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Advanced Poker Training: Revolutionizing the Art of Learning Poker

How Two Brothers Built the World’s Largest Training Site (and Helped Crown a World Champion)

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As Qui “TommyGun” Nguyen was standing behind his $8 million in cash after winning the 2016 World Series of Poker main event, Steve Blay was celebrating on the rail with Qui’s family and the rest of Team TommyGun. Blay, who along with his brother Allen founded AdvancedPokerTraining.com, served as Nguyen’s poker adviser at the final table. His poker training software had run thousands of simulations of the November Nine, and to him, Nguyen’s shocking victory wasn’t shocking at all. In fact, his software predicted it with amazing regularity.

Steve and Allen Blay, the brothers behind Advanced Poker Training (APT), confidently state that their training site is “the quickest path from beginner to world champion.” With more than 100 million hands of simulated poker played on APT in the past several years, and many thousands of convinced members, they might just be onto something. We got a chance to sit down with Steve and Allen and get some insight into how they developed the idea for APT and their perspective on the value – and necessity – of poker training.

Card Player: So where are you guys from?

Allen Blay: We’re both lifelong Floridians. I live in Tallahassee; Steve lives in Gainesville.

CP: Brothers close in age don’t always live in harmony, how did you two get along?

AB: Actually, pretty well. We had very different interests, so we weren’t on a collision course most of the time. I preferred to pick on our youngest brother, so Steve avoided most of my aggression.

Steve Blay: Except the infamous Etch-a-Sketch incident.

AB: Allegedly, when Steve was two, I hit him over the head with an Etch-a-Sketch and he wound up in the hospital. I have no recollection of the incident.

SB: There were plenty of witnesses.

CP: When did you first start playing poker? What drew you to the game?

SB: Allen and I used to play in college, at the University of Florida, purely to gamble at first. We had no idea there was so much skill to the game.

AB: We learned to play poker the old fashioned way – by losing money. There was one guy who seemed like he always won. Some people were convinced that he cheated, but I wasn’t sure. I started paying more attention to how he played, then went back to my room and did some math about the likelihood of hitting various hands and money I could potentially win. Basically, I figured out the concept of pot odds, long before the days when you could look it up on the Internet. I started winning. That was when I first realized the value of practicing a lot, and studying the game.

CP: What games do you most like to play?

SB: High-stakes home games are the most intense form of poker. Now that I’m a husband and father I don’t play them anymore, because there is always some non-zero risk that you’ll get arrested or shot. But the skill set required transcends poker: someone has to get you into the game, you need to be on guard against cheats, and you have to be fun and play a lot of hands. If people are doing shots of tequila, you’re doing shots too; if they are making ridiculous side bets, you do as well. Otherwise, you won’t get invited back. Playing in a controlled environment like a cardroom is easy by comparison.

CP: How did the idea for Advanced Poker Training come about?

SB: Allen has always been a great teacher and I started to realize that I love to teach and coach as well (I’m also a chess coach.) In the early 2000s, there were no good poker training materials available – just a bunch of videos of guys playing online, recording audio while they played, and giving questionable advice.

AB: Steve and I were in Las Vegas in 2005 and I proposed the concept of having people play a series of poker hands, and Steve could write a program that would analyze their play, assess their weaknesses, and give them a “poker IQ score.” Then they could buy a report resulting from this assessment. We tried out the concept with a 50-hand poker IQ test, and launched our initial site late in 2007. Given our young families (I was up to five kids by 2008), and my full-time job as an accounting professor, Advanced Poker Training took a couple of years to mature.

CP: What were the initial elements of the site?

AB: Our focus was originally on full-ring cash games. Users could play against 100 different virtual opponents, and get a fairly basic report after each session. They could see basic odds while they played and pick which hands they got dealt, freeze the button, etc.

CP: And now it has almost every variety of no-limit hold’em, training plans, “Beat the Pro” challenges, just a crazy amount of training materials. How did such a small company possibly develop something so different from anything else available?

SB: As people joined the site, we continued to expand the content available. Everybody loved it, and they begged us for more content. Eventually, we had enough paying members that I quit my “real job” as an engineer about 5 years ago, and started developing content for the site full-time. As long as people continue to enjoy the site, I’ve got no intention of stopping. I work seven days a week, but I get to work whenever I want, and I’m home with my kids all day. Life is good.

AB: Steve is a brilliant programmer and poker player, so when he quit his job to run APT full-time it really took off. Since then, the site has grown 10x in members and content. Many of the initial concepts were my ideas based on educational concepts, but I had no idea how to develop them. Initially I think Steve thought they were going to be impossible or too time-consuming to develop. We’re a good team because neither of us is greedy or power-hungry – the things that tend to break up partnerships.

CP: You each have somewhat distinct roles in APT.

SB: Being a CPA, Allen obviously handles the money, and a lot of the business decisions. Anything that involves poker strategy, game theory, or coding is all me. The main thing on the site that neither of us can take credit for is anything that looks nice: that credit goes to Gabriel Alvarez, who has been with us since the very beginning. Gabriel lives in Spain and has a one-year-old daughter; he also quit his “real job” for APT.

AB: I take a lot of pride in my teaching skills, having taught accounting for over 20 years. I develop new educational methods all the time in my classes. A lot of these concepts make their way into APT in some form or another. I think I’m also good with knowing how people like to learn (which is something I learn from my students).

CP: Steve, what were the key changes you made to improve yourself as a player and how did those changes inform you about how to train other players?

SB: I’ve never felt that excelling at poker is beyond the reach of anyone. You need to understand the theory behind the game, and then log a lot of hours applying that theory on the fly. It helps to be a little bit of a math geek, but that’s not totally necessary. APT can be a huge help because you can get all that practice in a short amount of time. The toughest part for me, and for most players, is that you have to get out of your comfort zone to improve yourself. For example, you must be able to make huge bluffs from time to time, and it really hurts the ego and the wallet when you are wrong. You’ve got to develop nerves of steel at the table. You can’t think about the money. It takes a long time to build up a tolerance for these things.

CP: What features of APT do you think members most benefit from?

SB: The “Beat the Pro” challenges would be my no. 1 choice, because the process is modeled after techniques researchers have proven to be the best way to learn. Instead of just watching a video of some guy play poker, you get to play the hands yourself first, then listen to the pro explaining how he would have played those exact same hands.

AB: I agree, I’m in love with Beat the Pro. Always have been. I don’t like most poker training videos. You cannot learn by watching someone else do something or talk about it. The BTP challenges are the happy medium. Our members get the pleasure of watching a pro talk through hands – but only after they played those hands themselves! It’s a perfect educational concept: practice, see what you didn’t do correctly, and then go practice some more. There’s nothing else like it anywhere in poker training.

Other than that, I also love the training plans. You have to know what you don’t know to get better.

CP: What kind of exercises can get the novice up to a competent level most quickly?

SB: Playing against the virtual opponents on APT – daily practice – looking at their reports, it will quickly help them figure out what their weaknesses are.

CP: How about evolving from a competent amateur player to being more competitive at high blind level cash games or higher buy-in tournaments?

SB: I think our Brain Button feature set, which we are continuing to work on, is a big help to advancing players. Part of the Brain Button toolset deals with hand ranges. Once you get past the basics of poker, you have to be able to think about your opponent’s hand ranges effectively. This is one of the most nuanced skills in poker, and it requires a lot of practice.

CP: What are the pitfalls that undermine players as they move up to more competitive rungs?

SB: Poker related: thinking that just going out to a cardroom and playing poker is enough to get better. Also, trying to play in a style that doesn’t work for their personality. But the vast majority of pitfalls are not even poker related. Poor money management, bad life decisions, bad health decisions – forgetting that the mind and body are interconnected. Texting a lot and goofing around while playing; not paying attention.

CP: What was it like to be on the rail at the final table?

SB: I can’t even begin to describe it. Chaos. Total poker euphoria. A lifetime dream come true. Very intense – I wanted to give Qui the best information possible on his opponents.

CP: What is APT up to this summer?

SB: We’re hosting a “Secrets of the World Champions” all-day seminar at the Rio on July 1st, featuring Qui Nguyen, Jonathan Little, Scotty Nguyen, and Scott Clements. You can find the details here.

CP: Where is APT going in the coming years?

AB: We are continuing to develop the AI of the site, and making the bots, advice, and training plans better. Game-theory optimal play: I see us developing tools to help with that, possibly as part of the Brain Button, possibly something completely different. I think this is especially relevant in tourney end-game and heads-up settings. But, in reality, we started with a bare-bones cash game system and now we have a site that can play everything from heads-up to simulating the WSOP main event. When I look back at my initial “dream list,” we’ve actually done everything on it and more.

SB: Poker is all about hand ranges, frequencies, and play balancing these days so continuing to add that thinking to the site is my main goal. I want to make sure the bots are giving the best advice in that department. That being said, I defer to whatever our customers say they want. They own the site in a sense, in that none of this would be possible without them. So, at the end of the day, I just do what I’m told! ♠