Alan Goehring plays an aggressive style of poker that has paid off in spades. Last year, the 41-year-old Wisconsin native won the World Poker Tour (WPT) Championship--the Super Bowl of poker--and its $1,011,886 pot. He got there by leaving the financial world of New York to slum on the beaches of California, where he learned the art of Texas Hold'em. As he prepared to defend his title at this month's WPT finals, Goehring took some time out to help us with our own game.
Follow your joy
When I was 25, I was working in New York City as a bond trader. I thought, "These are the best years of my life," so I moved to Southern California to become a beach bum, although I still worked for my old company, Paine Webber. That's where I learned to play Texas Hold'em.1 (See "Poker Lingo.")
Learn by doing
I learned to play by trial and error and by reading a few poker books. But most of my training came when I moved back to New York after three years in California. There are a lot of gambling junkies on Wall Street, and I introduced them to the game of Texas Hold'em.
We started playing poker every day after work--even a few times on the trading floor--though that quickly came to an end after a partners' meeting. Wall Street guys are very aggressive and very loose. We played six-handed,2 and we played three times faster than at a casino because of player speed and quick shuffling. That helped develop my style.
Don't be a follower
In 1999 I did very well in a No-Limit Hold'em3 poker tournament, where I won approximately $770,000. Later, I tried to emulate the top players, who were basically more conservative, and I kept losing tournaments. Finally, I knocked on my head and said, "Wait a second, how did I win the $770,000?" So I wrote down what I did originally, went back to my natural style, and started doing better. Now my philosophy is to ignore what everyone else does. Play your own game.
I don't take poker as seriously as a lot of other players. I think to be a great player, you have to play loose--that is, play more hands than the average player would based on the two starting cards.4 I want to have as much fun as I can, and I don't want to lose.
There are no easy answers
Poker is not like science or physics, where there's a definitive answer.
You can have two expert players look at the same hand and disagree on what the correct play is. To get to the poker championship, I won hands that 80% of experts would never play. There's no oracle from God that says, "This is the only way to play Texas Hold'em."
Use visual aids
I had laser eye surgery before one tournament, so I wore these huge, intimidating sunglasses to protect my eyes. At that point, nobody knew who I was--they might have thought I looked like a professional player. Now I call them my lucky glasses, because I wore them when I won the $770,000 and at last year's finals. When you're excited, your pupils dilate, so sunglasses are like chicken soup--they can't hurt. I also think they give me more confidence.
Keep them guessing
At one tournament, this rookie player and I had a fair amount of chips in the pot. He was looking really nervous, so I kept betting aggressively with pocket eights. Turns out he had a pair of pocket kings, and I lost. After that, I decided tells5 are overrated. Every poker player becomes an actor. Smart players with weak hands may try to look strong, but smarter players know this. So when they have a weak hand, they try and look like they have a really, really weak hand-- like reverse-reverse psychology. I just try to keep everyone off-balance.
It's how you play the game
I used to complain about my starting hands, but now I know it's about how well you play. In last year's championship round, I had pocket aces6 just once, and won only a small pot. The two times I had pocket kings--the second-best starting hand--I lost. It's how you play the cards you're dealt.
Don't play not to lose
To win in No-Limit Hold'em, you have to have guts. Once I was playing against poker legend Doyle Brunson, and I had pocket jacks. He went all in7 with $500,000. Now 80% of the top players would say you should fold your hand; the other 20%, including me, would say, "People are playing very loose right now." So I went in with 20% of what I had on the table --$500,000--and wound up winning a monster pot.
(I started the day with a huge chip lead anyway, so I wasn't in danger of being knocked out.) A lot of players don't want to lose all their chips, so they play conservatively and lose. It's the single biggest mistake they make. I play poker a little bit like I drive: I can go from Las Vegas to Los Angeles and not one car will pass me.