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Online Poker: Interview with Shawn 'phatcat' Luman

Recent Bodog Poker Open Main-Event Winner Talks About His Win, the 2007 World Series, and Poker Strategy

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Shawn 'phatcat' Luman won the first-ever Bodog Poker Open main eventBodog poker recently held its inaugural Bodog Poker Open (BPO) tournament series, and all eyes were on the main event and whether the winner would be a well-known pro or an unknown player. Well, the final table was stacked with notable online pros, so the odds were high that one would come out on top.

And, indeed, just that happened when Shawn “phatcat” Luman became the last man standing out of 596 entrants in the event. He snagged his biggest online score to date, $76,000, and the title of first-ever BPO champion.

Luman has almost $500,000 in lifetime Online Player of the Year-qualified winnings, but the 34-year-old poker player started, like many do, much more humbly. He played poker with friends in both high school and college at Kansas State University, where he eventually got a degree in accounting. He then went on to be a CPA, and afterwards became a CFO for a construction company.

It was at that time, around 2003, that one of his college buddies told him about all of the money to be made playing online poker.

“I was just starting out. I didn’t have a lot of money, and I just put in 50 bucks at a time, and, a lot of times, I’d lose that within the first day,” Luman said. “I wasn’t much for bankroll management, I was in it for the big score.”

Of course, he eventually learned the control that he needed to be successful, and he has become one of the winningest online players playing today. Card Player caught up with Luman after his BPO win to talk about his beginnings in poker, the BPO main event, his World Series of Poker near-miss, and about optimal tournament strategy:


Shawn Patrick Green: What steps did you take in your formative years to become a better player?

Shawn “phatcat” Luman: I’d always done pretty well in poker and always thought I had a feel for it, and I have a math background, as well. But the tournament theory and stuff like that was just foreign to me until I started reading some of the online forums, bought a few books, and started talking to some players; that’s when it really started to click. Back in late ’05 I final tabled the PokerStars big Sunday tourney; it wasn’t the Sunday Million back then. I final tabled it twice in like a month. I had some other good results on Paradise Poker and PartyPoker, as well. Ever since then, I’ve just continued to learn and talk to better players and get better myself. I haven’t looked back since then.

SPG: You said one of your early steps while learning the ropes was talking to players. Which players were you talking to at the very beginning? Anyone we’d know?

SL: Yeah, Rizen was one of them, Eric Lynch. He’s from Kansas, also; that’s how we first started talking, and he also first started having success around the same time. He was really the first person I talked with, and we kind of climbed the ladder together and both started having some success. Another person that I talk to a lot today is Steely, or NestOfSalt [Scott Wyler]. I still talk with him a lot to this day. Those two are the primary guys who have helped me.

SPG: Congrats on taking down the first-ever Bodog Poker Open main event. What did you think of that series, and that event, in particular?

SL: Actually, I don’t play much on Bodog. I usually play the Sunday tournament there, and that’s about it, because they don’t really cater to the high-stakes player; they don’t have too many high-stakes tournaments. But I did play every one of the BPO events, just because it was something new and cool, and it had higher buy-ins. I had zero success in any of the events, I don’t think I cashed in any of them until that last one. But I thought it was great; I was impressed with the turnout, I think it’s a good series, and I hope they continue it. And yeah, that was my biggest online score ever, so that was pretty cool.

SPG: The final table featured some tough competitors. Who were you most worried about, and why?

SL: Well, I knew TheWacoKidd [Jared Hamby], of course; he’s a friend of mine, and also a great player. Anbessa was there, who is also a really good player, especially lately, he’s been putting up some sick results. The guy who finished second [_TheFinisher_] is also … I think he’s primarily a cash-game player, but I knew of him, as well. Zpaceman [Stuart Taylor] was there, too, and he’s a great player.

I have a lot of respect for all of them, and I was cognizant of that fact and was careful playing with them. But probably the one I was worried about most was Waco, more than anything, because he had position on me. He was right to my left, so I had to be careful.

SPG: In what ways were you cautious, and how do you deal with that?

SL: Well, I pretty much didn’t get out of line versus him. I just tried to play solid poker. I wasn’t going to make any rash moves on him unless it was a perfect situation.

SPG: How did the field of players on Bodog differ from that which you’ve experienced in other online tournament series on other sites?

SL: Well, generally, the play in MTTs [multitable tournaments] there is weaker, and that’s something that I thought was pretty important in that tournament. Although, at times, it can be pretty deceiving, because so many people don’t play on Bodog, and, especially in this tournament, a lot of the big-name players probably did play, but they could have had different names on Bodog, so you might not recognize them as big players. So, you have to keep that in the back of your mind. But, for the most part, I would give less credit to the players there than I would elsewhere. And that’s a pretty important part of any tournament, I think, but especially this one; I would try to realize who I was playing against and tailor my play depending upon whether they were a known player or not. It can certainly be a 180 degree difference between how you’re going to play against a good player versus an unknown.

SPG: What do you mean by that exactly, though? What kinds of differences do you see in your play?

SL: You can resteal a lot lighter against an unknown or random player — or, until you prove otherwise, you can. Or you should be less likely to do that against a good player who realizes that you’re in a good spot to resteal, and you should probably be a little more careful. With some of the unknowns, you can assume that they think that when you reraise them you’ve got a monster and they’ll fold. That’s pretty much how I play that, most of the time.

SPG: What were the keys to taking down the event?

SL: Early, I built up a pretty big stack, but I ended up bluffing it off, and this kind of relates to what I was saying, earlier. I got into a fairly big pot against who I thought was a random player. I had an underpair to the board, and there was two pair on the board, so I had nothing, and I check-raised him all in on the river, thinking that he couldn’t call without the full house — which he had. But I got busted down to three, four, or five big blinds then, and that was still early in the tournament. But I found out later that that was a really good player who I just didn’t recognize, and it’s dangerous when you make those assumptions.

But I ended up building it back up, didn’t give up, played solid, and wound up with a pretty big stack toward the end. I used that to my advantage when I could, and I played aggressively, but I tried not to get too far out of line. I think I had only one suckout at the final table, versus anbessa, when he had kings and I had to call his re-shove, I thought, because he was down in the 15-big-blind range, and I figured he could have had a pretty wide range of hands there. I don’t even remember what I had, but I sucked out against his K-K.

SPG: Going back to the misplayed hand at the beginning of the tournament, when you get caught in a hand like that, how do you prevent yourself from going on a kind of embarrassment tilt? How do you put it in perspective?

SL: Actually, if you put it in the right perspective, I think you certainly can use a mistake like that to your advantage. Absolutely, you can, because you’ve got to realize that if you make a dumb play, or a stupid play, or an over-aggressive play, the rest of the table saw that, and it’s going to stick out, so you’ve now got this image, and you use that image to your advantage. You then try to look for situations where they think you may be doing something similar, and you do something completely opposite.

That’s one of the philosophies I use a lot of times early in tournaments. I’ll play loose or aggressive or whatever it is; when you’ve got deep stacks, you have some room to maneuver, and whatever ends up happening, whether it be a mistake or people think you’re a maniac or whatever, just use that image to your advantage later. I think that’s very important, and it can change from tournament to tournament. You might have some people at your table who think you’re a donkey, and you can use that to your advantage. You might have people think you’re a maniac. Whatever it is, it can change from tournament to tournament; I don’t think you should go in with a set plan. You have to make sure that you realize what your image is and play off of that image. That can be a huge advantage, because you can turn those mistakes into positive results, later.

SPG: Let’s jump back to last year’s World Series of Poker. You don’t play in many live tournaments, and yet you almost snagged a bracelet last year when you came in third in a $1,000 no-limit hold’em rebuy event, worth more than $200,000. Can you tell us a bit about that experience?

SL: Yeah, it was pretty exciting, of course. Like you said, I haven’t played in many live tournaments, and that was just the second year that I’d played at the World Series. Other than that, I’ve just played at the PCA [PokerStars Caribbean Adventure]. I didn’t play [the PCA] this year, but I played the two years previous. So yeah, it was pretty exciting, and that was a tough final table, as well. It had some fairly well-known players: Chad Batista, Theo Tran, and Isaac Haxton. So, it was a tough table. It was exciting, but I tried not to let it affect me, and I tried to play my game the best that I could.

SPG: Well, after getting a taste of that, and being so close to the bracelet, are you going to be just jamming it out this year by playing in a ton of events?

SL: No… I’m afraid not. I wish I could. I had thought that maybe I’d try to get out there for a month or so and play in a lot of events, but with work I just don’t know if it’s going to work out to be gone that long. I’ll try to play in at least one or two, maybe, besides the main event, but I don’t know if it’s going to work out to play in a whole lot of them, like I’d like to. But yeah, you’re right, I’d certainly love to, especially during that time last year, seeing all of those guys who were able to stay out there for a month or two to play in every event or play in a lot of the events is something that I think would be a lot of fun. And I’m sure that someday I will do that, but I just don’t know if this year will be the year.

SPG: So, you’re still technically not a full-time poker pro?

SL: Yep, that’s right.

SPG: And you’re still working as CFO for the same company?

SL: Yep.

SPG: Well … hmm, I guess I’m not going to ask you that. I was going to ask if there were any plans on switching, but you might not want to have that in print (laughing).

SL: (Laughs) Well, you know, it is certainly appealing, but I like my job. It’s rewarding and I’ve got a family to take care of. If I knew that poker is going to be like it is now for the next 30 years, I wouldn’t be so hesitant, but there’s just this unknown out there of what it’s going to be, what online is going to be like, in five years or 10 years. I’ve got a whole life ahead of me that I’ve got to think about, and it’s just hard to make that switch once you’ve gotten onto the career path and you’ve got a good job that you enjoy that pays well, and you know you can take care of your family no matter what happens. It’s tough to have that kind of security, I think, with poker, especially with regard to what it’s going to be like in 10-20 years. I just don’t think anybody can know that.

SPG: The final three tables or so of that World Series tournament were stacked with online players. What differences do you see between predominantly live and predominantly online poker players?

SL: Well, the online players are certainly technically more proficient than the live players. On the other hand, the live players probably have a one-up on the online players as far as live reads. But most online players are able to successfully translate their play live and play just like they do online, which, for the most part, is pretty well. I give them more credit if I know that they’re an online player, or I give them some credit, anyway, for being technically proficient. They’ll be aware of some of the moves that you might be making, and they’ll be making the same moves on you. It is a different world, but I think that you’re going to be seeing more of that in the future, online players playing in those tournaments, because there are just so many good players out there.

SPG: You said that one of the assets that live players have is their ability to possibly be more proficient with live reads. How important do you really think live reads are, though?

SL: Oh … probably not all that important, to be honest. I mean, if you’re at the final table and a big hand comes up and you’re able to discern something, then maybe. And then, of course, there are some players who are a lot better than most at live reads, I imagine. I don’t have enough experience to know, but I’m sure there are some people where that might be 80 percent of their success; they’re able to determine how somebody acts, physically, in certain situations. But I don’t know, I think, for the most part, it’s probably overrated, and I can’t imagine it being as important as being technically sound and proficient.

SPG: I’ve heard some conflicting viewpoints on whether it is optimal to exploit small edges in hands — like, say a 55/45 or worse edge — in tournaments versus cash games. Most people say you should always exploit those edges in cash games but almost always wait for a better spot in tournaments. However, the argument for exploiting them in tournaments is that the blinds keep escalating, and you have a limited number of times to pick a spot, so you should take advantage of the small edges when you can, when you are fairly certain you have them. And, in cash games, obviously the argument is that you should always take advantage of any edge that you can, because you have a theoretically infinite bankroll, so you should never have fear of losing, because if you always make that decision, you will profit in the long run. What is your opinion on those two different viewpoints.

SL: Well, I think that’s an excellent argument, and I can definitely see both sides of it, and I think that maybe that is one area where online players overestimate their edges. Let me qualify that by saying that if you knew for 100 percent certain that you had a 52/48 edge or 55/45 edge, then I absolutely think it is correct to take advantage of it, provided that it is not some weird situation where it’s a $1 million buy-in tournament where you’re never going to be in that situation again. But if it’s a classic tournament situation that you’re going to see 100 or 1,000 times again, and you know that you’re going to get to play long-term, then you should take that edge.

The problem with that way of thinking, though, is that many times players overestimate their ability to discern what their edge is. In other words, calculating what their opponent’s range is, that is such an inexact science, and that range can change in different situations so often that it’s so hard to discern whether you do have an edge or not. So, that’s when I think that it can be overkill. And I try to reflect that in my game, too, by being a little bit passive, especially preflop, in those situations, and trying to play more post-flop, when you can define more where you are in the hand, define the opponent’s range a little more, and be a little more certain of what your equity really is, rather than just getting it all in preflop because you think you’re a 52 percent favorite.

Again, I’m not saying that you shouldn’t take those edges; if you have a very, very high certainty that you have that edge, that means that you should take it. But, if you can reduce that variance, whether it be by playing more streets or playing more passively or calling rather than raising when you’re not 100 percent sure, you should. Variance is huge, and if you can do anything to decrease that variance, even if it means slightly lower equity, I think it pays to do that in tournaments.

SPG: In a tournament, doesn’t it make sense to almost consider it like a cash game? It’s said that you should always play like you have an infinite bankroll in a cash game, and you shouldn’t play like that in a tournament, because once you bust, you’re out. But you have an infinite number of tournaments in which you can play, so if you always make that slightly positive EV [expected value] call, over the long term you’re going to put yourself in a position to have a large stack and to take down the entire tournament more often. Do you agree with that, or do you see a flaw in that logic?

SL: I think, for the most part, that that’s correct, provided that you intend to play many, many tournaments, and that that long run is going to be attainable. There are certain situations where I think that the variance of that style of thought can kind of negate the positive long-term expectations. For one, if you’re in a really weak field and busting out of the tournament is going to be more detrimental than the equity that you would have from staying in the tournament, then sometimes that’s not quite the case. But, for the most part, it is correct. But it certainly highly, highly increases your variance, and you have to be willing and able to accept that variance if you’re going to play that kind of style.

SPG: As far as cash games are concerned, is there ever a case where you think it is not correct to take a very small edge, especially if it is a huge pot?

SL: Probably not, especially if you’re playing within your bankroll, although I don’t profess to be much of a cash-game expert. But I can’t imagine that that wouldn’t be correct, provided that you’re playing within your bankroll.

 
 
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