Raising the stakes

When the books aren't enough and the losses grow too deep, a poker coach can turn losers into winners

If you don’t know when to hold ’em or when to fold ’em, take a tip from Ben Affleck and Jennifer Tilly: Get a poker coach.

Last year, all-time top female money winner Annie Duke helped Affleck nab first place at Commerce Casino’s California State Poker Championship. The first celebrity to win a major poker tournament, Affleck took home $365,400.

In June, Tilly beat out 600 players to win $158,625 in the Ladies No-Limit Texas Hold ‘Em event at the World Series of Poker. Although she’d played poker for years, she raised her game to a new level thanks to poker champ Phil Laak, the boyfriend whom she has credited with teaching her by “osmosis.”

According to Duke, coaches are for anyone who takes the game seriously but lacks the time to spend two years at the tables.

“Coaching saved me two years of what my brother went through,” says Duke, who learned at the side of her sibling, poker champ Howard Lederer. “I started playing poker when I needed money in Montana. I had my brother coaching me and I won the first month I played.”

Jim Bucci, executive director of Pokercoaching.com, describes coaching as a superhighway that can turn a loser into a winner. “My very first student was in the World Series of Poker this past year,” says Bucci, who has seen 32 final tables in his tournament career, including five at the World Series of Poker. “I get such gratification watching that,” he says.

Now he has a new client, Abe, a Phoenix restaurateur whom Bucci describes as his ideal: someone who wants to be a winner, and who wants to learn. “Any time you have a player who thinks he knows more than you, you can’t coach him,” Bucci says.

Abe, who won’t reveal his last name, says he turned to Bucci after racking up $40,000 in losses. “Jim got me to settle down and wait for a good hand,” he says. “Poker is not just about winning pots but cutting your losses.”

For $100 an hour, Bucci tell students “things it took me years to learn, things they might never learn on their own.”

This includes analysis of bad runs and good runs, talking about sixth senses and mental toughness and discussing the nature of luck. Bucci is also one of the few coaches who will critique a player while they play online — in real time, during real tournaments, for real money.

“Most people coach before or after,” says Bucci. “You learn so much more our way. If you can get answers before the chips go in the pot, that’s huge.”

That’s also why people who run online poker tournaments don’t like it.

“One player per hand is how poker is played,” says Thomas Falenstrom, promotional manager at Pokerroom.com. “We consider it breaking the rules when you are getting coaching from a poker coach while playing a tournament. On the other hand, you could read a poker strategy book while playing and we couldn’t do anything about that, either.”

Steve Berman, VP and co-founder of WPT Boot Camp, says players who work with coaches online are also saddling themselves with a handicap. “You’re probably forming some bad habits and comfort that will be snatched away from you if you intend to play in real life.”

Duke contributes to Ultimatebet.com, which kicks off people if they find someone playing two to a hand. “In the end (a coach) can only get you so far,” she says. “Your talents and your experiences are what make you great.”

And, according to Bucci, your luck. “There are people who play this game that are luckier than other people,” he says. “I used to think luck went around the table, but then I see people make horrendous plays and win it.”

And ultimately, who knows? Zach Rosenfeld, a principal at Insignia PR, swears that his poker game is fueled by the power of Kelly Clarkson’s “Since You’ve Been Gone.”

“Whenever she comes on, I get the most ungodly cards,” says Rosenfeld. “My friends won’t put it on if I’m at a table with them. If I ever see Kelly Clarkson, I’m going to hug her and buy her dinner.”

Poker Coaches

Name: Jim Bucci, Pokercoaching.com, 310-373-6104 or jimjbucci@aol.com
Cost: $100/hour
Coaching venue: phone, email, in person
Brick & mortar: anywhere in the U.S.
#1 tip: Don’t leave your chips so low that they have no value. Sometimes, you have to be able to play without cards.
Coach during online play? Yes
Capitola: Bucci will host a poker and fishing retreat at Griffin Fishing Lodge in Lafitte, La., Oct. 13-16.

Name: Bob Ciaffone, PokerCoach.us, thecoach@chartermi.net
Cost: $150 for two hours
Coaching venue: phone, email
Brick & mortar: none
#1 tip: Be aware of the influence your stack size has on strategy and adjust accordingly.
Coach during online play? No
Capitola: Ciaffone has written four books on poker; a free copy of your choice comes with your first session.

Name: John Vorhaus, Vorza.com, jv@vorza.com
Cost: Vorhaus says a good poker coach isn’t cheap, nor should he be.
Coaching venue: phone, email, in person
Brick & mortar: Bicycle in Bell Gardens, Commerce
#1 tip: Be the one who knows, not the one who guesses. In other words, try to be the one making bets and raises in most confrontations.
Coach during online play? Yes
Capitola: CNN described Vorhaus as “the sage of poker of our time.” He’s written for “Married… With Children” and penned the “Killer Poker” book series.

Name: Barry Tanenbaum, BarryTanenbaum.com. 702-220-3525 or pokerbear@cox.net
Cost: $150/hour
Coaching venue: phone, in person in Vegas
Brick & mortar: Las Vegas, primarily the Bellagio
#1 tip: Do not call large raises with one pair, even a very good one.
Coach during online play? Like Bartleby the Scrivener, he’d prefer not to.
Capitola: Tanenbaum offers a money-back guarantee on the first lesson. No one’s ever taken it.

Name: WPT Boot Camp, WPTBootCamp.com. 866- WPT-BOOT.
Cost: Two-day, meals-inclusive sessions are $1,495; Champions sessions are $2,895.
Coaching venue: Offices are in Fort Lauderdale, but camps are held in casinos in Calif., Conn., Fla., Nev. And Ind., with more on the way.
Brick & mortar: Hard Rock Casino, Hollywood, Fla.
#1 tip: “We try to teach how to play the cards you’re dealt well,” says WPT BC founder Steve Berman. “Very few times are the people with the best cards winning the pot.”
Coach during online play? No
Capitola: Winner of the Champions session gets a $10,000 seat at the Mirage Poker Showdown.