The participants and assorted hangers-on, including your shady blogging servant, were listening. Christian Soto, cash game expert and tournament debauch, was wedged into one end of the living room sofa, a contradiction in posture and attitude. His arm was comfortably, even carelessly thrown across the black leather back of the living room sofa facing the endlessly running but silent sports channel. Soto’s face, on the other hand, was tilted in a subconscious display of defiance that he was fighting to control. His mouth was contemptuous, his voice defensive: the midst of the struggle to keep one’s composure.
Matt Berkey, mastermind of the Solve For Why Academy, evangelical health obsessive, and administrator of this palatial, half-decorated poker headquarters, loomed over his seated partner. (Las Vegas’ soldier of poker is nearly always at attention and uniformed for jumping jacks, while Soto is most often languid and prepped for World of Warcraft.) The two instructors were nearly shouting at each other despite a physical distance of inches, and clearly a stray remark away from starting: a couple up in arms while the children sit riveted, unable to anticipate what might happen next.
The evening prior, one of my students had made a questionable play, and this belated breakdown had broken out to everyone’s surprise, right before the third and final day’s lecture. With leverage having been met on the turn, Steve ripped in a weak hand (was it a bluff? a value bet? well, I’ll explain some other time) and was snapped off by a committed, better one. I knew Steve’s game and tendencies, and why he had done it, but I too was one of the children, and submitted to letting the parents test each other’s nerves rather than try to explain. Steve, normally voluble and fun, was quiet too, a little aghast at somehow having triggered such heated discussion. Matt, however, suffered from no such reluctance, and is not one to pull punches or spare his opinion. In addition to a forceful argument, he landed a few light ad hominems to the ad hoc discussion, while Soto, a mostly private and moody man who mostly keeps his own counsel, bristled and flinched intractably.
Another day in the life of Solve For Why. It’s not all cranberries and ketones.
It was at this moment that a gaunt and bearded figure emerged from the plethora of faces that fill the poker world and were now crowded into one of its hotspots. Stern beyond his years, Nick Howard had been in the commentary booth, some of the lectures, and now, after having been literally bent over in attentive concentration, emerged to speak.
The hive mind of various poker forums contain a great deal of puling criticism of Howard – well, as they do of everyone – but anyone familiar with the philosophy of the game and of people can tell he is a bright spot for poker. His penchant for working with particular vocabulary – as Seidman himself wrote, words matter – reveals his understanding not only of the game but of the people behind those “aliases.” Nevertheless, Howard is extraordinarily grim for a young man. It’s a reflection and reaction, perhaps, of his travails or the seriousness of his recent redirection in both life and game. This mood, I think, will pass, as he finds the natural palliative of personal success and more ease in an existence that now straddles both the inside and outside of the online poker mainstream.
“Polarization is the great profit maker of poker…” Howard began to succinctly explain what Steve’s error was and to emphasize how important it was for everyone in the room to understand his point thoroughly. Nick’s arms cut the air with emphasis, yet he did not he look at anyone, still staring at the floor. He had been thinking about his words very carefully while the disagreement blossomed, and now released a full speech as prepared and polished as one of his clips on YouTube. The room, full of outsiders who aspire to a plastic rectangle revolution, became even more serious, as if a cabal or conspiracy were at work, here on family Saturday morning, daring to meet even in the day time. Spies are everywhere.
In addition to providing clarity on the hand in dispute, Howard broke the land war between Berkey and Soto. Ever-modest Jordan Young smiled and said it’s “often much worse.” The cabal headed upstairs and the whirlwind conclusion of the Academy began in earnest.
While the students sat fascinated during the final lecture, I realized I was in fact growing restless. I understood most of the concepts, would need time on my own to examine the summary line recommendations, but I don’t think it was weariness from a long weekend of poker ideas which was preying on my mind. Even given the opportunity to sit in the booth with Berkey, Soto, and Howard, I was not enthused by the third day, and ended up walking in the now empty yard. It had been an extremely hard year, the nadir of happiness, and having shepherded my little group far enough, I needed to reflect.
What was I, not poker coach Persuadeo, doing here?
Motivation derives from desire: the unforced, unarguable and dreaming vision of what you want. The surrender of unimportant things to the vision is key to enlivening this desire, because now choices are made. I admire the men and women who run and attend and support the Academy. I know their passion, remember it, recall it, can still almost taste it – but cannot hear or touch it, as if a behind a sound-proof, crystal clear glass. Was that – such a strange, unfamiliar feeling – envy?
Yet the small things of life continue as I fight on, even if I felt outside the group because of the lack of clarity in my life. My understanding of our game only grows stronger, despite my troubles, and I was in fact about to realize a powerful lesson at Solve For Why, one that surprisingly has nothing to do with the X’s and O’s of poker.
I’ve always been wary of too much mental game stuff. The idea that most players – who can barely explain what a bet really is yet want to make thousands of them – need emotional stewardship to wager Ace King or shut it down is obviously a ridiculous one, but here at the Academy I saw game preparation in a most natural place: support for a draining and high-variance approach to poker. The intensity demanded by an offensive strategy does exceed that of standard play. Berkey himself reported being exhausted, completely worn out after his sessions – and I believe him. In more than one respect, Berkey is attempting to quantify gameflow into his strategy – this is why he thinks players like Ivey can ultimately be explained and that the “rabbit hole” of poker goes further than PIO’s machine dream of mutually assured destruction. While I was on alert from the slightly sanctimonious and feathery voice of the mental game coach, one suggesting a certain insincerity and need to convince, I had seen up close who might really need this stuff and why.
The players themselves put on a lively show at the RFID table over the course of the Academy. They had especially impressed the first day, many having been prepared through S4Y’s Capped Game Webinar or my summary of it. On the second day, however, Berkey threw them all for a loop at the beginning of the lecture, coyly saying he’d be flatting a lot in response to the almost absurd level of aggression at the table. Well, that was more than a dog whistle, and the second session became a miasma of calling and confused post-flop play. Soto, amazed on the first day by the level of play, was visibly in the dumps. “What happened?!” he complained.
The soldier of poker, on the other hand, was nonplussed. As always seemed to be the case, Berkey had an explanation for everything, and certainly did not lack one here. “I expected this.” Not only had he sown doubt in their minds that aggression was what was wanted in every pre-flop spot, he knew just how difficult it is to take an idea and run with it. “They are just at the beginning of implementation.” Indeed, at Solve For Why, everything about a poker player’s education is questioned because the vocabulary of microstrategy is abandoned. The onion dip ideas of value bets and bluffs are suddenly crowded at their two-cover table with capping, advancing and delaying leverage, and frequencies-as-image are all squeezing in, ready to party and explore the menu. It’s a lot for a bewildered poker player to incorporate in one, two or three days.
It also pointed to just how deceptive my task is as coach. It struck me that as much as I imagine a wise word or hint to be ideal, a construction which I like to use in order to induce the student to find the answer himself, this is not really enough sometimes. I was surprised to see many of the plays made, but explanations of their origins were all available. Real depth is not something most low stakes players have thought about thoroughly or even had to deal with on a regular basis. In any case, I’d end up running a five-week course exploring the three essentials of the Solve For Why formulation, and it was anything but wasted time for those who had invested so much. The Academy has wisely started offering the same and other support for students.
Soto remained perplexed, though – so troubled in fact that he wanted to go out with the group for dinner, and even later, join Porter and I for drinks to go over our impressions of the teaching. We were somewhat lucky to see them, for as well as Greg knows his way around the poker table, he’s apparently quite lost once behind the wheel. Ferrying Soto, he meandered to two restaurant locations before finding us mid-meal. Later we wandered through the night and a maze of on-ramps in his appropriately anonymous grey hybrid – Porter is the opposite of flamboyant – to locate the beers. Google Maps is killing the directional instinct.
Poker players forget the world easily. It was Cinco de Mayo, apparently, and he had driven us to an appropriately decorated dump near a highway exit. With the music blaring, we couldn’t talk so walked our beers louchely to a table by the closed strip mall entrance and talked over the day. While I thought the players were overcompensating on account of Berkey’s advice to slow down, Soto found other explanations for the sudden drop-off in play level. We went into the pedagogy and emerged with what would likely be good feedback for the Academy. I’m imagining the future boot camps will only continue to improve. The drinks went down well in the warm Vegas night, and somehow a breeze happily emerged. The day had ended serenely.
Sitting in the declining sun on the final day after I had retired from the commentary booth, the camp ended serenely, too. I shot some hoops with Christian H and chatted a bit with Nick. Bill won the most chips and thus the coaching package; in fact, all my students had performed well.
We gathered for a final dinner, getting a private room and a plentiful spread of Italian dishes to accompany a discussion of what we’d all been through. Steve opened up about a key issue that was holding him back and everyone offered advice. As the communal meal of competitors ended, the big winner Bill participated in his first credit card roulette: naturally he got stuck with the check, and naturally, I kept up my incredible run of evading it, to Soto’s chagrin. Charitable and generous without the pressure of Berkey around, we all had a great time before saying our good-byes. Porter went off into the night, hopefully driving south, and the rest of us went to get a little sleep and catch our respective flights.
However, I wasn’t quite done, nor was serenity the real end. Money never sleeps, Gecko tells us, and nor do the founders. I was invited back to Berkey’s to interview Soto for Red Chip (available in their Pro Member section), take part in some (unused) vlog footage, and possibly relax with some post-Academy jacuzzi time under the dim Vegas night. I’d planned to skip it, as I had nothing to wear.
I arrived late in the evening. The poker palace, so full of players and production just hours before, was now as quiet as any suburban Sunday eve. Soon enough, though, Berkey’s dog was excited, for master was home from a big game session at Aria. We all gathered in the giant bedroom-cum-lecture hall while Matt unwound.
“How’d it go?” Soto asked laconically.
“They embarrassed themselves,” said the very unlaconic Berkey. At one point in his session, he’d jammed and a high-stakes reg had tanked forever before showing and folding.
“He offered me a thousand to show. I told him, ‘I won’t show for twenty-thousand.’”
The information war matters to the soldier of poker.
Young had played, too, in his regular spot at the Bellagio, and the discussion went on. In one spot he confessed to having been a bit of a POW.
“You know how much I hate discussing hands,” Berkey, lover of concepts, replied helpfully, “but that was terrible.”
Busy as ever, Matt ended the talk and getting new vlog footage took precedence. After we’d completed the filming of both pieces (and overcame some battery and novice operator issues) it was time for the Academy partners to hit the jacuzzi. Instead of letting me make my exit, though, Soto insisted I find some trunks somewhere in Berkey’s immense and filled closet. We all keep some vanities.
Ostensibly this was a well-earned recovery from a long weekend of teaching and their poker sessions, but in reality, the money continued to be awake. Berkey drove everyone forward with pressing matters. The dark and privacy meant it was the right hour for the real blood and guts of the business. Staking, backers, debt, plans, moves, opponents, strategy, and more all came up. Truths were told, criticism leveled.
However, for all the harshness, something else emerged. What does Berkey want, I asked when I started these essays, what would make him content and satisfy the seemingly remorseless drive forward that characterizes the Solve For Why leader? Few want to grind forever; competition is unending but life is limited – how can it really be the answer? Where and when do we find peace?
At last, I heard what it was for Berkey and saw the gleam of happiness at its thought.
“I’d love to help people with nutrition and all the things they don’t teach you in school,” Berkey explained. For the first time, was that a little bit of shyness in his voice and expression? He explained that the vlog and many other endeavors were leading this way – some sort of educational stream or vlog or program was on his mind. “I’m building toward this.”
Why not now, I asked. He has followers, social media, a presence. What is gained by not giving this to the poker community in the present, when they need it?
A man who leapt from 5/10 to Ivey’s room was justifying caution.
A brief silence, and for the first time on our visit, Berkey had no quick answer. He was, at last, surprised, and his guard and vehement personality briefly subsided.
“I suppose I could…”
What was it? Berkey at the kitchen counter, showing us how to make a healthy meal? The right smoothie? At the desk demonstrating the financial planning we never had in school? What can he do to help us all? What was once missing from his life that he can now give to others?
A moment of contentment in a vision of the future – Berkey’s motivation, briefly clear and bright as the wild city he lived in.
Everyone had learned something at this Academy.
The partners moved the conversation along, and strategizing for the present problems and ambitions of the partners resumed. The fight was long from over. Berkey shook off his dreaming and resumed, as he inevitably does, the lead.
That’s the spirit.
Part I Part II
Bright Days of Vegas, Part I