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Capture The Flag: Poker Pro Martin Bradstreet

Bradstreet Talks About His Poker Genealogy, As Well As Some Strategy

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Martin Bradstreet is a high-stakes online poker pro from Australia. He plays under the screen name “alexeimartov” on PokerStars and “MagicNinja” on Full Tilt Poker. During his Internet card playing career, he has gone from the micro-stakes to the nosebleeds, winning hundreds of thousands of dollars along the way and establishing himself as one of the game’s deepest thinkers.

When asked where he thinks he ranks among the game’s best high-stakes pros, some of which are his friends, he sheepishly said, “I don’t think there are more than 20 people with stronger poker minds.”

He goes through periods of intense concentration on poker, eventually stepping away for stretches to work on his music with his “psychedelic rock” band “AlexeiMartov.” The young poker pro lives in Montreal, Quebec, Canada these days.

We caught up with Bradstreet to talk about his poker genealogy, as well as some strategy.

Brian Pempus: Can you describe how you became a high-stakes poker player?

Martin Bradstreet: I grew up in a little town, so playing Magic: The Gathering there was a kind of entrepreneurial element to “rising up the stakes.” My brother and I would trade cards with our friends to improve the quality of our decks, but no one really had very good cards. That process is similar to stepping up the stakes in poker. That’s probably the lowest stakes game I played, which is why I mention it. I actually remember in Magic there used to be this rule you had to ante up by taking a random card from your deck — and that’s what you would play for — and to me and my brother that would seem insane: that there was a chance you could play for a card worth $20 that you had just hustled your way into owning and then just lose it based on dumb luck. So, I guess a lot has changed since then, but that was the initial point of playing a card game for money. At some point I heard about poker because a lot of Starcraft and Warcraft 3 players started playing it and had success. So, one of my buddies asked if I was following the poker thing. We eventually agreed to each deposit $50 online.

BP: Did you start winning right away on PokerStars and in home games you were playing?

MB: In the home games there were three of us who were somewhat serious and interested in Internet poker. This was around the time Gus Hansen started to become a rock star in televised poker and the idea of doing anything with 6-3 suited besides fold was crazy. In that game, I would basically always win then go talk about hands after. On PokerStars, I ran my $50 up to $200, but then wanted to leave the $0.01-$0.02 stakes. I moved up to $0.10-$0.25.

BP: So you embraced an aggressive style right away?

MB: No, actually I busted at $0.10-$0.25 because there were no medium stakes and re-deposited another $50. That was the first bankroll management lesson. After that though I’ve never re-deposited again or even got wires or transfers from friends. Given that I invest most of my money offline, I think I’ve learned to manage the bankroll well. I never embraced an aggressive style. Like anyone will tell you, I think it was never “shoot for the moon” straight away. It always felt like the next level of stakes was the summit.

BP: What sort of strategies did you embrace to beat $5-$10 and $10-$20? Those stakes seem to be the levels where people really start to think very deeply about the game.

MB: At that level is when you start to not think about strategies and start to think more about people as the player pools are smaller. It probably sounds like beginner stuff these days, but using hand-range math combined with reading people is really the dominant way to play poker in terms of decision making, aggression, and tricky moves, whatever. All of that is a product of reads. Good players do everything. There isn’t a general style; you just do whatever works.

BP: Were you taking notes on players that you’d see often?

MB: Sure. I’d jot something in the notes section, but I would never really use those to inform decisions. A bigger thing was a total immersion in poker, so that when I was lying awake at night suddenly I’d be thinking, “Maybe I should be stealing this player’s blind less because that guy sure hates to have his blind stolen." That’s when most the good reads really happen. If you quizzed a bunch of really good players and asked when the shit truly went down, it’d probably be sleepless nights after sessions. That’s probably why Phil Ivey has such amazing reads even though he doesn’t seem to get involved in the modern learning of the game. Ivey has definitely spent a lot of sleepless nights thinking about how other people play.

BP: So you have to immerse yourself in cash-game theory in order to become elite? Does this ever create problems with second guessing yourself? Or, is it fair to say, are there usually always small improvements to be made during any session, or a more optimal way to play most hands?

MB: People make mistakes constantly, including myself. Not even just small ones. In order to play poker at the top level you really have to breathe it. It makes it so all your downtime is spent learning how to play poker better since you just can’t get it out of your head. In terms of second guessing, my experience is you have to strongly not give a fuck about anything. It’s kind of a nihilistic misanthropic mindset almost like, “sure, I made the wrong move and it just cost me $50,000, but who cares, next hand.” But you have to combine that with a studious nature like “OK let’s find the right play though, and move on so we don’t do that again.”

BP: Can you talk about how high-stakes cash game poker has gotten more advanced over the years? What kind of leaks have people plugged over the years?

MB: High-stakes cash has almost gone passed advanced thinking and done a 180 back to Zenning out, which shows how good people have got at it. The major thing you notice is related to sizing. Sizing bets was kind of the last bastion of analysis. In the past as long as you bet this spot you would be better than the guy that didn’t, but now you have to bet $1,150 not $1,350, or maybe $1,750. As a lower stakes player that’s a good thing to focus on — pretty much every spot you should be conscious of what you are trying to do with your bet and what the optimal size for that is. You immediately know you are in a tough game when all the sizing in spots is really annoying. The reason it’s annoying is that they have sized the bet so that it makes it pretty much on the nose if you call or fold. You feel stupid no matter what you do.

BP: Where does high-stakes cash go from here? Is there a hope that one day online poker can sort of blow up again and throw more non-regulars into the games?

MB: What I was alluding to earlier regarding analysis is that the method of thinking about the game at the top level is pretty much already at its peak. The conceptual framework used to think about a poker hand in a game like heads-up no-limit, for example, isn’t going to get much better. So you see at the top level people actually are focusing more on not thinking so they can Zen out like Ivey does and just kind of absorb information that is harder to quantify. Most people have excellent fundamentals now. I do think cash game poker will have another rebirth; it does frequently and there are still tons of people playing and markets to explore. However, there are too many good poker players now and that those who are good don’t like to play those who are great. If you add in the eventual rise of "botting” we have some problems.

BP: Now it seems you have a good ability to have a balance between poker and other things in life you enjoy. Can you give some advice for people who are struggling with finding a balance?

MB: No, the balance is just an illusion, and I have started to believe it is impossible with poker if you want to play at the top level. You play terrible when you aren’t obsessed, as so much of the important thinking is done away from the felt while you’re eating a bowl of cereal. The best way to do it is just to be 100-percent obsessed, and then as mentioned in Super System, just schedule holidays. Even thinking about people that currently have balance in their lives, I see how much they’re slipping relative to the best at this given moment; and they could get back on top if they went into a cave for four months. Balance can’t work in the current poker economy.

I’ve had a lot of success at poker, and I’ve done plenty of other things over the last eight years. So, if I analyzed those years, I’d say that you work in chunks. That’s the way to do it. If you’re in obsessive poker mode, you just re-raise and go all the way.