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What I Learned While Commentating

by Matt Matros |  Published: Mar 18, 2015


Matt MatrosWhen you’ve looked at poker from every possible angle, done every kind of analysis, and gone over every situation three or four thousand times, you might think poker has nothing new to show you. And maybe you’re right. Maybe you need to take a break from the game, or switch to a new discipline, or even retire. Maybe. Or maybe you need to try harder to find yet another viewpoint. I’ve been at this for a while, and I’ve come to realize there’s always another poker perspective lurking out there somewhere.

I was recently asked to be one of the livestream commentators for the Borgata Winter Poker Open. For someone who spent most of childhood wanting to be a sports announcer (to the point where I muted the television and recorded myself doing Mets play-by-play at age 13), this was kind of a dream come true. What I didn’t expect, however, was to gain new insight into my profession. I’ve spent countless hours playing poker, thinking about poker, teaching other people how to develop their own games and styles, and of course, writing about poker. But seeing all the hole cards, evaluating every player’s decision in real time, deciding what was important enough to comment on, explaining my thoughts in just a few seconds, all while maintaining chemistry with my fellow commentators and striking the right balance between information and entertainment? That opened my eyes.

I had done some commentary before—I sat in as a guest analyst with Dave Tuchman for a few events on the World Series of Poker livestream. But there’s an enormous difference between responding to a play-by-play person’s questions, and calling the action yourself. It’s almost the same as the difference between talking about poker and playing it.
Here are a few things I learned from my first time sitting in the booth for an entirety of a final table:

1) Strange plays can make sense.

When a student asks me about a play that I disagree with, I usually explain the downsides to the play and suggest alternatives. As a commentator, I felt an obligation to the players on the screen in front of me, and I wanted to give a more thorough accounting of their thought processes. A funny thing happened—I started convincing myself. Plays that I would’ve never considered making (flatting raises and three-bets with short stacks, for example) began to seem reasonable when I took into account the players’ experience levels, goals, and strengths and weaknesses. If sixth-place money is meaningful, maybe you don’t want to be so aggressive preflop with ten players left. If you’re the least experienced player at the table, maybe it’s better to go all in for a big overbet rather than risk misplaying yourself into losing the pot. I can’t say I’ll change my own style, but after watching this final table, I came away with a new understanding of how some unorthodox decisions can happen.

2) I need time to think.

I’ve played poker long enough that if I look at the board, and look at the hands, and think about it for a few seconds, I can tell you how many outs the underdog has. What I learned doing commentary is that I do need those few seconds. On at least two occasions during the broadcast, I initially got the number of outs wrong. Of course, I corrected my mistakes almost immediately, but I wouldn’t have thought the mistakes were even possible. I realized later that my mouth had started talking before my brain had any chance to weigh in. Yes, I can figure someone’s outs quickly—but I still need to figure them. They don’t just enter my consciousness by magic. When playing poker, we say we “insta-call” or “insta-fold”, but it’s become obvious to me that it’s important not to do anything instantly. Take a second to think—even if it’s literally only one second. I learned the hard way during the broadcast that the difference between no thinking and a little thinking is enormous.

3) Listening and observation are almost as important as talking.

I got to work with two tremendously talented fellow commentators—Mike “Gags30” Gagliano and Tyler Patterson—and together we tried to catch every nuance of the action. Gags predicted a three-bet bluff and a river bluff well before they happened because he was familiar with one of the player’s styles. Tyler knew in advance that a player would fold preflop getting a huge price to call. And I contributed too (I hope). Our best moments all came as the result of paying close attention to the players’ patterns and mannerisms, taking the time to think about their overall strategies, and listening to each other to gain more insight. Often Tyler or Mike would make a point, and it would remind one of us about a related point, and an analysis of the hand would come about organically. I’ve never forgotten that the best way to learn poker is to exchange ideas with other good players, but commentating the final table was the best reminder I’ve had of this fact in quite some time.

The reviews for our Borgata commentary were generally excellent, but I’m eager to take what I’ve learned and do even better during my next trip to the booth. Meanwhile, I’ll go back to entering tournaments—and trying to participate in a final table the real way. ♠

Matt Matros is the author of The Making of a Poker Player, and a three-time WSOP bracelet winner. He is also a featured coach for