Last year the Will Series of Poker seemed to be all anybody (ESPN and the poker media alike) could talk about during the days surrounding the WSOP coverage and the November Nine. William Kassouf brought an energy and dynamic that hadn’t been seen at the World Series since Jamie Gold plowed through the largest field in Main Event history in 2006 (8,773 players).
We, his audience, couldn’t stop talking about Kassouf because he could not stop talking himself. But it wasn’t simply that Will was talking at the table. Plenty of people talk – and talk a lot. Rob Salaburu chatted frequently during the 2012 coverage. John Hesp talked plenty this year. Mike Matusow and Phil Hellmuth are rarely on mute while the cameras are rolling. Plenty of talented, successful players still talk frequently at the table. People like Daniel Negreanu and Antonio Esfandiari and Scott Seiver.
No, Kassouf was doing something different. He was talking in an attempt to influence action, to induce his opponents to call, raise or fold depending on the situation. Kassouf mirrored Jamie Gold in that he was almost always talking about the specific hands he was currently playing. He often announced whether he was bluffing or betting for value. He told the truth more frequently than not, but he was much more balanced in table talk than Jamie Gold ever was.
And not only was this better television. This style won him chips.
And a similar approach has begun to win me chips as well. But not in the way you might think.
If you watched or listened to any of the hundreds of interviews Will Kassouf gave after the WSOP, you’d quickly learn that he wasn’t putting on an act. The reporters and interviewers usually needed to ask only two or three questions, and Will would provide enough response for an hour-long program.
A chatty Kassouf was the real Kassouf, and had he not run kings into aces with thirteen players left, we likely would have seen Kassouf playing in November at the WSOP. Will can seemingly talk ad nauseum regardless the question or subject matter. And by doing so while at the tables, he simply overwhelmed his opponents.
I think that endless chatter, even more so than the tanking, was what tilted his opponents so much. But if you dig through all that chatter and the minutia of his poker-babble, you can discover some new aspects of gameplay. Ones that helped him win and have been helping me win as well.
You see, Kassouf reminded me of something that I had been neglecting for years, which is that I am also a talkative person. Very talkative. Not necessarily in poker. But out there in the real world. And I was betraying myself at the tables by not being true to my own persona. More importantly I was not using my own conversational ability as a weapon. And it’s so valuable.
You see when I first learned the game in 2003 (didn’t we all?) I thought reads, tells, mannerisms and the almighty table image were the most crucial factors at the poker table, and I think the general public likes to think that way as well. We love spotting Teddy KGB’s tell. We love looking into our opponent’s eyes and seeing if they got it. And so we loved watching the antics and gamesmanship and psychological manipulation of poker during the Golden Years. But then reality set in and everyone realized game theory was much more important. But it’s not all important.
Around the time I started holding a ‘semi-pro’ classification in the poker world, the game itself was transitioning. The Golden Age of Poker had just recently ended, a time that featured lots of table chatter, big characters, screams, cheers, and tears. Jamie Gold kind of put a book-end on that era as the game transitioned to the young guns, the GTO approach, and the online whiz kids. It was around this time that I began taking poker very seriously.
But my results at the tables when I first started truly focusing on the game were only lackluster. I was rarely losing, but I only seemed to be keeping my head above water. I was dressing and acting like all the pros I saw on TV, so what was the problem? It wasn’t until I started studying hand-ranges and board textures and bluffing lines that I realized an important truth: very few players wearing sunglasses, headphones, and hoodies at super low stakes are all that good. They’re pretenders. Daydreamers playing make-believe to look like their heroes. And I was no different.
I subscribed to some coaching sites and started winning more… but not enough. Or at least not as much as I felt someone who had put in as much work as I had deserved to win. And I realized something else. I realized that what I was really lacking at the table was confidence, relaxation, and charisma. Like Negreanu has. Like Esfandiari has. And like Ivey oozes.
NBC Sports has recently begun re-airing some old Poker After Dark episodes. One particular line-up featured Tom Dwan, Patrik Antonius, David Oppenheim, and Phil Ivey. They all gushed confidence. David Oppenhiem looks like a troll, but sounded like the most secure, confident person on this planet. These players didn’t get to where they are by being insecure. That confidence is a positive feedback loop in itself. And last year I decided to incorporate more of that as well… but molding it to fit my own persona.
Because… I’m not a silent assassin like Antonius. I don’t have Ivey’s killer stare. I’m not an introverted online whiz kid. In fact, I’m exceptionally extroverted. I’ve done improv, stand-up, podcasts, and a ton of on-camera work. What I needed was to combine some of my GTO knowledge with a little “speech-play” as they say.
Let’s get back to Mr. Kassouf. Because here’s what I noticed:
Not since Jamie Gold had we seen table talk like his, and in both cases their chatter worked with remarkable effectiveness. Players in both 2006 and 2016 were markedly off their game when in hands with Kassouf and Gold. And I think it’s solely for the reason that those two gave the other players new information to think about that they had never encountered before. Plenty of hyper-intelligent GTO players are well aware of how to play a 30-blind stack at an eight-handed table. But Kassouf’s new tactics of saying he had a big hand, and calling out his actions really threw a wrench into that GTO mindset.
Jamie Gold did the exact same thing, but since the players were worse in 2006, it worked even better. Players were just giving their chips to him in certain spots.
This got me to thinking – maybe there is an undiscovered edge still in this game. As everyone becomes more homogenized with GTO, what can one do to separate themselves from the pack? Maybe some level of polite speech play does have its place.
Maybe table talk and a reemergence of that sort of verbal sparring may be the next level in poker’s evolution.
I watched the Cate Hall/Mike Dentale grudge match not too long ago, and shortly after the match, commentators Doug Polk and Shaun Deeb were discussing game theory optimal play versus playing exploitatively. Shaun made a great point to Doug that since Doug is so solid in game theory what he needs to work on next is his table talk, live tells, and body language. Polk seemed to shrug off the idea, but I think Deeb was absolutely right. For those that have mastered game theory (people like Polk and Fedor Holz and David Peters), the next step may be gamesmanship. And not angle-shooting or cheating or anything scummy, but instead to adopt a little bit of the styles that Negreanu and Esfandiari have used to such effectiveness.
Because I watched all of the coverage (every single hand) from the Jamie Gold year and the William Kassouf run. If you looked at the hand histories, you would think some of their opponents had never played a tournament before. Those two had completely clouded the judgment and problem-solving skills of their opponents. Sure, they were both occasionally crass and often times juvenile while doing it, but the results spoke for themselves. The ends justified the means. I’d daresay Kassouf and Gold would agree to that.
And so what has Mr. Kassouf taught me? When I play live poker (and I play live poker almost every week), I have begun making a habit of chatting it up and playing reckless my first orbit at the table. I limp a lot. I blind-raise some. I’ll 3-bet twice or so. I view this as a watered-down version of what Mike Caro used to do when he played cards. (Allegedly, Caro would take a single $100 bill from his wallet and light it on fire before each session. He did this to instill into the minds of his opponents that he was a wild man and didn’t care at all about money. Both, in reality, were far from the truth).
And I talk. I’m not mean, impolite or overbearing. I talk and I play a lot of hands that first hour. And then no matter how I play the rest of the session, I get action. (Lot. Of. Action). At least from the players that were there at the beginning. And since I’ve begun doing this, something… unexplainable occurs.
Everything improves. Everything that I dislike about live poker seems to get better. The table is happier. The game goes faster. The dealers even seem to enjoy their jobs more. I think playing loose and chatty personally makes me more comfortable, and I think that when I’m more comfortable, I play better and make more money. And the more I talk, the more I seem to win. Take all the analysis out of it. It just happens.
If you play a lot of poker you may notice a similar strange phenomenon. A lot of pros state it as something along the lines of “the more I study, the luckier I seem to get.” Table talk with me is the same thing. I’m not always sure why, but the friendlier, happier, more congenial, and generally more confident I am at the table, the longer I have to wait at the end of the night for the cashier to finish counting.
Everyone wants to play the almighty Game Theory Optimal. I think most of us can agree that GTO will beat an exploitative approach nine times out of ten (the tenth being heads-up in the 2016 Main Event). However, one thing I believe that will never leave poker, especially live poker, is the human element. That aspect will always be there. And say what you want, what someone says and how they act can have a remarkable effect on how others play against them. Especially when the other players aren’t used to dealing with that aspect of the game. Because not all hands are played in a vacuum. None are actually. And just like how ICM can effect someone’s hand ranges, so too can their opponents’ attitude and mannerisms.
I’ve written about all the benefits of table talk once before. How I think it also creates a much better televised or streaming product. If poker can be a little more fun to watch, then more and more people will tune in, and more and more new players will find the game.
But what I’ve realized since writing that article was that a little table talk happens to be not only “good for the game,” but also good for me, individually. So my hat’s off to Will Kassouf because I imagine the same is true for him.
And by the way, since watching last year’s WSOP coverage, I’ve had the best year of live poker to date.
So thank you, William Kassouf, because you reminded me of a truth that I sometimes forget:
Sometimes a little chatter can equal a lot of chips.
Editors’ Note: William Kassouf will be joining Mike Matusow, Jean-Robert Bellande, David Williams, Matt Berkey, Nick Schulman on this week’s newest episode of Poker After Dark.
Keith Woernle is a writer, comedian, and semi-pro poker player based out of New Jersey. He was a producer for season 10 of the World Poker Tour. He won a WSOP circuit ring in 2011. He likes poker a lot. Follow or contact him on twitter @WoernlePoker.