The Education of a Poor Poker Player: The School of Cards

The Education of a Poor Poker Player: The School of Cards 0001

Amy Handelsman joins us at Learn.PokerNews to share her experiences taking a no-limit hold’em course at the School of Cards in New York City. Today Amy describes her poker background and decision to take the course which runs February 8, 9, and 16. In future installments she’ll talk about taking the course and the effect it has on her game.

I’m not one of these women who grew up thinking poker is unsavory. In fact, I associate it with wholesomeness and family. Whenever we got together with the Philadelphia clan (uncles, aunts, cousins, etc.), we would all play after dinner, especially on Thanksgiving.

Sure the stakes were small — for pennies, nickels, and dimes (and sometimes even matchsticks if coins were scarce) — and I bet with lavish impunity, not afraid to raise or bluff, and rarely folding. It was much too fun to stay in. I had skin in the game. I was a player.

Or so I thought until I had the chance to serve as the Executive Director of the United States Poker Federation for which Peter Alson, — currently an editor of PokerNews — was President.

Pete would come into work after playing all night, bemoaning bad beats with a jargon that was all but Greek to me. When testing our poker software, he’d yell across our office divide at my bone-headed moves, chastising me as a “calling machine,” impatient if I limped, didn’t fold soon enough, or raised recklessly. And I longingly watched my colleagues laughing and joking at the World Series of Poker in Las Vegas, too cowed to take a seat at the table.

As a cure for knowing just enough about poker to know I know very little, I have decided to enroll in Blake Eastman’s “Profitable No-Limit Hold’em” course at his School of Cards in the Chelsea district of Manhattan. The 18-hour course is held over three days (two six-hour sessions over one weekend; one more the next) and is designed to make students into profitable poker players by teaching them mathematical strategies and the psychological aspects of the game.

Blake Eastman, School of Cards Founder & Head Instructor
Blake Eastman, School of Cards Founder & Head Instructor

The boyishly handsome Eastman has a graduate degree in psychology and teaches at the City University of New York. He began playing to build a bankroll for law school, only to realize that he had neither aptitude nor desire for jurisprudence and could make more money at the table than students coming out of Harvard Law School — working less and loving it more.

Like many of his generation, Eastman was bit by the poker bug after watching the movie Rounders. His self-proclaimed obsessive nature soon had him reading every book and forum out there, playing days and nights at a time. He began coaching when a so-so player at one of his regular games started asking him for tips. He not only saw improvement in his student, he realized he was good at teaching. The experience made him recognize mistakes he himself had been making, too, and that the bulk of his winnings had been come from being on the upside of variance.

The tag line for the School of Cards is “We Never Gamble,” emphasizing the skill needed to play cards well. Eastman claims, “If you’re not thinking, you’re gambling.” His strategy is to emphasize strategic fundamentals such as extracting maximum value, narrowing your range, and bankroll management. And the bluff? As Josh Cahlik was writing about last week, Eastman says bluffing is like telling a story, and only works when you know your opponents well.

Eastman tells me he likes novices — there’s less to unlearn, he says. Indeed, the Masters of the Universe from Wall Street often think that because of their work they understand risk assessment, a primary component of play.

“They think they’re good, but they’re not,” Eastman explains. “Or someone will say, ‘I went to Harvard, I’m a smart person, so I will be good at poker,’ and are no good. Then there are people who haven’t been to college and they’re great.”

"We Never Gamble" is the motto at Blake Eastman's School of Cards in New York, NY
"We Never Gamble" is the motto at Blake Eastman's School of Cards in New York, NY

What, then, I ask, makes someone a good player? Eastman thinks that it’s hard to quantify, but after talking to someone for 15 minutes, he’s able to guess.

One character trait is being able to handle a certain level of abstraction. Poker requires you to take a bunch of variables, to throw them in the air, and to make a decision based on those variables — but those variables are always changing.

“If you can’t make a decision, that’s bad at the end of the day,” says Eastman. “You have to be able to pull the trigger.”

Another quality is grit, which may well be the most important thing. Eastman allows that the brain is designed to give a positive reward when genuine effort is made, which doesn’t always happen in poker play. You can play perfectly, make all the right decisions, and still lose the pot.

“It can be a vicious game,” he says.

Then, too, there’s a level of patience that needs to be there. The patient ones are the best players to stake, he tells me.

But, intelligence? Not so important, he says. (Note to self: Do I tell him I went to Harvard and think I’m a smart person? Maybe not.)

I ask Eastman if he has an idea, then, of how I’d be as a player from our conversation and he demurs. Writing about taking the course means that my level of active participation will be high, he tells me — that I can pull information and that I am willing. But, love of the game? That he can’t predict.

And when I volunteer that the little bit of poker that I have played had has made me happy — that I associate it with good times, family, and wholesomeness — he has a ready response.

“We’ll see if you feel the same way after the course.”

See the School of Cards website for more about Eastman and the course. Meanwhile, stay tuned for Amy’s reports regarding what she learns in “Profitable No Limit Hold’em” and how it influences her at the tables.

Photos/logo courtesy The School of Cards

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