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Our own interview with Alex Fitzgerald

03/01/2020 by D&B Poker

We recently interviewed Alex Fitzgerald, author of 2 our bestselling books: The Myth of Poker Talent and Exploitative Play in Live Poker.

Here are his responses to the 6 questions we asked him:

  • If you were to introduce yourself to those players, perhaps especially those in Europe, who don’t know Alexander Fitzgerald, how would you do it?

I would tell people that I am primarily a coach. I still play poker and I love poker, but what I seem to do well is teach people how to play poker.

I focus mostly on low-to-mid stakes games, because those are the stakes where my exploitative combinatoric and data-driven approach seems to kill. My style succeeds in online tournaments up to $109s. It works in many Sunday majors because they’re loaded with tourists, especially those $215s. It works in live tournaments up to $3,500s, although in Vegas, Los Angeles, and Eastern Europe it’s a little different. It works for up to $1,000 events there.

For those who are curious about my playing career, I made most of my money bum hunting at $1.00/$2.00 online. I played a ton of six-max, literally millions of hands. I’ve played a bunch of $2.00/$4.00 online and I’ve played up to $25/$50 live when I thought the game was right, but most of my money came from massively multitabling $1.00/$2.00 and seeking out smaller networks.

I do play tournaments as well. I have EPT and WPT final tables. I have small WCOOP and SCOOP wins. I have multiple Sunday Million Final Tables, multiple FTOP final tables, and the like. I love tournament poker, but you have to be careful with the swings. You need to spend time grinding in cash or business to earn the tournament buy-ins.

I went pro in 2006, the year I graduated high school. Since then I’ve played poker in 40 countries. I’ve lived on four different continents.

I worked throughout high school because my family didn’t really have money. I was renting my own place in my senior year. I was a Persian carpet mover, a security guard, a landscaper, a commercial fisherman, and a fast food restaurant employee before poker. I have more enthusiasm than most guys because I know this isn’t hard work.

  • Your recent book is called “Exploitative play in live poker”. Do the themes you explore also succeed in the online game?

Oh yeah. I just got done playing online last night. It depends on the network, but for the most part exploitative play works in online games.

The thing about balancing ranges and GTO is that’s extremely important as you move up in stakes. There are certain flaws that most players have. Those flaws tip off their hand range to a professional. You need to eradicate those flaws if you’re going to move up.

Balancing becomes so important in those games because if you do any play too much, you will get caught. You can’t just continuation bet every single flop, because eventually better players will start realizing you have nothing the majority of the time when you fire. So, they’ll start floating. They’ll start raising. If you don’t have a defense for that, you’re in for a long session.

But if the other guy has missed the board the majority of the time and he just wants a reason to fold, you can absolutely fire that continuation bet again and again. If he doesn’t have a HUD or he’s playing for fun or he’s watching football while he plays…he doesn’t care. That’s most of the poker playing population too. They play for fun. They play their hand, not yours.

When I play cash games on networks with many of the same regs, I’ll have a continuation bet percentage of 50-65%. I’ll work in a number of delayed c-bets and pot control tactics. I’ll check back top pairs to raise them on later streets. I need to work in all those plays to keep regs guessing.

But when I’m playing online tournaments, my continuation bet can sometimes be 90% because those players are so basic. If they miss they fold, if they hit they call. There’s no reason to slowplay if I hit too, because if they call flop with a pair they are calling down to the river.

In cash games, you have to do a lot of digging to find cash game players that bad, but it is possible. Bitcoin has really opened up the industry. I used to have to make friends in foreign countries to deposit for me. I had to rely on agents. It was a mess. Now, Bitcoin has automated all of that. There’s a lot of money out there for someone motivated enough to find soft networks. I wish Bitcoin was around when I started in 2007.

  • In your book you emphasize that often players make the same mistakes and that we must learn from our observations in order to create the situations where they will make these mistakes. If you had to identify the three most frequent mistakes players make what would they be?

One big one I see in the live game and online is people telegraphing their hand with timing tells. There’s a lot of times I’ll do my action extremely quickly to see how much time a player authentically needs to think on a flop. I don’t want to give him time to think while I’m fake timebanking.

He checks to me the second the flop is out there, say it’s Qs-8d-6d. I snap out my continuation bet. He calls instantly. This works online and live. Many guys there can’t call automatically with a set or two pair. They’ll think to themselves “should I slowplay on this dangerous of a board? Or do I raise now?” They’ll Hollywood a bit to get you to fire again. They do this a little less with a queen. If they snap call, it’s almost always an eight or a six. Sometimes its draws, although if the guy is shorter stacked he’d have to think about raising those too. The guy just told me to triple barrel him if he’s a bad nitty regular who can’t make big call downs. If I actually have a queen or jacks or tens, he’s let me know I’m in the lead, so I can start thinking of how to structure my bets for three barrels.

Two, threebet percentages have gone down across the board. The more I study the more I find people are threebetting less. There are certain pros who will threebet anything, but the vast majority of opponents do not threebet much. This has created a twofold change. You can now open much wider than before. In 2017, 2018 the threebet was more in vogue again, you had to be careful. Now, I open way wider than I did a couple years ago. Folding suited-connectors early, suited-gappers when you’re deep…I don’t think it’s advisable. Big cards when you’re shorter stacked can be played, because then the stacks are so shallow it’s much more about who makes top pair on the flop. Implied odds don’t mean as much. You can get away with those hands too because the big blind never folds now.

But a big mistake you’ll see players make is they’ll get the memo they can open wide, but then a guy who hasn’t threebet once in an hour will threebet large in position. AND YOU’LL WATCH EVERY SINGLE GUY CALL OUT OF POSITION WITH THEIR JUNK HAND! You’ll see the biggest pots in majors play out this way. A guy will have been playing well for nine hours. Then he’ll call a threebet out of position to see the flop and go broke on some garbage pair. If the guy had threebet you four times in a row, by all means, do something about it. But if it’s not happening accept the guy has a hand and fold.

Finally, the biggest error I see everyone have now is no one somewhat recreational can fold a hand on the turn or river. Humans cannot consent to a loss. It’s unreal. People don’t play poker to make money. They play to feel like a cardplayer. If they call on the river and you show the goods, they can quietly muck and say “I was close to that.” If they fold and you show a bluff, they can’t live with themselves. So, they always call.

  • In your book you discuss the concept of the “comfort zone”. How would you define this term “comfort zone” as it specifically applies to poker?

Most players comfort zone is this:

The whole table enters an implicit agreement. “I’ll open anything I want, you’ll call with anything you want, and we’ll all see the flop. From there, we’ll make our big decisions.” Everyone is so afraid they’re going to hit that flop after they folded preflop. They can’t live with themselves if they would have hit something.

On the flop, with their two pair or better they’ll raise, because no one has ever mocked someone who raised two pair or better. They won’t even raise those hands if some draws come in. No one wants to be mocked, and we’ve socialized people into being scared to make mistakes.

People don’t raise one pair because that tends to build pots versus bigger and better hands. People hate raising as a bluff because in most games it doesn’t work and it leads you to being mocked.

So people’s comfort zone turns into this: Raise if you’re first in, call if you’re second in, see the flop, raise two pair or better, call with pairs, and fold high cards.

If you want to make money, you’ll need to exploit people’s inability to not see flops. You see a guy open with junk? Repop him and get him alone. Make the bet big. Make him uncomfortable.

You will be hated if you take on this strategy. I’ve been cussed out in 20+ different languages.

  • You specify that to write your book you analyzed a huge number of hands that you and your students have played. Can you tell us a little about this analysis and on what basis you chose the hands?

They say that experience is the best teacher, but that isn’t always true. If we’re going off of experience, it would be logical to say the Earth is flat, because it’s so difficult to see the curvature of the Earth. However, if we analyse numbers, we see the truth.

People would always do this with me: “This play can’t work, because I do this in this certain situation.” People prized their own data, their own experience. They prized their own data point and took no other data into consideration. They couldn’t understand that they weren’t playing thousands of clones that played just like them.

About five years ago, I was sick of hearing everyone’s opinion about poker. I wanted data.

In online poker, it was very easy to get data. I asked all my students if I could look at their database of hand histories. We would use Poker Tracker 4 or Hold’em Manager 2. It worked out for both of us. I could identify their biggest leaks within minutes, and I got to see literally millions of hands. You’re not allowed to combine databases, but you can write down what data is pertinent, the sample size, etc. We would make a hypothesis about what general players did in certain populations, the poker players did the experiments, and then we looked at the data. Sometimes my hypothesis was bang on the money. Other times I was way off. But the more I studied, the better I got at the game. I got addicted. I started coaching thousands of students, sometimes five to eight a day. I put my poker on hold for a while. I’d just pound coffee and keep tearing through the data, looking at hands to see if there were mitigating factors I could note. I loved it.

Live, getting data is much more difficult. Fortunately, I found some live players/stables who kept “live HUDs” as it were. Once I vetted them I had them give me the data, and of course I had to discuss my findings, so there would be a professional exchange. You can also hire people to watch streams and create HUDs, and some of them did that. You can create surveys and give them to thousands of live players and see what selections they pick. It’s a much more inexact science with live poker, but someone is going to have to start somewhere with this.

The great thing though is that even with the small sample sizes we were able to pull, most of what we found was pretty congruent with what we found online, although it’s been fun to figure out what’s different. Live players do seem to call the river, for example, a bit more. My (largely untested) hypothesis is that they do that because they can muck the hand face down and, unlike online, no one can pull up a hand history replay to see what the hand was. The other glaring difference between the two is people will fold to threebets online, most likely because they’re multitabling and they’re not as bored. Live almost no one folds to threebets. It’s honestly surprising if you see it.

I’m still not done studying and I’ve got a long way to go, but it’s been extremely fun to start this process. This has been a much more fun way to teach than to just go with untested assumptions about the game. All I want is my students to report good results, and they say this stuff works in the field, so I’m over the moon with how things have developed.

  • Finally, in your opinion – what would be the most important thing a player can do in order to progress in poker?

I’ve got a buddy who is an MMA fighter. The guy is more devoted than any one of us is in poker. He lives in the gym. He never stops working out, sparring, any of that. But he’s got 5-15 years to make his dream happen. If he gets injured or something goes wrong with his management or promotion, that clock is still ticking.

The great thing about poker is it’s a lifelong game. You can play from the time you’re 18 until you’re 80. That’s a 62-year playing career.

There’s no rush. Everyone kills themselves with anxiety. If they don’t win a tournament it’s the worst thing in the world to them. That is so illogical when so many people enter.

If you want to be good at this, you have to love the cardroom, you have to love studying. If you want to be a professional, you better be prepared to be a cardroom rat. This is a long haul. That’s what’s so great about it. Don’t take anything for granted, and if you ever make money? Take it off the table. A good poker player makes money at the table. A poker professional takes the money off the table and uses it on their family. You can be a poker professional even if you have another job. You can not be a professional even if you have no other job.