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When I Was A Donk With Steve Zolotow

by Card Player News Team |  Published: Dec 09, 2015


Steve ZolotowIn this 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.

Steve Zolotow has been a professional gambler since the mid-60s, switching his focus from backgammon and sports betting to poker during his days as a regular player in New York. Zolotow was a regular at the Mayfair Club in New York City, where he played alongside poker legends such as Dan Harrington, Mickey Appleman, Erik Seidel and Jason Lester, among others.

Though Zolotow remains humble about his poker tournament abilities, he has still managed to amass more than $2.2 million in live tournament earnings. He also owns two World Series of Poker bracelets, having won the $5,000 Chinese Poker event in 1995 and the $3,000 Pot-Limit Hold’em event in 2001.

Here, Zolotow talks about his slow transition from cash games to tournaments.

I have been a successful gambler in many areas (sports betting, backgammon, twenty-one, and so on) as well as poker for many years, and so it is very tough for me to admit to having been a poker tournament donkey for many years. In all my gambling endeavors, I tried to follow a relatively conservative strategy. I waited for situations where I thought I had the best of it and didn’t get out of line. So, of course, I followed this strategy when I first started playing poker tournaments. I treated them casually, and thought that the real money was in the cash games.

I always played my usual tight, aggressive game in tournaments. It worked reasonably well in limit games and in pot-limit games (no antes), but was terrible in no-limit hold’em. It always amazed me when cash game maniacs who usually lost, like Stu Ungar, were able to crush tournaments. I started thinking no-limit hold’em tournaments were mostly luck. I started out playing tight, which was fine, but then after the antes kicked in, and pot odds changed, I didn’t loosen up. In some tournaments I anted myself into oblivion, waiting for a big hand. Eventually my stack would be so small, that even a good hand that held up wasn’t enough to get me back in contention. I’m embarrassed to remember all the times I folded medium hands with a stack of 10 big blinds or less.

Finally, conversations with Dan Harrington (and his books) and math discussions with Paul Magriel put me on the right track. It still goes against all my instincts to shove an eight big blind stack with K-10 offsuit or call a short stack’s all-in with A-4, but I learned that it was frequently right to do so. I still think I’m much better in cash games, but at least I graduated from being a complete donkey to only being half-assed.