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When I Was A Donk: John Phan

Top Pros Share Their Early Mistakes

by Brian Pempus |  Published: Jul 13, 2011


John PhanIn this new series, Card Player asks top pros to rewind back to their humble beginnings and provide insights regarding the mistakes, leaks, and deficiencies that they had to overcome in order to improve their games.

John Phan is one of the deadliest no-limit hold’em players in the poker world. The California poker pro broke out back in 1998, emerging as a consistent grinder on the tournament circuit. Since then, Phan has gone on to record 19 major tournament victories, along with an impressive 116 cashes. In 2008, he won two World Series of Poker bracelets and the World Poker Tour Legends of Poker main event for more than $1 million. In that year alone, Phan scored for $2.1 million, en route to winning the Card Player Player of the Year race in convincing fashion.

Here, Phan talks about his earliest betting mistakes when he was an inexperienced player in no-limit hold’em tournaments, and how he eventually gained the experience necessary to become one of poker’s elite — cashing for more than $5.5 million lifetime.

“When I was a beginner, I didn’t really know how to bet my hands. I wasn’t making people pay for their draws, and as a result they were getting there too often against me. I have a limit hold’em background, and I think some of that made my transition to no-limit hold’em tournaments a bit rocky. Unless you are running really well at the time, and are feeling confident you can slow-play and let them see a free card, you shouldn’t slow-play your hands. I don’t slow-play anymore. If I have a big hand, I will get it in there quickly and try to avoid the bad beat. I’d rather win small pots these days by betting strong than slow-playing and seeing a bad beat. You have to realize when people are not willing to put their tournament life on the line with a draw. You really have to put it in there when you know your opponent is weak, or on a draw. That’s what it takes to win.

“Consequently, you have to overbet sometimes. I overbet a lot on the river, as well, hoping to get extra value in certain situations, which is something I wasn’t good at when I was a beginner. Knowing how to bet your hands correctly — for example, to price people out of draws, and, on the end, to get additional value — is something I wasn’t good at when I first started. I am really good at thin value bets these days, as well, but that wasn’t a concept that I understood when I was a new player. If you know they missed a draw, perhaps an ace-high flush draw, sometimes you have to value-bet your middle or bottom pair, in hopes of getting looked up by an ace-high hand. That’s how I get a lot of chips in these big tournaments.

“The lesson to take away from this is that you have to learn from your early mistakes — that is what a good poker player does. Anytime you are a new player you are going to make mistakes, but you shouldn’t beat yourself up over them. You have to be willing to admit that you aren’t playing perfectly, and then figure out the solutions. For me, it was learning how to bet my hands correctly.” Spade Suit