pro” with the help of doing all of this coaching and starting to take it much more seriously in terms of my physical and mental health, I went from being a good like mid-stakes full-ring cash player to at the end of that, I was playing in the largest games on Full Tilt and Stars, which was generally like a twenty-five/fifty-six max games.

Brad (34:50): Yeah. So you were building these Chris Bots, right? Go do your bidding, right? Like that’s sort of—I think that’s a natural sequence for a really good coach, is that they recognize, “Wait a second, like, I’m making an impact on these guys. Like they were losing a little while ago, and now they’re winning or now they’re crushing. How can I systemize this in a way that makes sense?” Right? And staking is sort of a natural sequence of events. One thing that you said about surrounding yourself with crushers and building your network is you know, for the listener, if you imagine all this engaging in curiosity, learning, doing a dumb thing, figuring things out, like finding something that like works where you can gain edge after going through this painful process that takes you, say, a hundred hours, right? Well, what if you meet someone that has gone through this painful process in some other part of the game tree, and then you just share information with each other. Right? You can see how quickly that information can just compound, and how just connecting with someone similar who is also a high-level player can just expedite the learning process. It’s just inevitable.

And it’s been said a billion times on this show by pretty much all my guests and me, but I can’t really overstate just how impactful those relationships are.

Chris (36:17): The greats come up together. I think this notion of like the solo shadowy pro is a complete myth, and when you see all of the players at the top, they generally collaborated. Not necessarily at the table, primarily off the table, in terms of discussing situations, discussing opponents. And I think a clear takeaway is like, hey, if you aren’t in these conversations, they’re talking about you and breaking down your game and how to beat you. So I’m always trying to find a way to turn poker into a team sport, to take it from zero-sum into a little bit more positive-sum. Something that I’ve learned over the years is the greatest winners, like the people who win the most, aren’t competing. Like, not only are they collaborating with other players, but they aren’t thinking in these zero-sum terms.

That’s something else that you brought up that I think is impossible to overemphasize, is just the importance of environment and who you surround yourself with. So, I mean the next phase in that story is I had this year in my apartment in Detroit, which—One day I woke up, and I was like, “What the hell am I doing in Detroit? Like, I don’t know, I could be anywhere.” And that moment came to be for my twenty-first birthday. So I decided I wanted to meet up with some of my friends from the internet. You know, we were talking on AIM and we were playing in the cash games streets. I’d never met these players. Some of them I didn’t even know their names. I just planted the flag, it’s like, “Hey, I rented these suites in Vegas for my twenty-first birthday. If you want to come out, come out.” And got twenty guys from the games that I play in to roll up. And these guys ended up being some of my best friends. Probably about a handful of them I still consider amongst my closest friends, even though they’re long retired from the game. They’ve gone on to do really cool and interesting things.

And we had just the typical super degenerate but fun Vegas weekend, at the end of which it’s like, “Well, hey, I’m in Detroit in this apartment in the winter, you’re literally in your mom’s basement, maybe we can find a better environment.” And this is just so funny to talk about in hindsight. They were like, “Well, what’s the—We should live on the beach.” And we looked at a map, with like, “What’s the closest beach?” It’s like, “Oh, it looks like it’s LA.” So one of the guys—I cannot make this up. He went to the dealership and he bought an Aston Martin, and we hopped in his Aston Martin and we drove to LA and we called an agent on the way. It’s like, “Hey, we’re looking for a mansion. Do you have any mansions?” Of course they were able to accommodate. We moved into a place in the Hollywood Hills. It was four of us, and we actually made a post in a high-stakes poker forum on TwoPlusTwo to find a fifth roommate, and yeah. It just became this big thing of like, “We are going to really push ourselves to be better.” Not only like, we’re playing during the day, you know, like really grinding, and then we would go out. We were all trying to develop ourselves personally, and really pushing ourselves to be better.

But I mean, overnight the amount of hours that I was investing in poker doubled. My—I’m kind of notorious for playing very short sessions where I’m just like, “Oh, I’m not feeling it today,” or like, “Oh, I’m tired,” or like, “Oh, I’m not really dialed in.” And I’ll play for like a half hour. And then I would look around and all of my roommates were grinding like ten hour sessions. And I would kind of feel bad, and then like, “Okay, well maybe I can come back and play a little more.” And just overnight, being surrounded by people who clearly were prioritizing poker, treating it in such a way as like, “It’s not going to be like this forever, we should like to make the most of it,” immediately the amount of time not only that I played poker but that I studied poker just doubled. And that was a massive accelerant.

Brad (40:21): Yeah. It’s hilarious to me that it takes you guys so long for the light bulb to click. You know, “Wait, I don’t have to live—”

Chris (40:30): It’s only obvious in hindsight.

Brad (40:31): “I don’t have to live in Detroit?” And then like, boom. Take action, and you’re in LA the next day. But yeah, when you’re striving to be the best version of yourself in any venture, it’s quite difficult to justify, you know, “I don’t feel like playing today,” when everybody that you’re surrounded with is playing and they’re in there and they’re immersed in poker. Like, you know, how do you compete with these guys if you’re out there looking at the ground for, you know, five hours a day and they’re in there playing cards and trying to improve to the best of their ability, right? Like there’s just that built-in accountability, again, by the people that you surround yourself with. And it’s something that like, you know, if you surround yourself with five people that make excuses and that talk about bad-beat stories all the time, guess what? You’re gonna be that person. Like, that’s just how the world works. And if that is the people you’re surrounded by right now, extract yourself. Like, ghost them.

Chris (41:32): Yeah.

Brad (41:33): Get out of that. That’s the best thing that you could possibly do, because like negative people can bring you down, and like if you’re a zero on your own, you can go negative by being surrounded by five negative people, and it’s a massive upgrade just getting right back to zero, you know?

Chris (41:50): They often say, like, you are the people you surround yourself with, it’s a saying for a reason, because it’s so true that you absorb the motivations, the values, the tendencies of the people around you. So if people—you look around you and you don’t want to be or more like the people you’re around, then you are in the wrong room. And I think another—If you flip this, if you invert it, I say, like, we’re always trying to uncover our own blind spots or reveal new dimensions for improvements. If there are things that you don’t like about the people who you spend a lot of time with, like, that is a reflection of you, right? Just how you are the people who you surround yourself with. The people who surround yourself with are a reflection of you. So if you see people who don’t have strong integrity or moral character or they’re lazy or they aren’t disciplined or they tilt, that’s a potential sign that these are tendencies that you have as well, because you tolerate them in others. It means you likely tolerate them in yourself.

Brad (43:00): Yeah, that’s a great point. That’s a great point.


Speaker (43:07): The decision to enter a hand is fundamental to poker strategy. Too tight and they know what you have. Too loose, and you’re easy to run over. Preflop Bootcamp from Chasing Poker Greatness is a comprehensive guide to locking down your pre-flop game and creating true range advantage. Eight days of guided training. Over sixty optimal ranges. And access to a dedicated community of players that will push your pre-flop game to a place of weakness to your greatest strength. Go to chasingpokergreatness.com/bootcamp. Available now.

Testimony (43:55): Before Boot Camp, I had been playing for maybe fifteen years. Somewhat seriously, always trying to get better, jumping from learning program to different learning programs, and training site to training site, kind of feeling a little bit lost, not really knowing how to go about getting better. And Preflop Bootcamp just felt like a great starting point, a way for me to move from being a losing player to possibly a winning player. It felt like the right first step.

Brad (44:21): Once you jumped in Bootcamp, what was your experience like?

Testimony (44:26): Well, first off I realized that I’d been making a lot of mistakes prior to Bootcamp, kind of learning what ranges should look like and what hands should be played in what situations. You know, it was exciting, ’cause I could see what other people had been doing to me, kind of what I had been missing in my game. And then from there just the whole camaraderie of everybody that’s signed up working together, trying to achieve that goal. You know, that was fun, pushing each other and really helping one another, kind of feeling like you were part of a team. It was a great experience. I enjoyed the process, and I learned a lot.

Brad (45:00): What was your experience like playing cards post-Bootcamp?

Testimony (45:06): It’s a totally different experience. You know, it put me in a position to be successful as opposed to always being behind the Eight Ball and playing catch-up. I really feel like it’s the foundation of a solid poker game, and since Bootcamp I’ve been able to turn a profit and keep building on what I learned there, you know, being able to go back into the group and really work together, even after Bootcamp was over. It’s been awesome.

Brad (45:33): What’s your sample size of winning post-Bootcamp?

Testimony (45:36): I think I have seventy-thousand hands played. By now, you know, I’m a father and I have a job, so I’m not a professional by any means. That’s my sample size.

Brad (45:49): Preflop Bootcamp is the flagship Chasing Poker Greatness training program. If you’d like to dramatically upgrade your preflop game, a new Bootcamp launches on the last Saturday of every single month, and your link to join is chasingpokergreatness.com/bootcamp. One more time, that’s chasingpokergreatness.com/bootcamp, all one word, or you can click through in the description box of this episode.


Brad (46:10): So, going back into your story, you guys are in LA, you’re living the dream, it’s around like 2010, so I have a bad feeling about what comes next.

Chris (46:35): Yeah. This was the heyday. I was printing, just absolutely crushing, on Stars and Full Tilt. Games are running all the time. It was amazing. There were signs of danger, you know, deposits being seized—there’s like signs in the background that hey, not all is good in Kansas, but the status-quo bias that we talked about before was so strong, we were doing so well, that we blinded ourselves to the possibility that the days were numbered.

Brad (47:08): I remember that too. I remember, like, you do a seventy-five hundred dollar cashout, like, the cashouts weren’t like in full. They started chopping them up—

Chris (47:16): Yeah.

Brad (47:17): —Into smaller amounts, now that I think about it. And that was before Black Friday. So, yeah. A sign.

Chris (47:25): Yeah. I had—I mean I just, every month I was doing better, and I actually had my best month of my entire poker career in April of 2011, about halfway through the month. So I was, I think, at the peak of my game, and I was holding all of the lobbies on both sites. So arguably amongst the peak in the game, because these are the toughest, highest games that are running in the world at the time, at least online. So I was like, “Hey, I—all systems go.” I went to Coachella, and you know, this is what you do when you’re in LA, and I woke up after a long weekend with six hundred texts, or what felt like it, saying like, “The sky is falling.” Obviously, open up the page to see the famous logo, and realize something like, “Oh my god.” Like, “I have half of my net worth on these sites.” ‘Cause I was just going so well, I didn’t even think to cash out. Luckily, I got all that back, eventually. Everyone knows these stories. You know, Full Tilt took three years. But at the time I was completely shattered by it.

You know, I got really, really wrecked emotionally, and was totally deer-in-headlights shellshocked. Had no idea what to do. I eventually ended up, just, “Okay, it doesn’t make sense to be in LA anymore. Let’s leave the country.” Decided to move to London, because, hey. They speak English, and it’s outside the US. Again, the thinking on this wasn’t super sharp. This story is probably a longer one for another day, but moving to the UK did not work out. I made the mistake of telling them when I arrived that I was a poker player, and that I did not have a return ticket, because I wasn’t sure how long I was going to stay.

Keep in mind I’m a naïve, you know, twenty-three-year-old. I didn’t know any better. They used this as an opportunity to search my luggage, which had a winter coat in it and some family photos. This is August. And they took this as a sign that I was not going to leave the UK. Refused to Google me. I was like, “Hey, just Google me, you’ll see my story’s true.” They denied me entry into the UK, and I’m like sitting—I end up, they had sent me back on a flight to Barcelona, where I was at the EPT, so I’m sitting with my roller bag, just all my possessions at the time on the beach in Barcelona with my winter coat on, being like, “What the fuck am I doing?” And it was—I just took this as this grand sign from the universe that, like, this poker chapter of my life was over. Like, the universe was telling me, like, “You’re done. It doesn’t matter how good you are, like, where you are in your career. That ship has sailed. Like, what are you going to do next?”

Brad (50:16): Yeah. You got fired. Yeah.

Chris (50:19): I got fired. Yeah. I decided to—I had always wanted to travel the world. I had done a lot of poker travel. And you know how poker travel is. You travel to these gorgeous locations, and you never leave the casino. So I decided that I wanted to travel and only travel. Not play a single hand of poker, only just enjoy myself, enjoy life. I went from living on probably a thousand dollars a day to a strict budget of fifty dollars a day, staying in, you know, hostel dorms of twelve to thirty beds, depending on the location, hanging out with people where, you know, two-dollar beers versus three-dollar beers was a really big deal. Obviously, a lot of my values started to shift during this time, realizing that money wasn’t the be-all, get-all that some of these people—at least, I felt much healthier and happier than a lot of my poker contemporaries, and just backpacked. I did this for two of the next three years. Visited fifty countries, about a hundred and fifty cities, give or take, and just tried to live and put all this poker stuff behind me.

Brad (51:26): And, yeah. It—Just, it’s so—Ugh. This whole story is just so familiar, right? It’s just like, you don’t think you can get fired. You actually get into poker, I got into poker because of the freedom, and I didn’t want to answer to anybody, and then all of a sudden, boom. It was gone. And then you’re just left, like, picking up the pieces, trying to figure out, “What do I do next in my life?” It sounds like over these two to three years of travel you learned a lot, and your value system changed. What did your parents think? You know, you mentioned a traditional path. So poker probably was a tough conversation in the first place, and then after Black Friday probably not good.

Chris (52:16): Yeah. I’m so lucky to have such amazing, supportive parents. I think something that is true of all parents and will be true for those of us who become parents in the future is our parents generally want what’s good for us, not necessarily what’s best for us. Like, everyone is giving advice from their own limited experience, but the challenge is that we aren’t living in the same world that our parents were. So for them, this traditional path—Both my parents have worked for the same company, they just retired this year, they worked for the same company their entire careers from graduation. And that path, it wasn’t amazing, but it worked for them, and that’s where all of their advice comes from. So I always have to take that into account. I will say that when I told them I was no longer going to work this prestigious job at Ford, that I was going to, you know, go to Vegas or LA and become a professional poker player, they didn’t take it well. In fact, they told their friends for I think about over a year that I was job hunting, that this was more acceptable for them in their circles, that I was having a hard time finding a job in this tough economy than that I was making seven figures a year playing a game.

They eventually started coming around when fortunately places like Card Player or PokerStars or Poker News decided to feature me in their magazine. And so when they could actually hold in their hand a photo of me talking and people talking in respectful terms, I think it really clicked for them that, like, hey, this is a real thing. And they’ve always been—They were supportive the whole time. Like, they never tried to stop me. But that’s when kind of the switch flipped for them from like, “Hey, a little bit embarrassed, like Chris is kind of in a wandering phase right now, but he’ll figure it out and get it back on track,” to being legitimately proud and bragging about what I was doing and kind of understanding that there was a lot more to it.

Brad (54:31): How did it feel when they would tell their friends you’re job hunting, you’re finding yourself?

Chris (54:37): I kinda took it to heart. I said, for the longest time, I even still struggle with this, is like, is poker worth doing? I don’t think I need to elucidate all of the obvious downsides of choosing poker as a career. You know, I think we’re all firsthand familiar. And it, for me it’s always been this superposition. I say superposition, and I’m holding these discordant ideas in my mind at the same time. On one hand, I’m fortunate enough to stumble into something that I love. Like, I’ve been playing this stupid game for twenty years, and I still love it, I still have no idea what I’m doing, I still learn every day, and it’s great. Like, I meet new interesting people, I challenge myself, people find it interesting from other walks of life. It’s like allowing me to connect with really cool people from outside of poker. Like, there’s a lot of things that it brings me in terms of identity. But on the same side, you have all of these waters that you need to wade in as a poker player. And you’re not adding a whole lot to the world compared to other things that we could be doing. Right?

I do believe that if you are willing to put in the work required to succeed at the highest limits of poker, you could be doing a lot of more productive things, right? How you define productivity is up to you. So yeah, for me, it’s always been a little bit of a struggle to kind of reconcile these two beliefs. So on one hand, I’m like, “Hey, I’m successful.” Like, I’m doing really well. Like, I’m famous in this very small niche world of nerdy poker players who know my name and they shut up when I walk into the room and say, “Hey, you should call there.” On the other hand, I look at like, hey, there’s all these other things that I could be doing that would have a greater impact, and instead I’m like sitting here studying charts and playing this dumb game in a casino surrounded by maybe not the greatest people of all time. Like, what am I doing? I’m always trying to reconcile those two, and it’s a constant struggle.

Brad (56:46): Even today? Any progress in the reconciliation?

Chris (56:52): I think so. I think I’ve become more integrated. So you know, modern day, I think we’ll try to wrap the poker story. I’m in this travel phase and I run into former poker students and close poker friends who had started companies. And I get bitten by the bug of entrepreneurship and start to put it on a pedestal. This is what the smart, interesting people who are making a dent in the universe are doing, are starting companies. And you know, another dimension of that that I think is like, “Oh, all the smartest people are investing.” They’re doing, you know, venture capital or angel or recently crypto. I’m not saying these are super high-value to the world, but it was very attractive to me to be surrounded by smart, interesting people doing cool things, building things. And so I decided I wanted to jump into this world, and my next phase of exploration was moving to New York City and doing a lot of random things within the startup ecosystem. So I did some startup investing, I worked in startups, I did some consulting, just like trying a bunch of things, seeing what fit, trying to apply some of my marketing background with my statistical background from poker.

And you know, realizing, one, like I’m a terrible employee. I just like, I’m not really hirable, so if you’re thinking about hiring me, don’t. And two, it’s like, hey, like, a lot of these things that seem really glamorous from the outside, like startups or investing, the grass is always greener. Like, it’s not as glamorous as I would have thought. But I started to kind of narrow in on what I did really well, which was kindly what I broadly define as pattern recognition. So in 2016, I was having tea with a really close friend who I knew from the poker world, and our conversation reminded me a lot of our conversations in poker, except we were talking about business challenges that he was facing. How to optimize his time, how to prioritize, how to delegate, you know, how to build systems that allowed him to improve on a daily basis.

And I realized, like, oh. A lot of these things that I learned to become a world-class poker player apply to the business world as well. And he asked me, “Hey, can I pay you to hold me accountable for this stuff?” And I said, “Sure.” And I created a Google Doc that later became a website. It was like, “Oh, okay. I guess I have a business that does consulting now.” I called it “The Forcing Function,” now “Forcing Function,” after a term that I just use in conversation all the time, and that’s my primary mission right now, is I work with investors and I work with startup founders, and I help them optimize themselves. Like think of it as raising their game, whether it’s scaling their company or improving their investment returns or just finding more freedom and purpose in their lives, trying to uncover those mechanisms, those patterns that allow them to be successful and to amplify those. And my background in poker, I think, has really shined forth in this new thing, because I can bring this very unfamiliar lens to very familiar problems. That these skills that I developed in poker, people outside of poker facing really challenging problems at high stakes seem to find it very useful.

So, I actually, like, when I was traveling around the world, like in these hostels, I never talked about poker. Like, I was like, “I’m a student. I’m just on sabbatical from my job.” Like I was so embarrassed to be a poker player, and now it’s like something that I can be proud of, because it’s this, like, skill set. And for me, like when I’m in—The poker world feels so normal. It’s just like how, the lens through which we see the world. But you don’t realize that outside of the world of poker these things are very useful, they’re very applicable. So I’ve become a lot more integrated in terms of this poker self and this non-poker self.

Brad (01:01:04): Sounds like you and poker. You’ll have a rocky relationship. It’s up and down. The graph certainly has its downswings and upswings.

You know, you touched on what you learned from poker and brought to, you know, the startup world, entrepreneurs. What did you learn from the startup world that you brought back to the poker world when you eventually, you know, started applying and grinding more?

Chris (01:01:44): This is—I don’t think I’ve gotten this question before. I think the first thing that comes to mind is this experimental mindset that I apply, that I talk about applying in the poker lens before, but I didn’t quite have that language of when you’re in startups, it’s a lot of throwing things at the wall and seeing what sticks, and that really expanded the mental landscape for me of I need to be figuring out what sticks in these situations, and that means being willing to try a lot more, to discover this equivalent of a product-market fit. And in this context, too, something that is endemic to startup success is just choosing the right market. That there are millions of problems to solve, but you need to pick the problem that you are in the best position to build something that someone wants. So, choosing where to compete, you know, table selection, is the most important thing. So you can see, there’s a little bit of a back and forth here, and it really got me thinking even more about like instead of relentlessly trying to be the best, like, what can I do to be the best in the game that I’m in?

So both like increasing deal flow, finding out about good games, getting access to them, but every game that you’re in—We talked, remember, go back to our original discussion about overcoming the mechanisms, every game that you play in has its own meta-game, has its own dynamics. So what can I do that’s optimized for the game that I’m in, rather than thinking about how I become a better poker player, “How do I become the best player in the games that I’m in?” Really, really zooming into that. I think I also became a lot more comfortable with delegation. In my earlier poker career I thought I had to do everything myself, and I realized that the most successful entrepreneurs are the ones who were most comfortable giving up control. They know what they do the best, and they really dial in on that, and they either put their blinders on and ignore everything else, or they find people who they trust who can serve as complements on that.

So this could be obvious stuff, in terms of like, “I have experts that I consult or coach with or I pay directly or at least advise me on everything that’s important to me,” that all of these dimensions feed into my ability to show up and play my A Game, as well like, I don’t try to study every single spot myself. I talk to other players who have gone really deep, and I try to learn the best that I can from them, and in turn, you know, in a non-reciprocal way share some of my own unique insights, right, coming back to this collaboration.

So, you know, building relationships within the game, open-sourcing the things I know, not being, like, “Oh, I need to like keep everything to myself,” but being, like, really open, like, “Hey, here’s how I think about how to play thi,” or, you know, “Here’s how I would have played that hand,” or, “Here’s why I’m playing in this game.” That type of stuff. And it’s really helped.

I think the last thing that comes to mind is just having fun. When I worked with a lot of founders, there was a lot of burnout. I think this is true in poker as well, especially when you go on a really bad run. It’s very easy to burn out and just completely fall off the wagon. So it’s like, the most important thing is staying in the game, doing things that are sustainable. And those are the founders that I see that are the most successful, the ones who are able to, like, get punched in the face for years and stay in the arena. It shows that they have good, like, self-care, recovery, vacation, mental health practices, but also that they’re super resilient and they’re playing the long game, and less susceptible to the short-term swings, emotional and financial. So I really try to approach things from this more like a long-term sustainable lens, and the most sustainable lens that I’ve found, which we’ve talked about before, is that of fun and curiosity.

Particularly live poker, I used to have a very antagonistic relationship with. I would sit there in my hoodie and headphones and be super miserable and be like, “Ugh, casinos suck. Like, these guys are so annoying. I can’t believe that I have to pretend that I care about sports.” All of just like negative self-talk and then the narrative of, you know, you’re having a bad session and you’re like, “Ugh, nothing is going my way, and man, I just like—I should be crushing this game.” All these things that we tell ourselves without even realizing it, because these lenses become invisible to us. I just try to go into every poker game I play now and be—I’ve already won. Like, it does not matter what happens in this game. My only objective is to have fun. Is to like come in here being like, “Okay, like, what’s the most fun that I could have? How could I be curious?”

And it’s kinda crazy, because like relatively, I’m basically a recreational player now. I kinda talk of myself as semi-retired. I was way better back in the day. Honestly, on an absolute level, I’m a way better poker player than I was a decade ago. On a relative level, I don’t think I’m very good. But by going in there and having fun I play my A Game more often, people give me more information, I get more action, I get invited back a lot more. The long game approach of having fun is actually the more profitable approach.

So yeah, those are two things that I’ve learned.

Brad (01:07:46): Yay. You have more energy when you’re having fun, too. It’s something that I tell students all the time when they’re playing, like, to try to keep score. Right? Or to keep score of like—It’s easy to feel like you’re just buried, that it’s like zero-to-ten all the time. Because we never focus on what goes right, right? Or we rarely focus on what goes right. The reality is the score is probably a hundred-to-ten, but we’ve never even taken a moment to notice or acknowledge the good things that happened.

And also, like, yeah. When you get it in with kings versus aces and you spike a king, it’s okay to be excited. It’s okay to be happy, to let some relief or verbalize like, “Yes.” Or something. Like celebrate a little bit. Like that’s totally fine, because guess what? When you get it in with aces versus kings and they spike a king, you’re gonna feel it. Like, you’re going to feel the negative of that situation, because you are a human being, so like it’s this weird thing in poker where, you know, we wanna switch off all the negative emotions, because we feel like they don’t have a utility, and we don’t give ourselves permission to feel the positive emotions, which just creates, you know, burnout. It creates all kinds of bad internal feelings that just will crush you over time and make things unfun and just make you not wanna play poker.

Chris (01:09:11): It’s so true. The importance of celebrating and tapping into the positive. I’ve become much more conscious of my subjective experience of playing and how much that matters, and how much of what’s happening internally manifests externally on the table. And you talk about trying to repress these negative emotions. It just doesn’t work. I thought for a long time that I could become the proverbial stoic, turn myself into a robot and just execute robotically. I think this is a lot of what the GTO ideal is, which—It just doesn’t work. There is no separation of emotion from decision-making, so the best that you can do is to get in touch with your emotions, treat them as if they have valuable things to share with you, valuable alpha, details, et cetera. And if you can reconcile these negative emotions, you can uncover the underlying causes of the theme, rather than continuing to play these scenarios out over and over again.

I mean, I kinda recently got into live poker. I’ve historically always been an online guy. That’s where I’ve had the majority of my success, and I would only play live, you know, when I was traveling to a tournament series or in the summer in Vegas. But I’ve kinda grown in a post-pandemic world to love the phenomenon that is live poker. So when I used to play, I wanted to be just a brick wall. You know, stare them down, give nothing away, bet the same way every time, just being completely unreadable, and realizing that by trying to suppress my emotions, they were leaking out in ways that were very hard to prevent. Right? The more that I tried to put up this unreadable façade, the more people were able to read me. And now I’m just so much more comfortable laughing and telling jokes and being like, “Man, that’s a really bad card for me.” And, “Whoa, raising you a third time in a row. I probably don’t have it.” And just like being very genuine with my reactions.

And it’s interesting, that like, all of this information becomes disinformation. That by being genuine I’m actually becoming harder to read, at least by my results, if those have any semblance in them. And plus it’s just way more fun. It takes up all of this energy to try to be someone that you’re not.

So yeah, I’ve really kind of come full circle to just feeling the feelings.

Brad (01:12:12): Yeah. That’s great. And you know, you mentioned before, too, about recovery, right, which is ultimately like a priority when you’re playing poker. ‘Cause you’re gonna feel negative emotions. You’re just going to. So the priority is recovering from that feeling, right? And when you just bury them, the ironic thing is that it takes you much longer to recover than if you just lean into them, you can start to recover much more quickly. And it’s very obvious, the benefits of recovering much more quickly. You can play more hours, you are in a better mental state, you enjoy playing, you can laugh and smile, you can lose a big pot and like be self-deprecating and make a joke so that everybody at the table, you know, they laugh and they’re having a good time, which ultimately is like good for the longevity of poker.

So yeah, like, the priority is always recovery. If you don’t give yourself a chance to recover by trying to flip the ‘off’ switch, it’s not gonna happen. And a little exercise that the listener can do is to just imagine the worst news in the world that can hit you. Right? Can you find the ‘off’ switch to deal with that news? Like, is there an ‘off’ switch? And you can’t, right? Like, I mean, maybe like a sociopath can, I guess. I don’t really know. But most normal human beings, faced with the worst news they could hear, there is no ‘off’ switch. You have to deal with it, because you’re a human being. And thank God that we are human beings, because like by—Because we can feel the negative, we also feel joy, we feel love, we feel excitement. All of the best parts of this human experience come through our emotions.

So anyway, that’s my tangent on just dealing with your emotions as a poker player. You just—There’s no alternative. I mean, you just have to do it. Like, you can try not to, but it’s not going to be very successful, I don’t think.

Chris (01:14:12): Yeah. I’d love to use this to talk about tilt a little bit. So, think about it as tilt prevention and tilt mitigation. And I think that the way that you prevent tilt is you just do the things that are in your control to show up as the best player that you can. You got a—All the usual health things. You got a great night of sleep, you aren’t coming in with any lifestyle leaks, right, you don’t have any open loops, or you just had some sort of fight. You’re coming in focused, you’re not sitting on your phone, you’re not thinking about, you know, what price is BitCoin, and that. You’re wearing clothes that make you comfortable, you’ve eaten a good meal. Like, the long laundry list of things that, hey, when you do this, you show up as a better version of yourself. So if you know that it works for you, doing that, making that as part of your routine, your ritual to get yourself into state—We talked about living a life of no regrets before, right? You cannot have any regret at the table if you’ve done what you have in your power to show up, you know, ready and prepared.

And that’s like a lot of not having tilt, is putting yourself in a position to be in a great physical and mental strength, being resilient. But there is no way to eliminate tilt completely, and what I find really useful is to have these cognitive canaries, is what I call them, or think of these as like warning lights on your dashboard. You know, coal mines back in the day, at a certain point you know, you wouldn’t—The air would be toxic. So they would release canaries into there, and if the canaries died, that was a sign, “Hey, maybe this mine isn’t long for this world. Let’s get all these miners out of there.” Having these objective signs that when they happen is a signal that you may be tilting.

And all that you can—The only way to identify these, ’cause they’re very personal, is to see when you do tilt, it’s only obvious in hindsight what else is going on. And when one of these things happen, either it’s an occurrence, like the way a hand plays out or a behavior that you notice. Like for me, it could be speech patterns, it could be like I get this heat on the back of my neck, my posture changes, I start touching my chips more. I have all these signals that it’s like, “Hey, this is not my typical behavior, this is a signal there’s something going on.” And the first thing is your pattern interrupt. So, get away from the table, go for a walk, get some fresh air, get your mind off of it. Like, and then just like feel it. Like, hey, what am I feeling right now, and why am I feeling it? Acknowledging it, saying like, “Hey, can I work with this? Can I move forward?” Don’t be frustrated that you’re mad that you lost that pot. Just be a little bit mad, and then once you’ve kinda dealt with it, do some deep breaths, get back to the table.

But where people start to go off, you know, this is how you blow your roll in a night, is that you deny that you’re tilting. Like, “Man, this game is too good.” Or like, “Yeah, I don’t tilt.” Or like, “Agh, I’m gonna get this guy back.” All these narratives that start to sprout. And say like, I mean, one downside is like, I leave a lot of amazing games pretty early, but I have this belief that if I’m not playing my A game, I’m not winning. And that belief has saved me a lot of money over the years. So acknowledging that, hey, I’ve done all I can to prevent tilt, I’ve taken a break, I’m still doing these signs that even if I can say, “Hey, yeah, I’m not tilting, I’m just doing this.” Like, well, every time you do this you’re tilting. If you’re doing this, you’re probably tilting. Okay, this acts as a trigger. All right. Leave the table. No matter what.

So yeah. Those are like a few systems that I’ve used, but it all comes back to just like the emotions are going to be there. Like, don’t deny them. Acknowledge them. And the first step to getting yourself back into this A Game state of mind is to be aware of where you are in this current moment.

Brad (01:18:15): Right. You can’t take action if you have no awareness of what’s going on, which is where meditation and reflection and, just, again. Trying to find those triggers, right? Trying to find the triggers that are signaling that, hey, something is not right here, right? Like, you know, for myself, I could ask myself a question, like, “How okay am I with quitting right now?” And if the answer is, “I’m not fucking okay at all with quitting,” something’s going on internally that is abnormal, because mostly I’m okay quitting a session. Right? So like if I’m not okay with it, then like for whatever reason, I’m angry, I’m upset, I’m annoyed, I just don’t want to leave—Because like we always make these reasons, right, “Oh, the game’s really good. I can’t quit. Right?” Well, why is it that when you’re up six buy-ins in a good game it’s like, “Okay, yeah, I could quit.” Like, “Let’s go do something.” Right? Like, you could leave that game when you’re up six, but when you’re sub-five buy-ins and things are going poorly, “Oh, the game’s good. I need to keep playing. I need to keep playing.”

Chris (01:19:22): This is why the ego is so dangerous, because anything can be justified in hindsight. And this is a very key symptom you see with players who’ve plateaued, is they have excellent excuses for everything that they’ve done.

Brad (01:19:37): Yeah. There’s always a reason, right? And the reality is we could always rationalize it. Almost any behavior, in some way. However we want to warp it to basically justify what we want to do, even if it’s detrimental to us. Well, man, we’ve been going for almost an hour and a half now, and let’s hop into some lightning round questions, and then, yeah, we’ll wrap it up if that’s cool with you.

Chris (01:20:08): Sure.

Brad (01:20:09): So, what’s common poker advice you hear that you completely disagree with?

Chris (01:20:17): The first one that comes to mind for me is just any notion that a position has been solved. You hear a lot of this, particularly amongst the young crowd, of trying to find a solution to a situation, but as we’ve said before, you can’t approach any situation in a vacuum. Right? If you were only playing a single hand of poker, right, and that’s what—When you have GTO play, it’s like one hand, optimizing for that exact hand, then of course there’s the perfect play. But every hand exists within a session against a player, and exists within a series of sessions against a player, or you’re playing against them on multiple tables, or exists within your image with all of these players as you play in any future games with them, exists within your career. So it’s really difficult to separate out the context. And you know, the shadow side of this is again, like you can justify any play, because, “Hey, I made this like a really aggressive or speculative bluff because I’m setting this player up for the future.” Yada yada yada. Like, it’s easy to fall into that trap.

But one that I see very often is just like, “Oh, you can’t call that hand here.” Like, “Oh, okay.” “You never raise that flop. That’s just like a hundred-percent call.” And I find that, like, very lazy thinking. Not saying that the analysis is not important, right? If there is a position where, again, any model that you build has all of these assumptions built into it. Right? So let’s assume that you’ve somehow nailed perfect ranges for each player on this board. Well, okay. Knowing that the “computer,” quote/unquote, never raises here, that is very, very useful information for creating a baseline of, “Hey, mathematically, probabilistically, what is the play that I should be defaulting to here?” But for many people, that’s where the analysis ends. And I guess maybe I’ve just always been very, very anchored to this exploitative side in that I just don’t accept that there is a correct play for any situation without that context. I’m always thinking, “What is the correct play to make against this player in this moment while taking into account if I make this play, like, how does that change the future landscape against this set of players?”

Again like, something that you can’t go really, really deep into this while the clock is on you, but I’m always trying to practice this level of analysis, at least intuitively, of like, what else is going on, and what are the secondary, tertiary effects of what I’m doing here?

So yeah, I think that’s a really common one to see poker as just reading this ten0-thousand-page book over and over again trying to memorize it, and not thinking about, well, what is the opportunity that’s in front of me right now? What is the thing that’s not being incorporated into this default model?

Brad (01:23:45): Right. And what’s interesting—So it’s a piece of information. It’s a piece of the puzzle. Right? The solve is the piece of the puzzle. But it is not the full puzzle. And if you think that it is a full puzzle, you’re out of your mind. Like, there are other data points that in specific situations you ought to prioritize above that one piece of the puzzle. Right? It’s just—It boggles my mind that like—You can play poker, right? Based on whatever’s happening in your environment—People say, “I have an A Game and a B Game and a C Game and a D Game.” Right? Well, how do you know what game your opponent is on while you’re deploying this specific strategy, and then if you change the inputs from somebody, assuming they’re playing on their A Game, and they’re playing on their C Game instead, how will that affect the solve? Because here’s a big hint: it’s going to fundamentally fuck that solve up. Like, it’s going to change it dramatically.

And so like if you just turn that off, your ability to analyze data points in real-time so that they affect, you know, the baselines strategy, you just don’t have hope. Like, you’re not going to make it in poker over the long run. And plus, that’s not even that fun. Like it’s not even a good experience, right? Part of poker is problem-solving, prioritizing different data points, making good decisions, and then kind of seeing how you do. Like, at least in my experience, that’s part of the fun. And so that engaging of curiosity, that further exploration beyond the simple solve that you did is just to me, that’s what makes poker an enjoyable experience for the past however long I’ve been in this world. Almost twenty years now, you know?

Chris (01:25:36): There’s so much there. What came up for me was just, there are so many assumptions behind the decision which are unacknowledged and thus are sort of treated as fact. A common trap that a lot of players fall into is assuming that other players see the situation in the same way that they would. Like, “Well, I would never raise here, so this player would never raise here.” Like it’s obvious that this is not correct, so I just don’t consider that as a possibility. And this empathy, I think, is really important, and when—This kind of blows people’s minds outside of the poker world when I talk about empathy and online poker, but there is a person on the other side of the screen with feelings and drives, and they are experiencing something in this moment, and it’s possible to empathize with that and understand where they’re coming from and what they’re optimizing for. So assume—Just kind of taking that all out of the equation is going to make the math very clean, but it’s not going to have the result that you want.

Brad (01:26:52): Absolutely. You know, I had Tom Schneider on the podcast recently, and he said something—So like, you have your like optimal preflop braces, right? Like you have all your ranges, all the hands you’re supposed to raise with. And now imagine that you’re in this situation, right, you like, you’re in the cutoff, you know what your raising range is, and so that’s what it is. Right? But what if you noticed that the button and the small blind have pre-folded, right? Before it’s their action. They’ve looked at their cards, and their hand’s already in the mud. Right? Like, should that change your opening strategy? Of course it should change your opening strategy. Not using that to affect your optimal decision is just stupid. It just doesn’t make sense. It’s just leaving money on the table and not playing at the level that you’re capable of. So yeah, I think your analysis that it’s lazy is like so spot on, because it’s incredibly lazy, because there’s always so much information.

You know, like the different environments, how to play well in this specific game that I’m in. You know, I talk about that with my students, and I call it different table configurations, right? So like each game is a very fluid ecosystem where guys are getting up and sitting down, and you know, if some extremely tough, aggressive player sits down on your direct left, that’s going to change your strategy. It just, it will. And if a giant whale sits on your right, that’s going to fundamentally change your strategy. So, like, these are just one piece of the puzzle here, that if you extract one person, replace them with another human, your strategy has already changed. And it’s just something that like, yeah. As poker players, you just have to embrace problem-solving and figuring things out on the fly with the information that’s in front of you, because like that’s how you beat the game, that’s how you sustain success, and really that’s, again, in my experience, sort of what makes poker enjoyable.

Chris (01:28:56): Yeah. I think it’s the subtle, nuanced differentiation between fundamentals and perfect play, where I think of, “Hey, here is the mathematically correct play, given these assumptions on average. Hey, if I internalize this paradigm and make it my baseline, then I can subvert that paradigm and be sensitive to these changing positions with understanding like where am I working from, I have a place to adjust from.” Like those examples you’ve given, where you loosen up or you tighten up or you modify your range accordingly, but that the perfect play, just like the perfect plan, is continually adapting to the new conditions as they present themselves. And that’s why I think this awareness, this presence, is the killer skill, because like these opportunities, these windows are so small.

I think about this, I forget who really turned me onto this. I think it was Berkey, when he said this, and this was a total red pill for me. Again, my background is like thirty-six tabling. I didn’t do that at the highest levels. Like, when I was playing twenty-five/fifty or fifty/a hundred, I was playing like eight to twelve. But still, like, I’m used to getting like a new hand every second, right? A thousand hands an hour. And you know, as I start to play on like live stream games, for example, these are games that you get like a hundred hands. And Berkey is like—”My window to exploit these players is so small, I’m given situations which are so sub-optimal, but I need to find a way to take advantage of every single hand, because I only have a hundred of them.” And that really drove home like, man. There is so much nuance and opportunity for finding these small pockets of edge, like, if you’re willing to stray away from the optimal. But if you’re waiting for the perfect opportunity, you’re always going to be waiting.

So especially it’s like, that’s something I’m thinking a lot about, is like completely changing my strategy for like every hand. It doesn’t mean I like to do anything crazy, but every hand I have to at least be thinking about, like, what is this context going on here, what is this changing dynamic, and how do I adjust to it for this hand?

Brad (01:31:35): Absolutely. You know, I, my opinion, I think Berkey’s one of the more underrated poker minds in the game. People like to try to dunk on Berkey, but Berkey is an extremely intelligent, thoughtful dude that I’m always impressed with, when I see him play live poker. And just some of the things that he does that other people are just unwilling to do—He always shows up with intensity, prepared, and he always goes for it. And like as a professional, these are things, like, it’s rare that I’m impressed by watching other professionals play poker, and Berkey just always seems to impress me.

Chris (01:32:14): If you see yourself dunking on another player, this should be a signal that you are being lazy. It’s very, very easy to be an armchair quarterback from the sidelines and find fault with someone else’s play, but think of this as an opportunity to discover something that you might not have thought about. And getting away from this dichotomy of ‘correct’ play and ‘bad’ play. Instead, like, someone like Berkey or whoever, it could be the guy in your game who you’re just licking your chops when he sits down, he has a reason for doing everything that he’s doing at the table. It might not be a reason that you agree with, but there are kernels of wisdom in every perspective. So looking at that and seeing a very unconventional play, rather than just disagreeing with it and dismissing it, like, seeing it as an opportunity to see this familiar situation from an unfamiliar lens.

Brad (01:33:22): Absolutely. And like, I’m sure anybody that has heard Berkey speak obviously knows that he’s an extremely intelligent guy, right? Like, very intelligent. So maybe a better question is like, what did Berkey know here, or what was Berkey thinking? What data point did he prioritize in this situation that caused him to do something that I just couldn’t ever consider? Right? Like, you can reverse-engineer it. You can’t hide the decision that people—When they play on the live stream, Garrett can’t hide the decisions that he’s making, right? So it’s an opportunity to just reverse-engineer and try to figure out, like, “Oh, what must he have been thinking, here?” Whether, you know, the end result was good or bad. And yeah, my final thought here on the whole GTO thing is like, GTO stands for “Game Theory Optimal.” Right? And you have to bear in mind that it’s based on inputs. And if you were to change an input to, “This player folds a hundred percent of the time” in the solver, guess what? The output would be to bluff a hundred fucking percent of the time. Right?

So like, that’s something that like you just have to hold true, that like solvers are—You input information, it’s going to spit out an output, you change the inputs, the outputs going to change, and that’s just how it is, and as poker players your goal is to be the solver, recognize how different inputs affect the outputs so that you can be calibrating in real-time and just making better decisions than you otherwise would.

All right, I’m off my rant there. All right. Back to the lightning round questions. Not so lightning-y.

If you could gift all poker players one book to read, and it doesn’t have to be about poker, and preferably not about poker, what book would you give ’em and why?

Chris (01:35:19): Well, my first response is probably going to be an obvious one. It would be—I really like The Mind Illuminated. I think of it as a step-by-step guide to enlightenment, however you define that, and it really kind of lays out not only like the case, scientific and existential, but the process of being a meditator and someone who is more aware and present in the world. So I really enjoy that, and I’ve really—Not only has meditation been a huge boon for me in terms of my performance personally and professionally, but it’s also brought a lot of meaning and perspective to my life. So that’s a really good entry point. For someone who operates in the creativity performance world, I don’t really enjoy or recommend much nonfiction. I find that the really best learning comes from fiction, actually. We talked a little bit about empathy, and that’s why, you know, it could be—You know, I guess biography is a type of nonfiction. I love biographies. But also, you know, science fiction—These put you in the perspective of a character and help you imagine hypothetical worlds, and I think these are really—Not only is it just like really fun to learn and to think about like what the future of humanity could look like, or how did this person who went to have an outlier outcome, like, what were the steps that they took?

Obviously, there’s a lot of direct application that we can have to our life, but just this practice of putting yourself in the body of another human and embodying their way of seeing and thinking for a little while, I think, is a really useful lens for a poker player. So yeah, that would be kind of the secondary recommendation, is to read more fiction.

Brad (01:37:40): I love that one. I love fiction, reading, and exploring new worlds. I’m pretty sure, don’t quote me on this, but I’m pretty sure there’s been research done on how reading fiction affects the brain, and how building a world in your mind is really good. It’s really healthy, it helps your brain stay more resilient, and guides against Alzheimer’s, a degenerative cognitive disease. What nonfiction book would you recommend, now that we’re here? I wanna hear, ’cause I’m excited.

Chris (01:38:18): Nonfiction?

Brad (01:38:19): Yeah, nonfiction. No, no, no, no. Fiction. Fiction. Sorry.

Chris (01:38:22): Oh, okay.

Brad (01:38:23): Yeah.

Chris (01:38:25): Well, I would say the nonfiction book that I recommend the most, it’s called The Goal. And it’s about the theory of constraints. It would be particularly interesting to anyone who’s of an entrepreneurial proclivity out there, but it’s essentially about process optimization and identifying your bottleneck. And one of the red pill moments from The Goal is that the majority of things that we do in life are wasted, and the key to life is figuring out what things we do that don’t have any impact whatsoever. That’s a really good nonfiction recommendation that I give out a lot. Let’s see. Biography, I love—

Brad (01:39:08): I need fiction. I need fiction, Chris!

Chris (01:39:11): Fiction. Fiction. Fiction fiction.

Brad (01:39:12): Yeah, I want fiction.

Chris (01:39:15): Okay. Oh. Well, my wife Marianna is gonna laugh at me, because this is her favorite book, but it’s become a favorite of my own. It’s obviously become popularized this year with the release of the movie, but I’m a huge fan of Dune. It’s a great series, really excellent world-building, helps you understand the nuances of geopolitics. For anyone who thinks in terms of game theory, will really enjoy seeing that applied. But it’s a very interesting book about the things that occur inside of people’s heads, and how their vision, their lenses of seeing the world have very interesting second-order effects that multiply, that get leveraged.

Another, let’s see. Another fiction book that I really loved recently, this is from, this is also sci-fi. Ursula K. Le Guin, the book is The Dispossessed. And thinking in terms of empathy, you have essentially an alien from an anarchist planet landing on Earth—So, so many of the things that we look around us we take for granted. Remember that, like, what we are experiencing right now is just one permutation of reality, but we treat it as if this is the only way it could be. So to embody this firsthand protagonist perspective of, like, “Why are these people doing such weird things? How did this come to be?” is really helpful for taking a deeper look at all the things around us which we typically take for granted.

Brad (01:41:08): Absolutely. You know what’s funny is that The Mind Illuminated has not been suggested before, but Brian Rast did suggest Dune previously. So Dune has previously been suggested. There you go. The Mind Illuminated. Nice.

All right. If you could wave a magic wand, change one thing about poker, what would you change?

Chris (01:41:37): Well, first response, best response. I’m troubled by the ongoing tendency, which I don’t see any change in, of privatization of poker, where you have all of poker games like moving to kind of invite-only backrooms. And I think it’s very easy to say, “Well, yeah, of course you feel that way, Chris. Like, you’re a good player and sometimes you’re not going to be invited to play in these games when people have the opportunity to set the invite list.” And that’s true. But I also think that there is a lot of—There’s a lot of safety in centralization, and playing a game that is out in the open. Everyone knows the rules, anyone can walk in and sit down, versus like needing to navigate these spaces that not only have like their own politics but have their own kind of moral meta-games around like the fuzzy boundary between friend and customer, or like you know, when to loan out money or how much rake is too much or being cheated or not paid and not having any you know, anything that you can do about it. All things that I have experienced, but you know, don’t really wanna talk about publicly. All of these—

Brad (01:43:13): I have experienced them as well.

Chris (01:43:15): Everyone has. And a lot of it gets swept under the rug, because no one wants to alienate everyone, and everyone wants to be invited back. And it’s like very uncomfortable, and I think that this privatization, it feels a little predatory to me, it doesn’t bring out the best in people, and I think it gets away from kind of the game that I love, which is like sitting down with, you know, a group of strangers who become friends and having at it. And fortunately, like, I just don’t see any way around this. You know, if people can find a source of advantage, they’re going to take it. If they can curate a game that has only players that they have an edge against and do so, why wouldn’t they? But yeah, it’s a trend, it’s a tendency that I don’t enjoy, and I don’t think anyone else really likes, but it’s this classic race to the bottom that no one can avoid.

Brad (01:44:14): Yeah. I’m very happy that I haven’t had to navigate that, these last seven years or so of live poker, because it’s a thing that, yeah, lots of folks have talked about. Games going private and just how terrible it is.

So, moving on, if you could put up a billboard every poker player’s gotta drive past on the way to their private game, or their public game, just choose a card room, what does your billboard say?

Chris (01:44:46): Well, my first response was just, “Breathe.” But I’m guessing somebody has already said that, so I’m trying to think of something more creative.

Brad (01:44:53): That’s a good guess.

Chris (01:44:58): I would say, you know, “What are you feeling at this moment?” is a good one. Just trying to catalyze awareness of what’s going on rather than, you know, making the same drive you made a million times and just, you know, counting down the minutes ’till you can sit down and start stacking chips to really turn this liminal space of a commute into an opportunity for depth and reflection by coming into the present moment. I think that would be a cool one.

Brad (01:45:29): What about, like, “Awareness is power”? That one just came to me.

Chris (01:45:33): “Awareness is power” is great. One more is, like, “Why are you doing what you’re doing?” This doesn’t necessarily need to be existential. It’s like, why are you driving to this casino to play a game of poker—but just like, there are reasons behind everything that we do, even if sometimes they’re invisible to us. And uncovering what we’re trying to accomplish, what we’re optimizing for, sometimes can uncover a more direct path, or at least enlighten, illuminate a little bit more about what we value, what we’re trying to do. So yeah, I mean, it’s like, start with asking yourself “why.” Why are you doing what you’re doing?

Brad (01:46:15): Yeah. Why am I in Detroit in the wintertime playing poker indoors? Right?

Chris (01:46:21): And if you don’t have a really good reason, it’s a pretty good signal that, hey. Maybe this default, what you’re doing, is not the thing that you could be doing.

I talk a lot about decision-making, especially when I work with investors. And one of the keys to making good decisions, I think this applies to poker as well, is not thinking about things in A or B terms. Like, “Should I bet or should I check? Should I bluff or should I check back?” That there’s usually a middle path that’s somewhere between the two options. And it begins with, “All right, what are the options that I haven’t even considered?” Like, let’s have some really ridiculous ones. You said something like, “Okay, I’m sitting in Detroit.” And I’m like, “Hey, I’m sitting in Detroit, this must be what I wanted to do,” and it wasn’t until like, “Hey, I can move into a mansion with some of my best friends in LA and just go to town,” it was like, “Oh, yeah. Well, that sounds way better.” So I would have gotten there a lot sooner if instead of just taking my current situation for granted, I had just drummed up a bunch of imaginary possibly terrible scenarios, but through these bad ideas, eventually, a good idea might emerge.

Brad (01:47:28): Right. And here’s some free coaching for the listener too: most of the mistakes that are uncovered in private coaching sessions are because my student didn’t even have awareness of a possible door. Like they didn’t even see a specific door as even a possibility, which created the blind spot, and that’s like the lowest hanging fruit things to rectify. It’s like, “Oh.”

Chris (01:47:53): Yeah.

Brad (01:47:54): “There’s a door here. You didn’t see it.” Like, “Oh, you could have raised the river, you just didn’t even consider that as a possibility.” Right?

Chris (01:48:01): One of the Jedi tricks of being a good coach which I think a lot about—obviously I’ve been a coach of some form for over a decade—is disrupting someone’s reference point. Pushing them away from their place of certainty. And one way to do this is just to introduce an alternative action they could have taken at some point in the hand as if it’s just an obvious thing that they should have seen and done. And sometimes it’s something that’s actually not very bad, and a lot of times—Not very good, sorry. And you’ll start to see them start to justify, it’s like, “Oh, man, how did I miss that, I could have done that.” And it just illuminates, “Hey, the thing that you did was one path of many, and whether it was the right path or not all depends on the context, depends upon the reasoning that you had.” As you said before, any choice can be justified, or we can generate excuses for anything, but if you understand why you’re doing what you’re doing, that will uncover those underlying assumptions. So that’s always like a very helpful exercise, it’s like, “Okay, you played this hand in this way, you bet half pot. Okay, well, what if you bet 3x pot on the turn? What if you bet one-quarter pot on the turn? How does that affect the player’s range? What do you do on the river?”

And it starts to—A lot of these, you have a lot of these leverage points in a hand. It starts to reveal how one choice earlier in the hand leads to very different situations later in the hand, and if you become comfortable with these different plays, these different bet sizes, then you’re less likely to fall upon this crutch of like, “This is how I play in this situation, this is the perfect play, this is what the solver tells me,” versus like, “I’m comfortable playing this hand in a number of ways. Which hand is optimal for the situation that I’m in right now?”

Brad (01:49:51): Yeah. And then when you get smashed by the 3x river overbet, you actually have studied and thought about the situation, and you’re much better able to navigate it, because it’s not just something out of the blue that just happened to you that is totally unexpected and blindsided you. Right? Like you also become more resilient and able to deal with the unexpected things that always happen when you sit down at a poker table.

What’s a project you’re working on that’s near and dear to your heart?

Chris (01:50:22): Well, I spend most of my time thinking about what I’m doing at Forcing Function. I just started the third cohort of a group coaching program that I do called Team Performance Training. So that’s for twelve startup executives and investors in the venture capital and hedge fund space. So I’m very excited about that. Essentially it’s trying to compress everything that I know about getting things done and scaling a company and, you know, having great investment returns and trying to turn that into a ten week class. That’s always just a fun challenge of getting great people in the room and creating experiences that help them internalize principles that allow them to coach themselves through these things that come up every day.

So yeah, I love teaching and trying to uncover the right metaphor that’s gonna break through and get someone, or the right exercise to suggest that’s gonna create some sort of epiphany that gets them out of their blind spot. That’s always really exciting for me.

I launched a podcast late last year, so mostly people in the business world, although I’ve had a couple poker guys on. A good friend of mine, Garrett, came on. Garrett Adelstein early on, talking about navigating the super high-stakes live scene. Most recently I had a super OG pro, Hac Dang. Those of you who are dinosaurs like me remember Hac, talking about how you can live a positive-sum life in a zero-sum world. And I’ve just been really enjoying not only having conversations with friends like this one where we get to just like learn and uncover things that we didn’t know until we said out loud, but also to work on this dimension of not only interviewing but just having good conversations and being curious and trying to deconstruct and distill ideas into a way that other people can take them to heart. That’s just a really big value of mine, to open-source all of my learning, and I said like, coming from a poker lens, that would feel really dumb.

You mentioned the article that I wrote earlier last year called “Meta-Skills in High Stakes Poker,” where I literally lay out exactly what I do to be a great high-stakes player, and I got a lot of messages telling me, like, what an idiot I am for sharing this, ’cause there’s a lot of good stuff in there. At least I think so. But I found it just very fulfilling to not only share what I know to people who are in and out of poker so they can apply it, but also just the process of writing helped to kind of deconstruct for me like what made me successful. I didn’t know until I started writing it down. So that’s probably like a broader one, is just creating new content, putting new ideas into the world, whether it’s podcasts or articles or, you know, maybe a book on the horizon. We’ll see.

Brad (01:53:23): You know, the people who always say such a thing, like, “You’re an idiot for putting that into the world,” I can’t imagine they’ve ever tried to teach anybody something in their entire lives. You know, it’s just—You can say every, I have given away so many strategic things that I talk about privately, and very few people have told me that, like, “Oh, that was a different way of thinking that I wasn’t considering before, and so I tried this out and actually it looks like you’re onto something, like, this is very crazy.” Like, very few people actually take the time to investigate or put themselves in an uncomfortable situation or try to change their paradigm. They just don’t. They read something, their eyes glaze over, and they forget about it, they move on with their life, and never take any action.

And yeah, like, going back to teaching and being excited about sharing information and transferring knowledge to these guys—I mean, that’s just a new problem, right? Poker is one problem to solve, and then teaching people in a way that resonates with them, gets stuck in their long-term memory so they can access it and use it ongoing, into the future, is not a simple problem. It’s quite a difficult problem. Yeah.

And also, the final thing here, the podcast situation. Having great conversations. I release a lot of podcast episodes, and sometimes with starting a coaching -or-profit situation, growing my business, selling courses, learning how to copyright, learning how to be a better teacher, and also like being an okay husband at the same time, and raising children, right? I feel overwhelmed, I have an internal dialogue of, like, “Do I wanna keep doing these projects?” And the podcast is one that I do have that dialogue. And what keeps me in the game is the feeling that I have right now after having great conversations with very interesting human beings. It’s just an experience that I can’t—Yeah. I just, I don’t take it for granted, and it’s really an honor, and yeah. So I think for now, you know, we’re gonna end this show, and I’m gonna go throughout the rest of my day with a feeling of excitement and energy having had this conversation. And that’s why I do the show, and that’s why it’s not really work for me. It’s why I look forward to it and I’m able to, you know, crank out as many episodes as I do.

Chris (01:56:00): What more can you ask for? You know, we talked about fun and curiosity. If something feels like a struggle that’s probably a good sign that something’s wrong. If something is taking a lot of energy, that’s your body telling you that you aren’t living in alignment. So I always just try to come back to, you know, what makes me feel alive, what gets me really excited to jump out of bed in the morning. And if I don’t feel alive, I don’t feel excited to get out of bed in the morning, what’s going on? Let’s work with that.

I think that a lot of success in life comes from commitment, and commitment can be challenging, because we don’t want to put ourselves into something and fail, or put ourselves into something and feel like it doesn’t work out, feel like we wasted our time. Or, hey, we did that thing, and it wasn’t actually what we wanted to do, but the only way to learn, to get in touch with why we are here on this earth is to be in the arena, bumping up against reality and looking really dumb sometimes. So I always just try to find ways that I can comfortably commit to something. I think in my more exploratory years, I was completely paralyzed with the realization that I could literally do anything. Like I feel I seriously could do anything, and that, oh. What a great responsibility to have to decide the perfect thing to do. Well, no. Just pick one thing and take the length of time to commit to it. That’s what I refer to as an experimental period. It’s something that’s made a huge impact in my life. Then you commit to it for a month. You commit to it for ninety days. You commit to it for a week. Time period doesn’t matter, but like, commit and see what happens.

And the nice thing is that removes a lot of this day-to-day, like, “Am I doing the things that I should be doing?,” knowing that at the end of this period you can say, hey, if that went well you can always double down. Right? You’re enjoying the podcast, great. Have more guests on, like go deeper into the art, to the craft. Like, trust that you feel alive, you’re optimizing for, just, go after that. You pick the wrong thing or it doesn’t resonate, well cool. That’s not a failure, that’s just an unexpected outcome. Right? The only way to fail in life is to pay tuition for the same mistake over and over again. So, yeah. I think that’s something that I would love to leave people with, is just to commit, to have conviction.

I talk a lot about this, I put out a workbook last year—Actually, two years ago. Man, time flies. It’s called, Experiment Without Limits, where I build on this idea. Shoutout to Cole South. I like to think of this as like the Let There Be Range! for the business world, except I give it away for free. This is a hundred-page workbook that I put a lot of time and effort into. Like, here are all of the things that I have learned working with really successful founders and investors who are what works for living a productive, high-performance, fulfilling life. And follow these steps, and it seems like from the people I’ve worked with, people who’ve tried these things, they’ve had really good results.

So that’s downloadable for free on my website. You can go to experimentwithoutlimits.com. My company is at forcingfunction.com. And if you’re an executive investor and want to learn more, I encourage you to go there and check it out. Lots of free things that you can read and learn more and apply to your own life.

Brad (01:59:40): Awesome, Chris. And yeah, you just answered the last question of where the Chasing Poker Greatness listener can find you on the world wide web. It’s been great having you. Really enjoyed this conversation. Have a great rest of your day, and yeah. We’ll catch up in a couple years. See what’s going on.

Chris (02:00:00): I hope sooner than that. But yeah, man, things are gonna be really wild in a few years. I have no idea what we’ll be talking about, but I’m sure it will be very interesting. I’m completely honored by the opportunity. Thanks for the platform, thanks for doing what you do, for having a wonderful conversation, and yeah. Carry that inspiration through to the rest of your day.

Speaker (02:00:22): Thanks for listening to Chasing Poker Greatness. You can subscribe on Apple Podcasts, or on your favorite podcast app. Go to chasingpokergreatness.com to get the newsletter, join the Greatness Village community, book a coaching session, or dive into the latest data-driven poker courses. Follow this show on Twitter, @CPGPodcast.

Thanks for reading this transcript of Chasing Poker Greatness Podcast Episode 213: Chris Sparks

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