A poker tournament player reviews a good experience at Camp Hellmuth, where he learned unpublished information about poker tells, interesting gossip on Greg Raymer's play, Scott Fishman's theory on how to beat sit'n'gos, learned Phil Hellmuth likes to talk (a lot) and found Michael Mizrachi (The Grinder) to be the pro of choice in actual live poker tournament decisions.
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Poker Tournament Camp

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Weekend at Camp Hellmuth

By Happy Camper
(From Blackjack Forum , Fall 2006)
© Blackjack Forum 2006

Arrive at Camp Hellmuth—Friday, August 11, 2006

I arrived in Las Vegas at approximately 5:00 p.m. After checking in at Caesar’s Palace, I prepared to meet Phil Hellmuth and the other camp pros. At 7:30 p.m., I attended the welcome reception at the hotel’s Pure Nightclub.

The place was packed and over the next half hour the pros started to arrive: Phil Hellmuth, Antonio Esfandiari, Evelyn Ng (all six feet of her), Scott Fishman, Mark Seif (actually he showed up on Sunday), Michael Mizrachi (ranked #1 in the world this year), Shawn Rice, Mark Kroon (Poker Ho from Ultimate Bet), Gary Debernardi (Ultimate Bet), and Alex O. (Ultimate Bet – he kept hand statistics for the World Poker Tour for 3 years).

Introduced by Phil Hellmuth, everyone took their turn on stage. It didn’t take long to figure out that Phil would be doing most of the talking this weekend; he enjoys the spotlight. Drinks were on the house and it was a first rate affair. Being that I was one of the senior members of the camp, I went to bed early and prepared for the morning.

Day 2—Poker Tournament School Session #1: Joe Navarro

After juice and coffee, the first seminar class started at 9:00 a.m. The presenter was Joe Navarro, M.A. Although he is not a poker player, his session turned out to be the most compelling. Mr. Navarro worked 25 years as an FBI agent and supervisor in the areas of counter-intelligence and counter-terrorism. He now teaches behavioral analysis and nonverbal communications at various universities. He is also a consultant for the State Department and Department of Defense. So what was he doing here? He can spot quirks in your behavior from across the room.

Mr. Navarro talked about the Limbic System, which is a portion of the brain that causes us to exhibit real behavior that we cannot hide. All players have “tells” that are automatic. They may last only a split second, but they can’t stop them. Our job as players is to spot these, and it can be done with practice.

There are 3 survival reactions that are necessary to play poker -- the three F’s:

  1. Freeze – over control – a threat, probably a strong hand
  2. Flight - leaning away from the table after a bad flop
  3. Fight - aggressive play, watch carefully

Interestingly, Mr. Navarro said that the most reliable body tells come from the feet, legs and torso. If you guessed the face, wrong, as it is the least reliable body part when it comes to tells. Signs of strength at the table include torso leaning forward, more of arm on table, hands in ready position, and flaring of the nostril wings (yes, the old nose tell). High confidence is shown by fingers laced behind the head, steepling of the fingers, thumb displays, and nose held high. Unless you have a strong hand, fold at these indicators.

Pacifying behaviors include touching the hand to any part of the body, forehead rubbing, neck touching, arm stroking, and hand wringing. Other pacifying behaviors are foot jiggling, lip licking, whistling, exhaling with puffed cheeks and playing with hair (usually women). These are signs of distress and you can raise, raise, raise. If you play with a smoker, look to see if he/she is blowing smoke up (strong hand), or down (weak hand).

Other significant tells include false smiles, half smiles, friendliness, and suppression of normal breathing. These are bluffing behaviors. Showboating by splaying out chips in an unusual manner, intimidating with the eyes, and overemphasis on a bet are also signs of bluffing.

Strong cards are equated with shaking of the hands when betting, nose flair, and gazing from cards to chips. Amateurs may prematurely reach for chips when strong (I saw this on a number of occasions in the Caesar’s card room). Other signs of strength are betting quickly after looking at cards, nonchalance, and trying to strongly convince you of something (rather than trying to inconspicuously convey).

Joe’s final advice at the table is to:

  1. Collect intelligence on each player;
  2. Note behaviors;
  3. Note each person’s arm placement;
  4. Note how quickly they reach for chips; and
  5. Concentrate on your own behaviors

On both days 1 and 2, afternoon tournaments were held for campers. Joe was amazingly accurate at reading people as he ambled around the poker room. A final note of interest: Joe called Phil about 2 years ago after observing him on TV. He proceeded to tell him that every time Phil was bluffing, he hugged himself tightly. Even the best have tells.

This was a top rate presentation and a great way to kick off the camp. Also, look for a new book, co-authored by Phil and Joe. The title is, “Read ‘Em and Reap”.

Camp Hellmuth Session #2: Antonio “The Magician” Esfandiari

This presentation was interesting only because of my fascination with seeing and talking to professionals. The actual material is available in several poker books. Antonio talked about being the “Wolf”, not the “Sheep”. He implored us to be aggressive, aggressive, and aggressive. This type of play has helped him be successful in tournaments.

He talked about early, middle and late play in tournaments, but again nothing new. He briefly talked about position, but gave nothing substantive with regard to betting strategy. It was interesting how he talked about spreading misinformation about how you play in the early stages of a tournament (lull your opponents into thinking you are a donkey).

His most interesting story was about Gus Hansen. It seems Gus is one of the few people that puts Antonio on the defensive. He said Gus is annoying to play against because he is always betting and there is no way to tell what he has. Antonio also said Gus is a “freak”. He locks himself in a room when learning a new game, and emerges six months later as one of the best players in the world.

Antonio was laid back, but didn’t seem very interested in his presentation. All in all, it was fun to see and hear him, but I didn’t learn anything new.

Camp Hellmuth Session #3: Scott Fishman

I found Scott to be engaging; he conveyed his love and excitement for the game. His presentation was “How to Win Online Sit’N’Go’s”.

Scott has made a living playing 6-7 online sit’n’go’s at a time. He has a defined strategy. He calls these tournaments a great training tool: they provide instant access, they are fast, fit every price tag, require you to learn to change gears, and they afford great experience for final table play (although here, everyone starts with the same amount of chips). It is relatively easy money, as I have found out.

He speaks of the 3 stages at sit’n’go’s:

  1. Beginning Stage - You have plenty of chips to play any kind of poker you please. He advised tight play, as blinds are small and pots are small. Don’t lose the tournament here. Look for spots to safely double up (AA, KK or the nuts). Play only premium hands and open with 5 times the big blind so some oaf doesn’t call you and hit a miracle draw. Many players will call for 3x big blind, but usually not for 5x.

  2. Middle Stage - This is when a few players have been eliminated and others are down to 8x the big blind. Now lower your opening raise to 2.5x the big blind. This reduces the hit to your stack if you don’t like what you see. Look for spots to raise all-in pre-flop, and steal blinds. Open raise in late position against medium size stacks. If you have 8x big blind, you still have “fold equity”. At 4x big blind you are in “all-in” mode.

  3. Late Stage - Endgame starts on the bubble. Super aggressive/reckless play. Every decision, all-in or fold. Still factor in position and stack size. Once the bubble breaks, you can slow down a little bit. Better to push than call.

In conclusion, this strategy will result in a lot of 1sts and 4ths. Opponents will figure it out eventually, but a great way to build bankrolls. This is the best way to build confidence and experience for larger tournaments and final tables.

Camp Hellmuth Poker Tournament #1

After the 3rd session, we were given $40 lunch cards, good anywhere inside Caesar’s Palace (a nice touch). The afternoon session was a tournament from 2:45 p.m. to 9:00 p.m. All campers participated in a no-limit hold’em tournament with a first prize of $8,000. A portion of your camp entry fee paid for entry into this tournament.

It was great fun playing with all the pros. I sat next to Scott Fishman, Evelyn Ng and Shawn Rice. Unfortunately, I only lasted through the first two and one-half hours of the tournament. However, it was an experience I will always remember and cherish. The pros discussed how they played hands (after completion) and discussed their thought process about each play.

The tournament was played down to 9 players, including pros, and the final table was played at the Sunday evening, farewell banquet. Two of the final table participants were Phil Hellmuth and Michael Mizrachi (they were not eligible for prize money). This ended day 2.

Day 3 Poker Tournament School Session #1: Mark “The Shark” Seif

The first session of the day was presented by Mark Seif. Mark is a successful tournament player with 2 WSOP bracelets. He worked as a prosecutor for the DA’s office in Los Angeles. Mark is articulate and a joy to listen to. His presentation “Winning No Limit Hold’em Tournaments,”had, by far, the most substantive information,

Mark started his presentation with the basics: pay attention; play one table at a time:; change gears as necessary; have patience; play to win the tournament. Just as Arnold Snyder wrote in, “The Poker Tournament Formula,” Mark stressed position, position, position. In early rounds, keep the pots small and have a purpose for every bet. Force your opponents to make the tough decisions.

The discussion about sizing bets was succinct; opening bets (3-4x blinds), probe bets, continuation bets, preventative bets, and controlling pot odds. Nothing startlingly new, but explained concisely and clearly.

The next issue was identifying opponent’s style of play. First was a discussion about identifying “Calling Stations”. Interesting to me, Mark mentioned that Greg Raymer is a “Calling Station”. I didn’t know that. He talked about trapping all-in players and being wary of players who limp under the gun. A key issue that I have not exploited in my play is identifying players’ pressure points. When playing small ball (and wanting your opponent to fold), it is key to find the threshold of bet that your opponent will call, and then bet slightly more than that. This is an element that can be critical to survival in a tournament when your cards hit a dry spell.

Many questions were asked during this presentation and time quickly ran short. In the short time remaining, he reviewed how to exploit a player on tilt. Your play depends upon the player’s behavior while on tilt; whether overly passive, overly tight, or overly aggressive. He briefly discussed being in the “The Zone” and to beware of player’s playing at that level.

His final thoughts were:

  1. Assess your opponent’s skill level and experience;
  2. Pick the players you can outplay;
  3. Watch your opponents look at their cards;
  4. Watch how they bet;
  5. Watch how they react to you; and
  6. Identify betting patterns

This was a solid presentation and will definitely help me to reach the final table and win tournaments. Mark is bright, articulate and friendly. A wonderful experience enjoyed by all in the room.

Camp Hellmuth Session #2: Michael “The Grinder” Mizrachi

Michael Mizrachi was the Poker Pages, Player of the Year in 2005, and he leads the WSOP in points for player of the year in 2006. “The Grinder” exhibits a great presence, and I was impressed with his maturity and poise.

His presentation was similar to Mark Seifs’, with a few different twists ands stories. For the sake of some brevity, I shall not go into detail. More was to be heard from Michael in the day #2 tournament.

Camp Hellmuth Session #3: The Whole Crew

The afternoon session was an interactive lesson taught while playing a simulated tournament. Each pro sat in on the tables and discussed every hand that was played. Cards were not mucked, but placed on the rail.

At the completion of each hand, 4 or 5 player’s showed how they played the hand (whether playing or folding). The pros would then dissect what occurred and gave recommendations when mistakes were made. During this session, I sat with Gary DeBernardi, Shawn Rice, Krazy Kanuck, and Scott Fishman. It was very helpful to hear how each pro analyzed each hand. Their actions are dictated by all the table factors; player style, stack size, blind/ante size, and position. This was the most valuable session for me as I literally got in the head of these successful professionals.

Camp Hellmuth Poker Tournament #2

This tournament was a freeze out. There were 18 tables and the final 2 standing at each table would then participate in a 2 ½ hour final. At the conclusion of the final session, the player with the most chips would be declared the winner. The first prize was a $12,000 package to Aruba (including 8 nights stay in a hotel and entry into the $5,000 Aruba Tournament). Needless to say, everyone was trying to play their “A” game and win the trip. Places 2-10 were rewarded with various prizes.

The interesting twist to this tournament was each player had a chip that could be used to summon a pro of his choice, to help with a decision on a particular hand. This chip could only be used once. As the tournament wore on, “The Grinder” became the pro of choice to help with difficult decisions.

In his first twelve recommendations, all of them were the right decision (hands were turned over and cards dealt out to conclusion). He also showed a remarkable ability to accurately name the cards the opponents were holding. It was a most impressive display of card reading, and remember, he was not sitting at most of the tables in which he was called upon to help.

Interestingly enough, his first miss came in hand 13. With 3 players left at my table, he told a player to lay down his hand when I made a bluff on the turn. I had nothing and my opponent had a pair of 10’s. That hand propelled me to finish in the top 2 at my table, and go on to the finals. At the conclusion of this round, I took a break in the hallway and I saw my opponent in that hand muttering angrily to himself (something about trusting his own instincts).

In the finals, I felt pressure to get a good start and build the biggest stack. I did not play well and was knocked out early in the proceedings. It was the most enjoyable experience of my life as a poker player, great fun. The winner, a young man in his late twenties was starry eyed as he accepted to winner’s gift during the evening banquet.

Camp Hellmuth Poker Tournament School Final Banquet

The awards ceremony and final table from the day #1 tournament were the culminating events of the weekend. The food was buffet style, and quite good. Unlimited drinks and a variety of desserts capped off a wonderful time. Truth be told, I did not stay for the conclusion of the final table as I wanted to enter the late evening tournament at Caesar’s. I did not fare well in the tournament, but nearly half of the final table was campers.

In all, this was a first rate affair. Two young gentlemen from Canada orchestrated the entire weekend and I spotted no major glitches. I found the pros to be gracious and accessible. It definitely was worth the $2,000 tuition.

P.S. Phil Hellmuth really likes to talk—a lot.  ♠

For more information on winning poker tournament strategy, see The Poker Tournament Formula 1 for fast tournaments, or The Poker Tournament Formula II: Advanced Strategies for tournaments with long, slow blind structures.

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