Lee Davy talks to Alex ‘Assassinato’ Fitzgerald about his upcoming book The Myth of Poker Talent: Why Anyone Can be a Great Player due to be released by D&B Publishing in the coming weeks.
What follows is an abridged version of the audio that you can stream or download above this copy.
For many years I didn’t believe it affected me. To do so would have weakened my masculinity. And then a man called Neil waltzed into my life, and all that changed.
It’s 2010. I don’t remember the date, but I know that my Managing Director, Neil, is visiting my region the following morning. I can’t sleep. I am irritable with my loved ones. I feel sick. Failure dominates my thoughts. I feel like a child. Nothing will be good enough. Something will go wrong. The inauthenticity creeps me out. The fake feel of our transaction bothers me intensely.
I don’t like him.
He doesn’t like me.
For the first time in 19-years, I realise that I need to find a different job. I need to run as far away from Neil as I can.
So I quit.
I have still never felt as light as I did that day. I could have floated to the moon had I not had to find my way back.
I decided to become a professional poker player.
It didn’t work out.
Six years later, I look at the poker industry, and I can see where I went wrong. There wasn’t a framework for a working class man to become a professional poker player. There was a hole in the market because working class men didn’t become professional poker players.
And then along came Alex Fitzgerald.
The Birth of Assassinato
“When I was 15-years old I started playing poker in the halls of my school. At that time my family was on food stamps. We were working class. My father was a fisherman; my stepfather is a steel worker. I moved out when I was in High School. I was in a garage with no heating, and no plumbing and that’s where my poker journey began.” Said Alex ‘Assassinato’ Fitzgerald.
“Over the last 10-years I have final tabled FTOPS; I have won SCOOP and WCOOP events. I have final tabled EPT’s a PCA $5k and the Sunday Million a few times. I have lived for a year in South Korea, a year in Malta, and seven years in Costa Rica. Life is good, and now I coach a lot of poker players, and it’s all fun.”
Fitzgerald’s entry into poker is an unusual one. The typical tale goes something like, “I started playing poker in college, I won a freeroll playing online, and then started printing money, until I had no choice but to drop out of school and play poker professionally.”
“More power to them. It always bugged me there weren’t more working class people who got into poker. It’s a time thing. Before I got into poker, I had a lot of jobs. I was a commercial fisherman, worked in Arby’s; I was a landscaper, and then finally I was a security guard. I am glad I got to do those jobs. It’s not a poker player’s fault but what life perspective do you get when your parents pay for you to get into college and you start making a load of money playing poker and life’s amazing?”
The Myth of Poker Talent: Why Anyone Can be a Great Player
Fitzgerald has done well for himself. He is now one of the most sought out coaches in the game, a top class player, and now the author of his upcoming book the title of which you can see dangling above this paragraph.
I have brought him onto the podcast to talk about his book, and we decided to use my failed attempt at becoming a professional poker player to give some insights into the theories contained within his book.
The first question I ask him is about laziness.
Many professional poker players tell me they are lazy; I want to know how a lazy person can become a pro poker player?
“You can’t be lazy anymore. A lot of these guys are brilliant people: cool, calm and collected when they play cards. They make decent money, and they’ve never had a time when it ran out so they never had that fear.
“If you grew up in poverty you have the opposite which is important. I can’t sit still if my life depended on it. It’s hard for me to relax. I don’t watch TV because it’s empty calories. I always have to be doing something. With a lot of these guys, there isn’t this sense of urgency because they want to do nothing but play poker.
“A lot of these kids were drop-outs from school and traditional work. The kids I know who have come into poker lately and done well are Estonians working med school hours. They work 90-100 hours per week. We have to remember that a lot of the guys you interview, who will tell you they are lazy, are the creme de la creme; the top .01%. Of the industry.
“I wrote this book for the working class poker player. The typical guy. I was the guy who in my first three years didn’t make a profit. In the fourth year, I made enough to live in this hole of an apartment, and this allowed me to play professionally. In the fifth year, I made more money.
“That’s the standard poker life. Since I was 18, I have worked 60 hours per week and 10-years on nothing has changed and that’s what you need to get into the game today.”
One of my failures as a professional poker player was a lack of correct metrics. I would measure success on the amount of money I won or lost, even though I knew this was incorrect. I ask Fitzgerald about the importance of metrics.
“I started playing poker at 15 and by the age of 21 I got a little ahead of the game and had a year where I couldn’t lose. I had more money than brain cells, and I never asked myself how I was performing? Had I done that I would have seen hands where I got frustrated and just moved all-in pre-flop and got lucky. The next year it bit me in the ass. I went down quite a bit and had to build my game from scratch.
“Most poker players look at the wrong person as a mentor. If we watch Michael Jordan, we don’t believe we can play like that. But when it comes to poker we look at Phil Ivey and believe we can be just like him. Ivey can be lazy because he is Phil Ivey. Daniel Negreanu knows when he needs to pick things up a little bit, and when to dial things down. That may give you the impression that he is sometimes lazy, but he knows what he is doing.
“You and I can’t imitate him because we are not that good. We have to work hard and put in the effort. It’s why I work with peak performance coaches. I cashed in the Main Event this year, and I was proud of it because I didn’t get many chips. I was keeping metrics the entire tournament. I was writing in my Evernote files that I was having a bit of a crash; couldn’t trust my instincts and that I needed to move down to my B game. People aren’t like that. They want to be bad asses all of the time.”
I move on to my initial goal which was to win $45,000 through poker in a year. I chose that timeframe because I had a year’s salary from my previous employer. I had a backup plan for employment if the poker didn’t work out, but I didn’t want to go back to into the box after feeling the lightness of quitting. I have always felt one year is not enough time to evaluate your ability as a poker player. It took Fitzgerald five years to make any decent money. I asked him if that was one of my major mistakes?
“You did put pressure on yourself, but I burned the ships when I was 18 years old. I had a cushy security job, and giving that up was not what anyone thought I should have done, but I did it because I wanted to force myself to learn poker. I also had a backup plan where I had six months expenses in a separate account.
“I don’t think you made a mistake. Let’s say you were trying to learn to become fluent in Italian. You move to Italy. You don’t have friends who speak English. You force yourself to learn the language and take language lessons and at the end of the year you don’t make it. You don’t lose all that experience. You will still have acquired a lot of skill in the language and will be able to talk better than most non-Italians. That would have taken you so much longer had you tried to learn while maintaining a job.
“I would argue that the average salary in poker is $30-$35k so $45k is a little high. I try to switch people to currency zones where if they do win $20k per year it’s a small fortune. It’s tough to get someone to $45k, but I like that you chose a stretch goal. I hear people say I need to make $100k per year, and I laugh. You are going to make $20 per hour playing cash games. The real money is making $30k in Thailand or Costa Rica.”
I was also scared.
There wasn’t a session I didn’t play in where I wasn’t worrying about the money I was losing.
I ask Fitzgerald about playing with scared money.
“You have to set it up so that if you lose it’s not a big deal. What helps people is meditation and talk therapy. If you talk out your fears with someone, and I don’t think it should be your wife otherwise she would worry, it helps. It’s why I hire a therapist. You also have to diversify. I do a lot of coaching because there was a time for 5-6 years I lived off my poker salary, and it was stressful. I was looking after my disabled mother, and I didn’t want to get to the point where I was saying, “Mum, I can’t buy your vegetables today because I have no money,” so the swings were getting to me and I decided to start coaching.”
And so we arrive at the missing link.
The missing framework for the working class man.
When I came into this business, there were no online training sites teaching you the fundamentals of poker. I remember quite clearly telling myself that I would find the best poker player in the world and learn from him or her. I did my research and came up with Phil Galfond at Bluefire Poker.
And he ruined my poker career.
I watched him beating the highest stakes in the game and then went to my $1/$1 game and tried to deploy my arsenal without ever learning the fundamentals.
It was a disaster that I am still reeling from today.
“One of the reasons I wrote this book is I felt bad about what goes out there. Most training videos don’t teach you how to play correctly in my opinion. When a guy gets a deal to do training videos he gets paid per video, and he or she just wants to show you how good they are, and that’s usually really flowery concept plays. The basketball game you watch isn’t decided by the chocolate thunder dunk. The game is won by passing. The concepts that are boring and nobody wants to focus on wins you the game.
“If you watch the 2014 Olympics Argentina stomps the USA’s ass because they knew how to pass and not turn over the ball. A lot of it is basics. If you know how to think like a poker player the sky is the limit. It’s not that hard, but nobody teaches it.
“Let’s say there is a guy is in a tough situation. He thinks the guy is not going to fold to his bet but concedes the pot if he checks. I try to open up their mind and say, “You bet 1.5 times the pot how often does that need to work?” And they say, “What? I don’t know that?” Nobody knows the number off the top of their head. It needs to work 60% of the time. Then I ask how often does this guy has to call you more than that to make sure you can’t do this with any two cards? The thing is the guy has to be doing something with 40% of his hands. If you believe he is not doing this; if you think he folds the second pair to a 1.5x bet, you have, in a vacuum, and I am not saying do this all of the time, a profitable play.
“If you are playing poker you need to know the bets you are laying people, the likelihood of them getting through those bets, and essentially you know how the field will react and the odds you are laying them. I don’t know a lot about poker, but I know a lot of players know a lot less about what bets I am laying them. I think like a poker player.
“The first chapter of my book is titled What Poker Is. People don’t know what it is. If you learn to think like a pro poker player, a lot of this stuff gets easier. It is still going to take a ton of work, but if you think like a poker player you will get there.”
And that encapsulated my problem perfectly.
It’s the reason I never made it.
I never thought like a poker player.
The Myth of Poker Talent: Why Anyone Can be a Great Player by Alex “Assassinato” Fitzgerald will be published in the coming weeks so keep an eye out on Amazon or D&B Publishing.
If you would like to learn more about Alex Fitzgerald and are interested in taking some coaching lessons, then he hides out here.