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Poker Pro Turned MMA Fighter Ready To Bounce Back After First Loss

Terrence Chan Reflects On Life On The Felt And In The Cage

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Chan at the 2012 WSOPPoker pro Terrence Chan suffered his first MMA defeat in November, but in the always evolving fight game, Chan still has his eyes set on reaching the UFC, the pinnacle of the sport.

Chan, who has $1.2 million in tournament poker earnings and untold winnings in cash games, is a bantamweight (135 lbs). His record now stands at 6-1. “I might have been an undefeated fighter [beforehand], but I was never under the false notion that I was invincible or the best in the world,” the 36-year-old Chan wrote on his blog after the loss. “I’ve trained against enough elite guys to know better than that.”

Though he doesn’t have his next fight scheduled yet, Chan is back to full-time training in 2017. Card Player had the chance to speak to him about where is MMA career is at these days and some of the parallels between poker and fighting.

Brian Pempus: How has your MMA game evolved over the past couple of years?

Terrence Chan: I’ve been focusing a lot on technique, as well as strength and conditioning. Like a lot of older fighters, I’ve been doing less hard sparring as I get a bit older, and trying to bridge the gap with just training more intelligently, but just as frequently.

BP: Does the scaling back of hard sparring help fighters stay fresher for a fight and does that help preserve your chin?

TC: I think so. There’s definitely a trend in MMA now to do less hard sparring and more skill work. But sparring still has its place, and I definitely still do some hard sparring in the last couple of weeks before the fight. There’s definitely a ton of evidence that concussions can accumulate and that once you have a few, you’re far more susceptible to further ones. So I definitely don’t want that.

BP: With poker, there are a lot of examples of people finding success thanks to coaching they have received. Can you talk about coaching in MMA and how important it can be to find the right people to train with or learn from?

TC: It’s really huge. Things like athleticism and mindset/mental toughness are big factors, but the right coach makes a huge difference in MMA. I think poker is similar to MMA in that the best coaches teach concepts and not just “moves” or “plays.” But it’s also different. An MMA coach has to recognize what his student is naturally adept at and creates a game to help compliment those skills and talents. In poker, it’s more like, “okay you’re probably not three-betting enough from the big blind” or “your bluffing frequency is too high.” And personality fit probably matters a lot more in MMA than in poker. Most fighters have a very close relationship with their coach where a few words here and there make a huge difference in that fighter’s mentality, whereas in poker often we just look for the guy who makes that light bulb go off in your head and you think, “a-ha, now I get it.”

BP: For you, were there any challenges in finding the right coaches or training partners when you first started?

TC: I think I’m pretty lucky in Vancouver that I happened to live near a great coach who is very passionate about the sport. Same when I lived in Vegas for my short stint at Ultimate Poker. I think I’m the kind of guy who to some extent likes to do his own…maybe programming is the right word? In other words, I think about my game a lot, and think about how I want to improve, and seek out specific advice from coaches. If I’m struggling with finishing a particular takedown, I’ll go to a wrestling coach. If I’m looking for advice on how to counter in striking then I’ll ask the striking coach, etc. But even still I’m the kind of guy who needs the expert to tell me, “you’re doing this wrong.” And then I’ll work on that thing as hard as I can.

As for training partners, my ideal training partners are just guys who will push me hard but not take advantage of me when I’m tired and just try to use me as a punching bag. And I also have a special affinity for guys who just like to do reps, whether striking, wrestling, whatever. Just putting in repetitions and repetitions. It’s like musicians who practice their scales every day, except that in fighting you need a partner to do those scales.

BP: Do you think there’s a parallel between fighting and poker in the sense that you better not get too used to winning all the time because there will be a setback and how you bounce back is part of the game?

TC: I think in all parts of life there’s variance, and that it definitely behooves you to have mental toughness to get over whatever bad breaks come your way. But bad breaks come a lot more often in poker. I mean pretty much every pro is ready to lose an 80-20 for a huge amount of money whether it’s a tournament or a cash game. But honestly in MMA, if you lose, it’s your fault. Yeah sometimes there are freak accidents and injuries, maybe a guy gets the flu on the day of the fight or breaks his hand on the first punch, or whatever. But the vast majority of the time, the guy who wins deserves to win because he did something good and offensive, or the guy who lost made a mistake. I think that’s a big difference. In poker you can do everything flawlessly and still get a terrible result, and you can play terribly and still win big.

BP: Some players might win big and not even realize that they had played poorly but just ran well. It may be hard to see the holes in their game before the downswing happens. With MMA, can you get a much better sense of how you truly performed and if so, was there any allure for you in a sport/activity that is more of a meritocracy than poker?

TC: Actually, I think they’re both very honest in that sense. Poor players simply don’t last very long in poker. Except for people who luckboxed a huge poker tournament, most of the guys with huge leaks in their game end up washing out eventually. MMA might be more immediate in the relationship between skills and results, but that’s the only real difference. I think in general I’m just attracted to competitive things that I have to work very hard at, and that are fun. The truth is that MMA is a great deal of fun, and I learn so much about the sport every day, and it’s a lot like when I first got into poker and made leaps in knowledge all the time.

BP: What were some of the feelings you had the next day after suffering your first MMA loss late last year? Did it motivate you more? In your experience with poker, did you handle setbacks similarly?

TC: It definitely motivates me more. I watch that video over and over and know there there’s small little adjustments that I can make, and like I said earlier, I went to all my coaches and said, “please look at this video, tell me everything I did wrong.” And yeah, it’s definitely like poker. When you have a hand you’re not sure about, you should ask an expert about it. If you have a concept you don’t understand, ask an expert. No matter what you’re studying, you have to be willing to look dumb sometimes in order to get better.

BP: MMA is booming as an industry. Do you think that drew you to the sport like perhaps the poker boom in the mid-to-late 2000s drew you to high-stakes poker?

Chan After His Loss In NovemberTC: I guess I’ve gotten a little lucky in that I got into both MMA and poker just slightly ahead of the big boom. With poker, that was obviously a bigger deal because I was able to make a bunch of money by simply having been an experienced player pre-Moneymaker. But no, I don’t think the boom had much to do with my interest in the two games, but I’ve definitely benefited tremendously from the subsequent booms. But much like with poker in the late 2000s and early 2010s, the MMA game has gotten much tougher and much more sophisticated. So I have to work exceedingly hard and smart to keep up.

BP: Seems like a lot of UFC fighters these days are starting to express discontent with their pay. Does this make it seem even more remarkable that JC and Olivier fought an amateur bout with such prize money on the line? A lot of UFC fighters don’t make that much.

TC: Yeah, in fact I think I tweeted at the time that the winner would be paid more than almost all non-champions in the UFC. But the UFC’s value is still very much in their brand, and they know it. They know that fighters’ dreams are to say they’re a “UFC fighter” and to make it to the top. So that makes it pretty hard for the non-top-tier in the UFC to have very much bargaining power, when there’s some other hungry person more than happy to take less money for his or her shot at the big show.

BP: The booms in poker and MMA might have some similarities but there’s not really as much of a gold rush in MMA as there was with poker?

TC: No not really. It seems like the UFC is reaping the vast majority of the benefits, whereas in poker the boom benefited online poker operators, live casinos and poker rooms, poker players, poker television industry, all of that. But they also were very much responsible for building their brand and their company from way back before MMA was popular, so in many ways they deserved their big break.

BP: Could you talk about knowing when to quit in MMA and does this have any parallel with poker? Poker it’s more like walking away from a session and maybe not retiring from the game itself, but how important is knowing when you are outclassed?

TC: Yeah that’s tough. Because we’ve talked a lot about variance in poker and it’s not always easy to know whether you’re losing because you’re getting unlucky, or you’re losing because you’re the lesser-skilled player. In poker, a big sign you might be getting outclassed is if you’re simply guessing and really confused a lot of the time when it comes to your big decisions. If every decision you have is tough and you’re really unsure, then your opponent might be doing a really good job of putting you in tough spots. That’s like the MMA equivalent of a guy who just keeps landing his punches on you, or is all over you on the mat. Again, in MMA, it’s a little more obvious when you’re outclassed, but there are definitely warning signs in poker, and being confused in a lot of spots against an opponent is one of them.

BP: Given that you started MMA later in your life, do you think you could be fighting into your 40s?

TC: Yeah, I definitely could. In fact, a big part of me wants to, because I think it would be sort of the triumph of the intelligent fighter. I spend so much time and effort on the science of human performance, I try to gather information from everywhere and I live a really strict lifestyle in terms of training, recovery, nutrition and so on. But that being said, I’m not sure I will. I think I’d like to start a family soon, and I don’t want to be taking a lot of crazy risks if I’m going to be a dad. I actually used to have a Muay Thai trainer who had a very promising career as a fighter, and he pulled out of a fight and quit literally the day that he found out he was going to be a father. I’m not sure if I’m that hardcore on it, but I think that both parenthood and fighting are full-time jobs and both ones that require and deserve my full energy.

BP: Do you think that’s also the case with poker? Balancing a family and the schedule of playing at random hours can be too difficult? I was reading that Brazilian jiu-jitsu black belts are usually humble people because of the patience needed to get there. So I’m wondering if a family can in some sense give a fighter, or a poker player, a good support system and make them more “grounded”? Could a family enhance one’s maturity and improve results even though it does cut back on available time to train and prepare?

TC: I think everyone’s different. A lot of professional fighters do much better as parents, because they’ve been given an extra motivation. And I’m sure professional poker players do the same. It might be easier to go on tilt, or play in games you shouldn’t be playing, if you’re just a single person with no responsibilities, but when it’s food coming out of your family’s mouth, that’s another story. And to be honest, I don’t know how such things will change me personally until I’m in those shoes. I’m only guessing at how I’ll feel when that day comes for me. Everyone reacts differently.

BP: Would you rather a child of yours go into MMA or poker? Or does it not really matter much to you as long as it is done intelligently?

TC: Well, poker will probably look very different by the time any child of mine is legally old enough to play. I think it’s unlikely that 20+ years from now we’ll be playing poker in cardrooms or online the way that we do today. I’m sure absolutely no parent wants to see their kid enter combat sports and risk all the injury that’s associated with that. But it’s a great sport, and I would definitely want to expose a child of mine to as many sports as possible, and let him or her decide which one to pursue seriously. I guess even if professional poker is very different in 20 years, probably some variant of professional gambling will exist. I wouldn’t mind if my child were a professional gambler, though I would try to advise him/her on just how difficult a life that is.

BP: You think live poker in cardrooms could be largely gone in 20 years?

TC: I don’t know if it will be gone, but it almost certainly won’t look the way it does now, with games anywhere from $1-$2 to $200-$400. I think when artificial intelligence gets to the point where humans can no longer beat computers, poker might start looking like other games like chess and backgammon which are definitely still played and still popular, but significantly harder to make a living at.

BP: I was watching a video about the dorms at Tristar gym in Montreal, and it seems like MMA is in this era where so many people are trying to learn as much as possible as soon as possible. Like a rush for knowledge. It feels like how poker was back in its heyday, with sharing strategies and new theories, coaching sites popping up a lot. Do you think there’s always this goal to “solve” games?

TC: Oh absolutely. One thing that’s consistent between poker and MMA is that people recognize very quickly when someone is truly a genius at the game and can explain it in a way that’s actionable. Another parallel is that these big gyms like Tristar or ATT or Jackson Wink or whatever, they’re sort of like places where similarly-minded people can gather. In poker there are so many people who benefit from sharing knowledge with their inner circle of friends, there are so many of these groups and they all help each other get better.

BP: There’s that notion that some fighters are never the same after a brutal KO loss. Have you ever seen this in poker where you felt like a player was never quite the same psychologically after a horrible beat with tons of money on the line or perhaps a really embarrassing blowup deep in a big tournament? Seems like there is gun shyness in both poker and MMA.

TC: No, I think that most poker pros are at least decent at handling their bad beats, I think they might go on tilt for a session or even a week or even a month, but I don’t think it will destroy their whole career, in general. I think generally it takes something much bigger in poker to really rattle a poker pro. For example on the Pokercast we interviewed Prahlad Friedman a while back and he talked about how he was on top of the world as an elite high-stakes player and the UB superuser scandal really threw off his game and it took him a while to recover from that. But how could it not—here he was, one of the best players of his era, and he was getting smashed because unbeknownst to him he was being cheated. That’s what I mean by “something bigger,” although that’s about as big as it gets.

 
 
Tags: Terrence Chan,   MMA