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Lessons With Jeff Shulman — Part I

The plan

by Phil Hellmuth |  Published: Jan 01, 2010


On day eight of the World Series of Poker main event — way back on July 15 — the tournament was halted when the field got down to the final nine players. The chips were bagged, the players were interviewed by ESPN, the worldwide media left the building, and the players were sent home until Nov. 7. On that day, the players known as the “November Nine” returned to play down to the final two, and then on Nov. 9, those two would play until the 2009 world champion of poker was determined.

With four months in between reaching the final table and playing out that final table, a lot could be done to improve one’s chances of winning. With that in mind, some players sought out “poker coaches” to help them refine their endgame strategies or make over their play altogether. Jeff Shulman came to me, and I readily agreed to coach him. Now, first off, I was there at the final table of the WSOP main event in 2000, doing a “live Internet” broadcast, when Shulman had some horrendously bad luck to finish in seventh place, and I have a soft spot in my heart for what happened to him that year. With seven players remaining and a massive chip lead, Shulman had Chris “Jesus” Ferguson all in with 7-7 against Ferguson’s 6-6. If Shulman’s hand held up, he would have 3.2 million in chips, which would look pretty sweet alongside the next-highest chip stack of around 500,000. Instead, he lost that hand, picked up K-K a few hands later and ran into Ferguson’s A-A, and was eliminated; he quickly went from the penthouse to the outhouse! The next day, I kept Shulman’s name alive in the broadcast, because he deserved better than he was served.
Shulman Training Day
The second reason I agreed to help Shulman is that we are business partners; I am the third-largest shareholder in Card Player magazine. A third reason is that I firmly believed that I could help Shulman tactically, even though our styles are similar. I mean, my hold’em resume is pretty good. I have more than 30 final tables at the WSOP in hold’em (No. 1 by far), and 11 victories (No. 1 by far), and I won the 1989 main event. I believe that I did help, and now that the tournament is over, I can reveal the “lesson plan.”

First of all, we had a group of people that included Adam Schoenfeld, former major-league pitcher Orel Hershiser, WSOP bracelet winner Diego Cordovez, and Shulman’s father, Barry — the WSOP Europe main-event champion — who played out hand scenarios and discussed tactics. Secondly, we printed out every hand that each of the other November Nine members had played throughout the WSOP, a packet of 50 pages, and read them all. Thirdly, we watched every player’s move on the ESPN coverage.

Since Shulman would start with about 20 million in chips and the blinds were 120,000-240,000, we knew that there was a ton of time left for Shulman to “work his chips.” With the goal of making it down to the final three in the easiest possible manner, I recommended that Shulman employ a very safe and very tight strategy, especially nine-handed and eight-handed. Jeff liked it, and Barry backed it up, because he had won the WSOPE by employing a similar strategy at that final table. After racking my brains for a month, I recommended that Shulman open pots with bets of four or five times the big blind. So, with 120,000-240,000 blinds, I asked him to open for at least 1 million. Why? Well, I didn’t think the other players at the table would take flops with small pairs or suited connectors for such a high price, or come over the top of someone who was playing extremely tight and opening for that much with a bluffing type of hand. Thus, I thought those big opening bets would force everyone else to fold weaker hands, reduce the number of over-the-top bluffs that Shulman would have to face, and therefore enable him to pick up a lot of small pots uncontested.

Also, if Shulman had a hand like 10-10 and someone reraised, it would be a lot easier for him to fold, because presumably his opponent would have an overpair or A-K.

In discouraging his opponents from trying to flop a set or bluff him, in taking down small pots, and in just hanging around his starting-stack size, my hope was that he would last a long time with zero pressure. I also was hoping that the other eight players would bust themselves needlessly, like they did in the 2008 November Nine. So, my first lesson to Shulman was to play extremely tight and open for at least four times the big blind until it stopped working, or until they got five-handed. Spade Suit

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