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Online Poker: Interview With David Williams

The Bodog-Sponsored Pro Talks About His Beginnings in Poker, Seven-Card Stud Strategy, and the Upcoming Inaugural Bodog Poker Open


David WilliamsDavid Williams is one of the faces of Bodog Poker, an online poker site that is about to hold its first-ever online poker tournament series, the Bodog Poker Open (March 3-9). Williams was once nicknamed “The Boy Who Would Be King,” as he had frequently finished as runner-up in major events, failing to take down a title, most notably at the 2004 World Series of Poker main event. Well, that nickname melted away into obsolescence when he took down a $1,500 seven-card stud event at the 2006 WSOP, earning his first bracelet. He had already taken down a few events prior to that win, but his bracelet-win was the most symbolic.

The 27-year-old poker player has nearly $6 million in lifetime tournament winnings, his biggest cash being for his famous second-place finish to Greg Raymer in the 2004 WSOP main event, worth $3.5 million. Since that finish, he has taken down preliminary events in the 2004 Five-Diamond World Poker Classic, the 2006 WSOP Circuit Caesars, and the 2007 Bellagio Cup III, in addition to his WSOP win.

Like many other notable poker pros, Williams got his start in playing card games professionally with the game Magic: The Gathering. Magic is a fantasy-themed collectible card game that challenges players to strategically build small decks from thousands of available cards and to use their decks creatively and tactically to defeat their opponents. The lessons Williams and others learned from the game made the transition to the more lucrative world of poker relatively painless.

Card Player recently talked to Williams about the upcoming Bodog Poker Open (read about how to qualify here), his beginnings as a poker player, and how he manages his bankroll.

Shawn Patrick Green:
It may be a bit of a rehash for some of our readers, but can you tell us about how you got started in poker?

David Williams:
I played Magic: The Gathering since I was 13, which was in ’93, when it first came out. In about … maybe ’97, I was at a Magic tournament and some of my friends were playing limit hold’em. I didn’t know what it was, and we always hung out together, so I went over to see what they were doing, and they were playing poker. I asked them to tell me how it worked and if I could join in. I sat in and started playing with them, and I’ve been playing nonstop since.

SPG: What were the fundamentals that you learned from playing Magic that carried over to poker?

DW: Well, there are no specifics. The games, I think, are different, although there are elements that are maybe the same. But the thing that helped the most was playing in the high-level Magic tournaments — they really just prepared me for competition, which is really what poker is. The Magic tournaments have long hours, just like a poker tournament, and you always have to be sharp and be on your toes.

So, it was more tournament and strategy conditioning, because so many years of play in high-level [Magic] tournaments got me used to the pressure and things like that for which a poker tournament is a natural fit.

SPG: Are concepts like the odds of drawing a certain card, or any other mathematical calculations, important in Magic at the higher levels?

DW: Sometimes it can be effective if you know that you have two cards that kill a creature and you need one, and you can count your deck and see that there are 30 cards left, so you’re 14-1 to draw one of the cards, and you have to play accordingly, because you’re not likely to draw one soon. So, you can use it in that way, but it comes up so rarely that sometimes you just want to know if you’re going to draw it, but there’s not much you can do to hold off [until you get it]. But every now and then, you can.

SPG: It’s pretty exciting to finally have an online poker tournament series on Bodog. How is the Bodog team of pros going to factor into the proceedings?

DW: Fortunately, they scheduled the series when there are no major poker tournaments going on. The Bay 101 [Shooting Star] starts the day after the final hands, and the other ones don’t overlap; there’s pretty much dead space on the live tournament circuit, which will make it easy for all of us — Evelyn [Ng], Josh [Arieh], and me — to play in every event. I’ve got the funds waiting in my account that I’ve saved to play in all of the events, and I’m looking forward to it, so I think you’ll see us in every event.

SPG: The six events are all hold’em. What are your thoughts on that, especially considering your World Series bracelet is from a non-hold’em game?

DW: Yeah, well, I mean, I have a bracelet in a non-hold’em game, and I’ve done well in games other than hold’em, but I still have hold’em results. You have to build up the number of players in a tournament, and if you look at the other online poker series, the no-limit hold’em events are the ones with all of the players. They have the other games, but the attendance is lower, and Bodog obviously has a lower player-base than the two big sites. So, they pretty much have to do what they can to get started and have attendance, which comes with no-limit hold’em, or just hold’em, in general.

SPG: Which event are you looking forward to, most?

DW: The main event, obviously, just because it’s got the bigger buy-in and it’s on the Sunday, so I’m predicting that it will get a lot of players in it and it will be the biggest tournament that they’ve had on Bodog, which I’m excited about. I’m looking forward to the pot-limit hold’em event, too. I like playing pot-limit with the players, because they can’t just move in on you. It’s not as good for the bad players as no-limit hold’em is, so it gives me a big edge.

SPG: Well, how differently do you play pot-limit compared to no-limit? Are there specific things that players are doing wrong from a strategic standpoint when they play pot-limit and they aren’t experienced in it?

DW: Well, it’s not like it’s one specific thing, but due to the nature of pot-limit, it’s a lot harder to get all of your money in preflop. So, it allows me to play more hands and more flops with players and to make reads and decisions on whether or not people have pairs or how strong their hands are, or whether or not I can get them off the hand after the flop.

SPG: I’d say that having a bracelet in seven-card stud qualifies you as an expert in the game (laughs), so I’d like to pick your brain a bit about stud.

DW: Yeah, you can try (laughs). I haven’t played a hand of stud in over a year, since last year at The Commerce; I might be out of practice on it.

SPG: (Laughs) It might help to kick-start your brain on it, then, especially with the World Series already coming back up.

DW: Yeah, I’m actually at The Commerce now and was about to go downstairs to play some stud, so…

SPG: Perfect. What sets great players apart from merely OK players in stud?

DW: Well, it’s kind of funny, because I’ve watched a lot of who I consider really great stud players play a lot of stud — Phil Ivey and Ted Forrest — and it’s amazing how they always seem to be in tune with exactly their opponents’ holding and not miss any bets. Because it’s a limit game, so every bet is important; it’s not no-limit where you can just stack someone off. I’ve seen Phil bet a pair of threes on the river in stud and get called and have it be good. It’s one of those situations where you’re like, “How did you know he’d call you with a hand worse than threes?” And then he explained it to me, “Well, you know, he had this, and it looked like I had this, and such and such, so, how can I not bet my threes?”

And I’ve seen Ted do the same thing, just value-bet so thin that you can’t understand it until you realize that for them to make that value bet, not only do they have to know their opponents’ holdings, but they have to be inside their opponents’ heads to know that they’re even going to call it. And I don’t consider myself a great stud player, even though I have a bracelet; I consider those guys great stud players, because they’re on a completely different level. Figuring out exactly what your opponents’ have … I mean, there’s so much that goes into knowing your opponents and how they play their hands and what kinds of hands that they can have that it’s really an art.

SPG: You mentioned that seven-card stud is a limit game. How does the fact that it’s a limit game affect the success-rate of bluffs and your inclination to do so?

DW: Well, for me, in the beginning, I figured, “Hey, it’s a limit game, nobody folds for one bet when they’re always getting like 10-1 or 15-1 on the end to make the calls.” So, I didn’t make many bluffs, because I was that kind of guy, I was the guy that wouldn’t fold for one bet. I’m like, “What the hell, it’s only one bet, I’m going to call.” I just assume that if players played like that, how could you bluff the river? I just figured that if they had made it through the other streets to get to the end, they’re going to call.

And then, after watching the players like Phil and Ted play, watching all of the high-limit stud players playing at that level, you realize that not only are they folding on the river sometimes when they know their hand is no good — not saying they should be folding on the river, but when you know it’s no good — that allows them to know that other players can do that, so then they make a bluff, because players will lay down. So, it kind of opens that level back up again, on both sides of it, which is a whole different thing, knowing what hands you can lay down. I’ve even seen players fold two pair for one bet on the end. It’s so amazing how thin of a line it is between when you should call, when you should raise, and when you should fold, and how being on the right side of that line is so important to making a profit in stud.

SPG: At a full table, there are eight visible cards on the table on third street, before anyone has folded, including your upcard, and two more in your pocket cards. So, essentially, there are 10 cards to try to see and remember, and some of your opponents are likely mucking their upcards fairly quickly, making it even harder. Do you have to be a genius with a photographic memory to play this game well?

DW: Well, you only have to memorize the cards that are folded, first off. The ones that are still up, like your own, from the players who are still in the hand, you don’t have to memorize their hands because they’re still in it, so you can just look over and see. So, you only really have to keep track of what’s been folded, and you usually have a lot of opponents seeing fourth street, so you really only have that one street when there are a lot of cards to remember, and I kind of just put them in numerical and suit order in my head to remember, and it’s pretty simple to remember.

At an eighthanded table, you’re never really going to have to remember more than seven people’s cards, usually, and seven is a phone number; if you can’t remember seven digits, you really shouldn’t be playing poker. Most people can remember seven digits.

SPG: You’re a notoriously nitty bankroll manager. What are some of your rules regarding your bankroll, and why?

DW: Before I kind of blew up in poker, in the Raymer year in 2004, I didn’t really have a lot of money. I mean, I was comfortable; people seem to have this misconception that I was some broke guy that got lucky. But no, I was beating some local poker games and I had a nice six-figure bankroll built up, but it took years to grow that. It was growing slowly. I had some money, but I wasn’t wealthy, by any means. Before that, I was kind of in a middle-class family, and my mom took care of me, and I had what I wanted, but I didn’t want very expensive things.

So, in a way, I didn’t really have a lot of money growing up, so when I finally hit it big and won millions, I decided, “This is the spot that I don’t want to not be in.” Luckily for me, it wasn’t like I was just thrust into the tournament poker world, won millions, and didn’t know; I grew up in cardrooms in Dallas and played with some of the old guys who told me stories of the Texas road gamblers and such. So, I knew how easy it was to go broke. I knew guys who played in that game and had millions and now they’re broke and playing $5-$10 with me. I’d heard all of the stories, so I was fortunate enough to know the things that follow poker success.

A lot of players bet sports and go broke, and I’ve seen that for years. So, when I won the money, I knew the dangers that came along with it, and I decided that I didn’t want to be one of those guys. So, I locked away a lot of it and decided that I wasn’t going to sports-bet and I wasn’t going to waste a lot of money on stupid things and take a lot of unnecessary risks in gambling. I wasn’t going to do these things, I was really just going to keep my money. I wanted to make sure that I could live comfortably for the rest of my life.

SPG: In what kinds of ways are you doing that, then?

DW: Well, I don’t play too high and I don’t play in games in which I don’t think I can do well. And if I do have a bad month, I have a limit on how much I can lose, so if I have a really bad week or month I just think, “OK, hey, I’ll just take some time off until I recover.” So I kind of have a stop-loss, which is good because it allows me to never really lose too much if things go bad, and if I win, I can win infinitely on the other side. I can win huge, but I can’t really have loses that are huge for a month because I don’t allow myself to lose.

And it’s kind of funny … I bring up Phil Ivey a lot, because he’s a friend of mine that I look up to and respect, and I notice that if he sits down at a table on Full Tilt and loses a buy-in or two, he’ll just quit. He’ll just get up and leave. If he plays for 20 minutes and loses that first buy-in, he just says “Screw it” and goes and does something else. When you have a stop-loss like that, you can only lose X dollars, but when you win … . If you see that guy win, it’ll be for $700K or $1 million or whatever. You can win infinitely. So I’ve modeled myself after that; if I’m in a game and things go bad and I lose quickly, I take a break. I don’t want to get buried; I’ll do something else. I’ll come back and start fresh another day. When there’s a floor on what you can lose, but there’s no ceiling on what you can win, it’s pretty hard not to end up winning.

SPG: That’s all I’ve got for you, David. Thanks for taking the time for this interview.

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