The Professor of poker

Updated: January 17, 2006, 2:04 PM ET
By BLUFF

With fierce intellect and Zen-like composure, Howard Lederer is one of the smartest (and nicest) guys in the game. But rather than take this opportunity to discuss the finer points of game theory and philosophy with the professor of poker, what do we go and ask him about? Gambling with cheeseburgers, Olivia Newton-John and semi-naked tricycling. Doh.

Bluff: Howard, what was it like growing up in a games-mad family?

Howard Lederer: Well, I wouldn't quite characterize it as such. But we certainly played a lot of games. We were a competitive family -- competitive at everything, from tennis to academics. But we didn't play much poker back then. Chess was the game I really worked hard at to win. My father taught me to play when I was 7, but he would never let me win. I picked up the game again when I was about 16 and started taking it very seriously. I played my father and I lost the first 30 games, but won Game 31. He wasn't happy, but we played a rematch. In Game 32 I trounced him, and from that day he refused to play me again.

Bluff: And then you went to New York to pursue your chess ambitions …

Lederer: After I graduated high school I took a year off to pursue chess, but I found a poker game in the backroom of the chess club -- it was love at first sight.

Bluff: You were leading a kind of twilight existence in those days: Sleeping in the club, collecting glasses for change, losing it at poker. Would it be fair to say you were a little lost?

Lederer: Yes, certainly. But I was young with no responsibilities. I'd left home and didn't really want to go back, because I had issues there. I just wanted to play chess and play poker, so I wasn't hurting anyone but myself. I wasn't a very good poker player at all then; I just loved the game. I was channeling a lot of energy into it, but I wasn't necessarily doing it in a very smart way. After about two years, I kinda figured it out, and started building toward something better. It was about finding a little personal maturity and a lot of poker maturity.

Bluff: Then you discovered the legendary Mayfair Club …

Lederer: I was awfully fortunate to stumble into that place just as poker was taking off there. It was basically a bridge and backgammon club originally, with the occasional game of gin or Scrabble thrown in. But by the time I arrived on the scene, they'd just started playing poker. This was when my poker education really started to accelerate. For the first time, I was exposed to truly thoughtful world-class games players; not poker players -- not yet, anyway -- but world champion bridge and backgammon players; people who would really attack the game mentally. And out of that group came Erik Seidel, Mickey Appleman, Dan Harrington, Jay Heimowitz, Steve Zolotow and myself. It was no accident. Those guys have made amazing accomplishments in other games: Erik Seidel has won numerous backgammon titles, Steve Zolotow is a world-class bridge player, and they've gone on to great poker success. And it's because we were playing together and sharing our ideas. It was just like a poker laboratory. We'd play all day, and when the playing was done, then the discussion would start.

Bluff: You used to be a professional sports bettor. Any picks for the Super Bowl?

Lederer: I pursued that with vigor for a few years until I started playing poker exclusively. Tips? No, I'm a retired sports bettor. I make my one Super Bowl bet a year these days like everyone else. Although the one tip I would give is that sports betting is a full-time job. And if you don't make it a full-time job, you won't succeed.

Bluff: Didn't the FBI burst through your door one morning?

Lederer: [Laughs] It wasn't the FBI, it was the Nevada Gaming Commission! They have a hard time telling the difference between sports betting and bookmaking. They operate under the assumption that if you're doing something professionally, and you're doing it for high volume and in a sophisticated manner, then you must be a bookmaker. I was never a bookmaker; I was the one placing the bets. They'd made a mistake and they eventually left me alone, but it still sent a message to me that maybe I should be doing something else. I was never the type to do things by halves, so I was either going to pursue totally or give it up completely.

Bluff: Tell us about the $10,000 cheeseburger bet.

Lederer: I'd been a vegetarian for about four years and I was playing in this big poker game, when David Grey offered me $10,000 to eat a cheeseburger. I said, "Well, David, I don't want to eat a cheeseburger, but I'll do it for 10 grand." I gave him a lot of chances to get out of the bet, but he was adamant. I ordered it (of course, with a lot of lettuce and tomato) and ate it. He paid up, but what really made him upset, I think, was that it didn't make me sick. For the sake of fairness, I offered him the chance to win his money back if he ate two olives, because I know he hates them. He didn't take me up on it and the offer still stands. But he says he's always got that: If he ever really needs money he can just eat a couple of olives.

Bluff: You famously taught your sister, Annie Duke, how to play …

Lederer: That was an interesting experience and I think it helped me as a poker player. She found herself, shortly after her marriage, living in Montana with no job and really struggling financially. She'd been to the World Series a couple of times when she was a student, just to kind of watch, but she played a little poker too, and made some poker player friends. I'm not even sure that she'd even won, but she showed some promise. She had stumbled upon some poker game in Billings, Mont., and called me one day and said, "There's this poker game -- maybe that's a way for me to make some money. Maybe I should take this seriously."

So I started her off with a bankroll. Annie would go down there each day and play, and then she would call me and ask me questions. What I noticed over the first three months was that her questions became increasingly difficult to answer, and that was a good sign. Finally, it got to the point where the questions pretty much stopped all together, and I knew she was on her way.

Bluff: You say you like to approach poker from a philosophical standpoint. Could you elaborate a little on that?

Lederer: Well, of course you need the technical skills to succeed at poker, but I do think people undervalue the way you think at the table -- particularly when you try to win a poker tournament. There's a particular Zen concept that's useful -- this idea of being "in the moment." When you're truly in an enlightened state, there is no past; there is no future, and the more you can live in that moment in a poker tournament, the better off you are. There are going to be times in a poker tournament when you took a tough beat and you're thinking about it, or maybe you're just thinking about some mistakes you made earlier. Probably even more dangerous than thinking about the past is thinking about the future. Say you're down to eight- or nine-handed play and you think, "Wow, if I win this hand, then I might double up my chips and that could put me in a good position to win this tournament. The first prize is a million dollars and then I'll get all this recognition and be on TV." If you start thinking like that, all of a sudden this hand, which is just like any other hand of poker, takes on such importance that you can't play it correctly. The more you take things one hand at a time, the better off you are.

Bluff: You talk about your Zen and you seem like a very calm and level-headed person. Do you ever get rattled when you play?

Lederer: I don't think anything really gets on my nerves, except for my own issues -- if I'm under stress, or there's something that's getting me unbalanced that day, then some things can get to me, and it could be any number of things. But I feel like if I'm in a good place mentally, nothing can get to me.

Bluff: Who gave you the nickname "The Professor"?

Lederer: It was actually Jesse May -- out of nowhere. I was fortunate enough to work with him as a guest announcer on the first-ever live broadcast of poker that used the hole-card cam. That was the Poker Million on the Isle of Man. He introduced me as "The Professor of Poker" and I was, like, "Huh?" I think Mike Sexton must have seen it because he used it when I had my early WPT successes, and it stuck.

Bluff: When you saw that tournament, did you have any inkling that you were witnessing the birth of the TV poker boom?

Lederer: I had an absolute epiphany. I knew that poker on TV with hole-card cameras would be huge. It was like a vision. But I was a poker player; I wasn't going to make it happen. That was my mentality in those days -- I wasn't very entrepreneurial. I went back to the States and I told everyone that I'd seen this amazing thing, but it wasn't happening … and it didn't happen for two more years in the U.S. That's why I jumped on the tournament bandwagon when the WPT started. I had been a cash game player, but I made a big commitment to the tournaments because I knew they were going to be huge. As a gambler, you're always looking for an up side. I knew I was going to play tournaments, not just for the prize money, but also for the opportunities that might come my way if I was fortunate enough to win. I got very lucky that first season, there's no denying that, but I did make the sacrifice. Back then it was a pretty radical move for a cash game player to devote himself solely to tournaments.

Bluff: What's the greatest bluff you've ever made in life?

Lederer: The greatest bluff I ever made in life was convincing my wife to marry me.

Bluff: Aww! What has been your greatest achievement in poker to date?

Lederer: I can't think in terms of "greatness." I think that's the Zen part of me. My favorite achievement was winning my first WSOP bracelet, because it was such a long time coming. The most valuable achievement was certainly winning my first WPT event. Greatest? I don't know. But the bracelet meant the most to me.

Bluff: What is the biggest mistake you see people make at the poker table?

Lederer: Oh, that's easy. Just playing too many hands. And because they play too many hands, they are tepid in playing them. And they're right to be tepid -- if you're playing a lot of hands, you've got a lot of junk, and you have to play junk carefully. Professional poker players wait for good hands, and when they have a good hand, they protect it, which means they play it aggressively.

Bluff: Do you think people watch Gus Hansen on the TV and think they can do it too?

Lederer: Yes, I would say so. But what they don't understand is that they're seeing highlights, and you know what? Gus Hansen actually plays tighter than the vast majority of amateurs. It's that kind of limp-a-lot-and-see-what-happens mentality -- that's the amateur mentality.

Bluff: We asked Annie to dish the dirt, and she told us to ask you about the time, back in New Hampshire when you were little, when you would fall asleep with the window open in the middle of winter and wake up each morning covered in snow.

Lederer: Well, that's certainly an exaggeration. … But there were a couple of times … I run hot, so I would sleep, even in winter, with the window open. And the snow would pick up. And sometimes my parents would come in to kiss me goodnight after I'd been asleep for a few hours, and find snow on me. But that story has taken on a life of its own.

Bluff: Dare we mention the shocking image of you riding a tricycle at the age of three wearing nothing but your mother's bra?

Lederer: [Laughs] That's entirely possible. I think there may even be a photo.

Bluff: OK. Last one from Annie. What was the first single you ever bought?

Lederer: [Pause] I think it was "Breaking Up is Hard to Do."

Bluff: Our source claims it was "Have You Ever Been Mellow" with "Sam" on the flip side.
Lederer: You know what? That's quite possible. I had them both. I had some very ugly musical tastes back then!

Bluff: Olivia Newton-John was an early influence on us too. Sorry, Howard, we'll stop asking embarrassing questions now. Tell us about World Championship Poker II instead.

Lederer: OK. One of the things that got me excited about getting involved with this was that, first of all, they really wanted to go out there and get some of the best players in the world into the game. They've got Annie, Greg Raymer, Robert Williamson III, Paul Darden. … But I think the really fun feature is the Career Mode. When you start the game, you're living in your mother's basement, and as you win, you can accumulate enough money to move out, buy an apartment, get some nice furniture. … You can even buy a nice trophy case and, as you win tournaments, fill it with trophies. They also have a way for you to network with other people via the Internet. So you can host a tournament through your Xbox and when people come and play, they're actually playing at your place and can see all the cool stuff you've got. It's really fun and completely unique to this game.

The other thing that really attracted me was that it's a sequel. Video games aren't like movies -- the sequels are always better than the originals; they really figure it out on the second version. Crave Games were the first, and they're the only people coming out with a second version of a Playstation or Xbox game. So I had a lot of faith in them to deliver a quality game and to avoid all the pitfalls that I think the other games are going to have. And of course, you get to play me and you can bluff me all you want.

Bluff: What's the strangest thing you've ever seen at the poker table?

Lederer: Certainly one of the strangest things was Doyle Brunson betting a guy $5,000 that he could do five sit-ups. He won, of course. He just dropped down and gave us five. Some of the side-bets we have at the poker table are great fun. I remember arguing with Mike Matusow about which film won the Oscar in 1994. He thought it was "The Shawshank Redemption" and I felt like I knew for certain that it was "Forrest Gump." Doyle was at the table and said, "Yeah. I had the same argument. I lost money betting on 'The Shawshank Redemption.'" Now, here's a gambler saying he already lost money on this bet, but Mike insisted that he was right and he put down 5K. As soon he put up his money, I called Erik Seidel, who was sitting in front of his computer. He looked it up on an Internet database and, literally 10 seconds later, he had the answer: "Forrest Gump." Mike handed over his 5K. That kind of thing can only happen at the poker table. That's what I really find strange about poker.

Bluff: How do you relax outside of poker?

Lederer: I like going to movies, I surf the Internet …

Bluff: What's the best movie you've seen this year?

Lederer: I'd say "Layer Cake." That was a wonderful movie. I also recently saw Philip Seymour Hoffman in "Capote." It's a biopic of the writer Truman Capote, and it's absolutely amazing.

Bluff: Can you give our readers a quick tip to improve their game?

Lederer: You don't get better at poker by just thinking about the hands you play. If you're playing decent poker, you should be folding most of the time anyway, and after you've folded, you need to stay engaged with the game. If you stay focused, you will learn so much, not just about the game you're currently playing, but about poker in general. So watch every single hand. You won't get bored and you'll get better at reading people. Always try to figure out who's strong and who's weak, and when the cards are turned over you'll get to verify or disprove your assumption.

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