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Capture the Flag: Thomas Keller

Cash Game Pro Talks About Action During the Summer


Thomas KellerThomas Keller has been a fixture at the World Series of Poker since his bracelet win in 2004. That summer the poker pro outlasted a field of 254 players in a $5,000 no-limit hold’em event to take home $382,020 in prize money, as well as put his name on the poker map.

These days Keller was still a familiar face at the WSOP, but put in the majority of his hours at the high-stakes mixed games in the Rio Hotel and Casino live-action room. The Phoenix native, who got his first taste of poker in limit hold’em home games and later found himself playing as high as $200-$400, played only a handful of events this summer, thanks to sweet nosebleed action in side games.

Card Player caught up with Keller to talk about the migration to mixed games, for himself as well as what seems like the majority of the high-stakes community in Las Vegas.

Brian Pempus: How were the mixed games this summer? How did you fare in them?

Thomas Keller: The cash games at the Rio were better this year than in year’s past. There were more of them, and a greater variety of games to choose. You still had to be pretty selective as to which ones you sat in, as this is something I’ve been trying to work on lately. I started off the Series playing a little bigger than I should have, although some of the bigger games can be really good. They do have huge variance, and that is the drawback. Towards the tail end of the Series, I was trying to focus on finding quality games that fit the variance I am comfortable with.

I like to have at least 100 big bets behind me that I can afford to use. It is pretty easy to go through 50 or so if you have a bad run. With all this being said, I have actually noticed that this year there tended to be fewer chips at the table for these big mixed games. I don’t know if it was recession related or Black Friday related, or if people are broke. There were lot of people playing short stacked, and played where they got all in somewhat frequently. With that being said, you don’t ever see people implementing a profitable short-stacking strategy, like in no-limit hold’em or pot-limit Omaha.

BP: Was it nice to have the cash games available just down the hall from the Amazon Room?

TK: Yeah, I stayed at the Rio this summer and played more cash games than tournaments this year. It was convenient to find the games if you busted out of an event, or just didn’t feel like playing any on the day’s schedule. It was very comfortable to come down and have action, instead of having to go to a different casino. In the past I wouldn’t come to the live-action room very often, since the games weren’t very consistent, but in 2011 the mixed games ran pretty strong and I’m happy about that.

BP: What is your cash game background?

TK: I used to play exclusively limit hold’em for many years, and it really became monotonous. I find that the mixed games tend to keep me more interested in playing, and that’s always a good thing. You are less prone to play more hands than you should, and you tend to be more focused on the game if it doesn’t feel like a grind. There’s another problem with limit hold’em right now: The game has gotten so much tougher. I’ve only played it at Bellagio this year, and it seemed really brutal. When there were bad players in the game it seemed like they got eaten alive quickly. There are still limit games going, but they just aren’t profitable. The games are made up of a bunch of pros. I don’t know if it’s mainly because a lot of people can’t play online anymore and have to jump into the big live games. I have heard that pretty much across the board in Las Vegas the high-stakes limit hold’em games are really bad. I am talking about the $100-$200 limits and above, as I am sure you can still find good $40-$80 games around town. The mixed games this year have been where the action is at.

BP: What are your best games in the big mixed formats around Las Vegas?

TK: A lot of times hold’em isn’t even in the mix for these high-stakes eight-game rotations. Right now my hold’em game is really unpolished as a result, and some of my better games lately have been Omaha eight-or-better, deuce-to-seven triple draw, and although I am relatively new to baducey and badacey, I like them a lot and have done pretty well thus far. Sometimes you get people who have no idea how to play a certain game. Back in Phoenix, we made up some games in our rotation, and so all us started off at the same level in the discipline. It was more of a question of who could figure out the game the quickest.

BP: What are some of the common mistakes made when people aren’t really comfortable with a specific game in the mix?

TK: It goes back to solid poker fundamentals in these situations, and there are a lot of counter-intuitive elements involved in these games. If you come from a hold’em background and go to any kind of split-pot game, where sometimes limping or cold-calling may be right in certain situations, but would be a leak in hold’em, you will often make certain mistakes that add up over time. It is also important to realize that sometimes a hand which looks good may be a trap-hand, for example an Omaha eight-or-better hand where you are drawing to a jack-high flush and the second-nut low. If there has been a lot of action you are probably no good either way. If you are putting in a lot of bets in order to just get half of the pot it’s a big problem, even if you have the nut draw one way. A lot people just want to gamble and never will fold a flush draw on a low board, even though half the pot is pretty much locked up. Some people just don’t realize this or don’t care.

BP: What is your style of play these days?

TK: I prefer shorthanded, more aggressive games, but that doesn’t happen as much as I’d like. So, right now I am trying to be more conservative and game select well, and get my money in good. One of my strongest assets is that I don’t tilt very easily. A lot of people are prone to tilt, so sometimes you just play a little while and hope the right people get stuck, and then the game can become pretty good at least for a while. I haven’t always been good at this, and sometimes these days if I come into the poker room with the wrong mindset I am by no means completely immune to tilt. Some players who bust out of a tournament and then jump into the cash game right away might not be doing the right thing. For me, I think it’s fine, unless I got really deep and final tabled an event. I wouldn’t go play cash right away because I would still be emotionally invested in the tournament. That could mess with my head during the session, but as long as you are able to differentiate between the two and put it behind you, you can continue to play.