Matt Lessinger

Matt Lessinger is a professional poker player and writer for both Card Player magazine and Online Poker News. Warner Books recently published his first poker book, The Book of Bluffs, which was the primary focus of this interview. Matt can also be found as one of the resident experts at online poker room, Royal Vegas Poker.

Poker Source: How was your poker career born?

Matt Lessinger: It was actually down South. It was down in Florida, which is where my mother lives. I used to visit her and they have the Seminole casinos there, and I don’t know if it’s still this way, but when I was down there when I was 18, the maximum pots were $10 each. So you’re playing 25 cent/50 cent poker, pots can’t get bigger than $10, and that’s where I got my start playing seven card stud.

Then I went to college (Haverford College, outside of Philadelphia), which is not too far from Atlantic City. So, I started making some trips out there and that’s how I got into it.

PS: What was the lowest point and highest point in your poker career?

Matt Lessinger: The highest point would probably be winning the pot-limit hold’em championship at the Carnival of Poker at Harrah’s in 2000. It’s still the biggest tournament I’ve ever won and that’s how I got started writing for Poker Digest. They wanted to interview me after that tournament and when they interviewed me, I asked them, “Hey, do you need any columnists?” That’s how I got started writing. So, not only was it a good win financially, but it got my poker writing career started, as well.

Low point…that’s tough, I’ve been pretty lucky. Probably, my low point wouldn’t have been in my poker career necessarily, but I gambled on other stuff. When I made those trips to Atlantic City, it wasn’t all poker right away. It took me a lot of time to realize that…what’s the word…in the back of my mind I knew that craps and blackjack and those types of games weren’t beatable, but I still played them and I had some lean financial times right out of college.

PS: I read that you liked the ponies, too.

Matt Lessinger: I did. I grew up near Yonkers Raceway. But for some reason, any money I bet at Yonkers Raceway was pretty easily replaceable. I would bet like $30 in a day – that was a lot of money for me in high school. Then I’d go work for a day and I’d get $30 back. Once I graduated from college, I didn’t have a job right away and I was still gambling and you know…like you said with the ponies and all the other stuff. That was probably my low point, when it was like, “Wow, I’d better go get a job quickly and I’d better stop gambling.”

And then, thankfully, I found poker, and that helped me stop gambling at other things.

PS: How did you get into writing? You had specifically asked when you had that interview if they had any openings for any columnists. So, was writing something that you were looking to do; did you get into it by accident or design?

Matt Lessinger: It was mostly by accident. I had only done a little bit of writing in college, for the college newspaper, but it was never a plan to become a writer.

PS: What were you looking at doing before you got into all this?

Matt Lessinger: Well, I worked on Wall Street for two months as an associate portfolio manager. I hated it. I didn’t fit in, anyway. They let me go, but it was the best thing that ever happened because if they had kept me on, I would’ve stayed there because you’re not supposed to quit a job like that. I’m so glad that happened – I’d be miserable right now.

PS: What was your driving motivation for writing The Book of Bluffs?

Matt Lessinger: I love bluffing in general and I just could not believe that there was not a book addressed towards this, especially because there are a zillion poker books out there. And half of them are exactly the same. It’s just “How to Play Hold’em,” “Strategies in Hold’em,” and it’s just like, ok fine, maybe two authors have a slightly different approach, but if you’re going to read through an entire new book just to get a slight difference between one author and another author…

I like this idea of being able to create something completely unique. Right now, I feel like, as it stands in the poker world, there are only three books (poker instructional books) that are truly unique: Mike Caro’s Caro’s Book of Poker Tells, Alan Schoonmaker’s The Psychology of Poker, and now mine. Those are my two favorite books, Mike Caro’s and Alan Schoonmaker’s. No matter whatever books people have in their poker libraries, they have to have those. I hope that someday someone will say, hey, you have to have The Book of Bluffs also because it’s the only book that talks about bluffing.

PS: The Book of Bluffs is obviously a very specific, niche read, while most poker books are more general in scope. Do you see your book potentially opening the door for players to write about other narrow topics?

Matt Lessinger: I think it could, but then again, Caro’s Book of Poker Tells came out in 1984 and twenty years later, nobody followed up on that. Maybe they felt like they couldn’t add to what he had to say, which is possible. I mean, he really covered a lot of material.

For my part, I feel like to fully cover everything there is about bluffing, you would need thousands and thousands of pages. So, I don’t pretend that everything there is to know about bluffing is in this book, because that would be impossible. But I feel like there is room for other people, if they were also to pursue this topic, or to pursue other, more specific topics in poker, as you said. I think there’s room for that and I think time will tell. We’ll see what happens.

PS: Many poker fans don’t understand why successful poker players would want to teach others their secrets by writing books. After all, lessons taught could come back to haunt you. Why are so many players writing books nowadays?

Matt Lessinger: I can’t necessarily speak for other people; I think only recently has it become a particularly profitable thing to do. For me, I’m making a decent amount of money off of it, more so than I know most people two years ago, or prior to that, would’ve made writing a poker book. And yet, it’s probably a little bit less than I would’ve made playing poker in the same amount of time. So what I’m getting at is that it’s probably worse than you’re suggesting. Not only are people giving out information, but they’re using all this time to write a book that they could be using to play poker and probably make even more money! So, it’s completely counterintuitive.

For my part, as a poker player, there’s a pretty strong feeling that I’m not contributing to society. I’m not saying a poker book contributes anything, but it’s more of a feeling…I mean, I have friends that are teachers and doctors, especially teachers more than anything else. I’m like wow, they are really contributing something. All I’m doing is gambling for living. It feels pretty…you know, it kind of gnaws at you…

PS: Kind of shallow?

Matt Lessinger: Yeah. I’m completely happy doing what I’m doing, so it’s not something I dwell on, but if there is a way that a poker player can give something back, this is one of the ways.

PS: You organized your book by types of bluffs, yet mixed in bluffs in different types of games, such as no-limit hold’em, fixed limit hold’em, stud, and Omaha. Why not organize them by game?

Matt Lessinger: Originally, I had tried to do it the way you described [by game]. When I first started writing it, I had separate stud bluffs, hold’em bluffs, and it just didn’t work as well. I’m very happy with the way I settled on the structure of book because, you know, if I had a hold’em bluff and an Omaha bluff that demonstrated the same principles, then it would’ve seemed very redundant to have one early in the book and then one later in the book. People would be like, “Didn’t I just read about that fifty pages ago?”

PS: What is your favorite type of poker writing to read?

Matt Lessinger: That’s a good one. I really shy away from strict poker theory. I just find it to be too dry. When people get my book, I feel bad, because I knew there had to be some theory in my book, and yet I know it’s very dry. So I tell people if you can get past the first two chapters, it picks up from there. The first two chapters are pretty dry – it’s all theory, and I know I don’t like reading that.

I’d rather read a book like Mike Caro’s that’s got all these examples. Or another good example is Jim Brier and Bob Ciaffone wrote a book called Middle Limit Holdem Poker that’s all sample hands, all examples. And that’s good because I think you learn by example. I don’t think there’s any substitute for playing experience, which is not very good for trying to sell books, but I think it’s the truth. I think playing is the best way to get better, but then the next best way is to be put in these sample hands and you feel like you’re there.

I think it’s just not the same as reading, well, you need to play tight from this position and loose and you should do this and do that…alright, but give me specifics, give me the situation where this is going to come up. That’s what I’m trying to do with the bluffs. The exact situation as I present it is not going to come up, but maybe something that is extremely similar that you will recognize from the book and you’ll say, oh, I remember that and this is probably a good time to run a bluff.

PS: What do you think is the most difficult aspect of bluffing?

Matt Lessinger: A couple things. As a novice player, I think the first thing is just getting over the hump. Being able to begin bluffing. I think that’s a hard transition, to go from never bluffing, to doing it for the first time. It comes easier for some people than others, but I know some people who have playing for months and months and just won’t do it. Why? I don’t know. Maybe they’re afraid of getting caught, they’re afraid of being embarrassed, they feel like they’re just not going to be able to control themselves well, you know, control their facial expressions, whatever. So I think that’s the most difficult part of it when you’re a novice player.

When you’re an experienced player, I think the most difficult part is determining the level of your competition, because based on that, you want to set the complexity of your bluffs. And you don’t always have a long time to figure it out. If it’s a completely novice player, ok, you generally have an idea…either he can easily bluffed, or he never folds. You can pinpoint him pretty easily. But then you get more subtle differences where you have two players who are both clearly strong, winning players, but one of them is more prone to laying hands down and the other one is better at sniffing out bluffs. Ok, then you have to pick and choose between the two, who you’re going to attack, who you’re going to lay off of. And you can’t just run a bluff indiscriminately. Probably the most important fact of it is who you are doing it against. So, being able to gather as much information as possible about a particular opponent and setting in your mind what will work against him, what won’t work against him.

PS: When you are playing, are you constantly thinking about bluffing, just looking to bluff, or is it more where you know you are going to need to do it to win at some point and the situation just arises? Then, because you are skilled at it, you recognize the opportunity and you take it.

Matt Lessinger: I think a little of both. I talk about in the book, kind of a game that I play with myself (wait…that sounded awful). A game that I play, where if I’m out of a hand, I’ll think to myself, “Could I have won this hand without going to showdown?” And I still do that, all the time. I’ve been doing that for a long time. I still think it’s [an] extremely valuable game. Out of all the things that I talk about in my book, I think that’s the one that will probably go under the radar, but it’s really been an incredible insight for me. If I fold the hand and I watch the hand progress, and I say to myself, “Ok, is this hand going to reach showdown?” If it doesn’t, then I think to myself that I probably could have won this hand without having to show anything. I could have won this hand with seven-deuce off-suit. And if it does go to showdown and the hands are not particularly strong, someone doesn’t have the nuts or whatever, I can think to myself if there was something I could have done if I was in the hand. I could have driven everybody out. And it gets you thinking about the different things you could do. Could I have bet? Could I have check-raised? Could I have check-called and then bet out on the turn? Just all the different betting patterns or raising patterns that you could have tried and would one have worked better than another in terms of forcing everybody out.

Part of it’s that…and then other bluffs at this point have become second nature, where you don’t think about it as bluffing anymore. It’s like early in my poker career, probably early in other people’s careers, too, you think about it consciously every time. You’re like, “Wow, I’m about to bluff. I’m about to steal the blinds. Everybody checked to me on the button and I’m going to bet.” But, it’s so second nature to me. Most players with some level of experience don’t even think about it. I still try to consciously think about it, especially in the process of writing the book. It made me stop and analyze even the simplest bluffs. What are the different factors that are going into this? How come it works to bet on the button? The simple bluffs that people do every day, what are the factors behind them succeeding?

PS: I don’t know if this is something possible to even know, since we’re talking about bluffing, but are there any certain players (besides you) that are particularly skilled at bluffing?

Matt Lessinger: I know Stu Ungar was. He was probably the best. Nowadays, there are a ton of people who are excellent at it. To put one ahead of the others is difficult.

PS: I suppose it would be hard to tell sometimes just because if you don’t see that they’re bluffing because they don’t show you their cards, you don’t know.

Matt Lessinger: Exactly. What you see on TV is really such a small percentage of the total hands people play. I would probably put Phil Ivey among the top.

I mean, the amazing thing about Phil Ivey (for whatever it’s worth, I rank him as probably the best player in the world right now) and what makes him so phenomenal is that he still has room to improve, which is just a staggering thought, that he could become even better. When I played with him in Atlantic City, it was almost all stud, and so he became excellent in stud. Then he decided to take on pot-limit Omaha and then he won at pot-limit Omaha. And so the reason I think about him as a bluffer is because pot-limit Omaha is really one of the best bluffing games, better than hold’em. If you are a successful bluffer, pot-limit Omaha will suit you very well. Part of his skill is that not only can he represent having the nuts, he can read other players and determine when they don’t have it. Because if he thinks that they’re strong, obviously he’s not going to try to bluff them. He picks his spots well, and then he attacks convincingly enough that people, like you [Interviewer’s note: Who, me?], are afraid to go against him with anything less than the nuts.

PS: What is the greatest bluff that you have ever seen?

Matt Lessinger: Probably the greatest bluff…wow…that is tough. I’m positive that the greatest I’ve ever seen, I didn’t even know about.

I’m tempted to say Chris Moneymaker’s [against Sam Farha in the 2003 WSOP], even though it’s so cliché, but it’s just…the circumstances [surrounding the hand], I don’t think they’re ever going to repeat themselves the same way again. And I explain this [in the book], when I talked Sammy Farha, the thing that I mentioned to him was if he had been able to call with a pair of nines, ok, then we’d be talking about that as the greatest play of the year. The situation that came up was such that whoever won the hand had to make a fantastic play, whether it was Moneymaker’s bluff working or Sammy’s call, which would’ve been an extremely difficult call for anyone to make. I definitely feel, and I say this much in my book, that Sammy took an undue amount of flak, and I defy anyone else to come in second in the World Series of Poker before they start getting on his case.

PS: Do you have a specific bluff that you pulled that still makes you smile to this day?

Matt Lessinger: I do. It was from that same tournament I talked about because it was against a former world champion. Basically, he raised from the button, and this was pretty deep in the pot-limit hold’em championship. This was about half-way through the field. I’m in the big blind, he raises on the button, and I just get the sense that he’s probably stealing, so I re-raise him from the big blind and I didn’t have much. I had nothing. And he calls. It scares you when you’ve got a world champion with his fist on you.

So the flop comes, completely misses me, but I bet anyway. A pretty big bet, we were both among the chip leaders. A pretty big bet, and he calls. Then, on the turn, a King comes, which didn’t help me, but for whatever reason, I had this feeling that it didn’t help him either. So I check, and he puts a medium bet out there. And the second he put the bet out there, I just had the feeling that it was probing bet, that he wasn’t betting a monster and he wasn’t willing to commit himself completely. He was like, “Let me make this half-hearted bet and see if that’s enough to get him out.”

So I just came over the top of him all-in and he laid it down. He laid it down pretty quickly, which confirmed my read. What was great was that there were a lot of top players at the table, and they were all, as if I wasn’t in the room, trying to discuss amongst themselves what I had. One person thought I had Ace-King, another person thought I had pocket Aces, another person thought I had trip Kings, and it was just so satisfying that not one of them said, “Oh, he was probably bluffing.” Nobody at the table thought I was bluffing.

PS: You convinced everybody that he made the right laydown.

Matt Lessinger: Right. It helped that I was completely anonymous at the time. Nobody knew who I was.

PS: Everybody’s going to play back at you now that you wrote this book.

Matt Lessinger: You know, now that I wrote this book, whenever I sit down at a game with people I know, they’re like, “Watch out! He’s going to bluff you!” It actually has changed my strategy a bit because I know that’s in the back of people’s minds. It’s made me have to stop bluffing as much, which is why now I can really only do it fully online, or against people who don’t know who I am.