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A decade on from his 2000 World Series triumph, Chris ‘Jesus’ Ferguson talks to Gambling’s Duncan Wilkie about a poker pilgrimage that has seen him go from star-struck disciple to mixed-game messiah

It’s not every day that you get to play heads-up poker with a former World Champion, but that’s exactly the situation I find myself in at London’s Casino at the Empire. It’s the World Series of Poker Europe and all of poker’s biggest stars are in town, so in a further example of rank-bad game selection I’ve decided to sit myself across the table from one of the biggest of them all in Chris ‘Jesus’ Ferguson.

I’m talking to the instantly recognisable 2000 Main Event champion on the 10-year anniversary of his WSOP triumph; and despite a decade having passed since Ferguson lifted his most significant prize to date, his zest and passion for the game haven’t aged a day. Even here, sat at an electronic Hold’em console, he attacks the challenge with the same enthusiasm as a man who’s just won his first ever sit-n-go.

Unfortunately, after only a few hands of play it becomes apparent that the distance between Ferguson and my Dictaphone is proving almost as insurmountable as the gulf between our respective poker playing abilities. As a result I’m forced to leave my cameraman, Tom Powling, to assume punch-bag duties while I pick the brains of a man who has won over $8 million live and still hasn’t taken all he wants out of poker.

Looking every bit the poker player that has been beamed into millions of homes the world over with his trademark hat and facial hair, even on his day off from the £10,000 Main Event, Ferguson still looks and talks the business. I ask him how, after so many years on the road and so much success at the tables, he’s continued to motivate himself to do well: “I just love the game,” he answers honestly and instantly.

“In poker, it’s very hard to have targets and consistently meet them,” he continues while taking a cursory glance at his virtual hole cards. “For the most part, it’s out of your hands. Whatever happens, happens and it’s almost impossible for you to control – and because of that my sole aim in poker has always just been to play my best. As long as I’m doing that, I don’t see me ever getting tired of playing the game.”

It is a typically grounded response from a man who, despite his millions in winnings, has always struck me as one of the most down-to-earth people on the poker circuit; a poker fan who has worked hard to put himself in the position to earn a living from the game he loves. I ask Ferguson how, in these days of increased aggression and tougher fields, he’s adapted to ensure that his best has remained good enough.

“I think I’ve always been better against the better players,” he muses, with absolutely no pretence attached to the statement. “Whether or not I have more success against the weaker players, my game has always been designed to work against the best. My focus has always been on playing an optimum strategy, and a lot of the time this only works against players who understand the game and play it to a serious level.”

Noticing at this point that poker novice Tom has now fired himself into a 2-to-1 chip lead – a lead that is largely the product of turning a full-house with 6-2 suited, of course – the devil on my shoulder prods at me to ask if perhaps this desire to play at an optimum level is costing him against his inexperienced challenger. Thankfully the urge passes and I instead enquire whether it stems from a desire to beat the best.

“Yes, in a way – but I don’t think it’s about my competitive drive or a need to prove myself by beating the best,” Ferguson replies, before amending his answer slightly. “Well, I guess I do enjoy beating the best, but that’s not what motivates me. Really, all I want is to understand the game and how can I learn and improve when I’m playing against people who don’t understand the game and don’t try to play it well?”

No sooner has Ferguson finished giving his latest answer when right on cue, Tom demonstrates his understanding of the game by snap-calling his pre-flop shove with jack-high. A wry smile passes across Ferguson’s face as he tables his leading ace-seven and while I question Tom as to how he can insta-call with jack-ten – “jack-ten suited,” he corrects with a knowing grin – we’re off to the flop with the champ at risk.

Thankfully for both Ferguson and the success of my interview in general, Tom’s god-like powers of winning with the worst hand desert him on this occasion and a flopped pair of sevens proves enough to secure Jesus’ second-coming. Seemingly buoyed by the double-up and being back to almost even again, without further prompting Ferguson begins to reminisce on his early experiences of playing competitive poker.

“It’s hard to believe it now, but when I started playing seriously in about 1995 you literally couldn’t find a no-limit Hold’em game being spread in casinos,” he explains. “Back then all the casinos didn’t like no-limit because they thought it would break all of their players too fast and that they wouldn’t come back – and what’s more, the players themselves all preferred limit as they thought no-limit was far too skilful.”

“For me though no-limit was easily the most interesting game, but because there were so few games being spread I had to start playing in tournaments. That wasn’t a bad thing for me because I actually didn’t enjoy playing in the side action. Even in the $5/$10 games people didn’t take it seriously – they may as well have been playing roulette. In tournaments, at least they believed in the game and tried to win.”

From Ferguson’s latest description of his formative years playing poker, it becomes apparent that his motivation to play the game stems from a deep-seated desire to constantly improve himself as a player. He enjoys the challenge of playing against opponents who share his passion for the game and by entering tournaments, he’d found a way to face poker’s elite in a competitive format that was within his bankroll.

“Back then, most of the tournaments were $300-$500 to buy into,” he remembers. “This meant that I could face guys like Phil Hellmuth, Men The Master and TJ Cloutier – all guys that I’d never be able to play with in the big games – for just $300! That was great for me as I wanted to learn from these players and learn how to beat them. Previously I hadn’t had the chance to do that in the regular $5/$10 games.”

It is interesting to learn that at a juncture in his career where most players would be content to sit in the very cash games that Ferguson found so unstimulating and make a killing, he was actively seeking out the toughest spots to further hone his poker abilities. I ask him if – at the time – he considered the $300 outlay to enter these events as an investment in his poker education and he nods his agreement.

“Oh I thought so, absolutely,” he concurs. “These tournaments were the best place to test yourself and learn from the best, which was something you just couldn’t do in most of the games being spread at the time. The only other place where you could really learn to play no-limit Hold’em back then was on a server called IRC, which existed way before any of the modern poker sites – that was a terrific learning tool.”

For the uninitiated, IRC poker was a form of the game played over the Internet Relay Chat network many years before the first online poker sites were launched. It was a play money game that limited participants to ‘buying’ 1,000 chips a day, but nevertheless attracted a devoted following of experts who revelled in the competitive spirit of the game. Unsurprisingly, Ferguson has fond memories of his time on IRC.

“I found that I could play so many more hands than I could in a casino and against good competition who took the game seriously too,” he recalls. “I think perhaps even more than playing the game, I love understanding and studying it – and IRC really helped me do that. I don’t think anyone in the world is as analytical about their game as I am and I’ve always known what an incredible learning tool the internet can be.”

With the blinds on the heads-up console now having risen to 1,500/3,000 with only 40,000 chips in play – a structure that must be anathema to Ferguson and the game that he has grown to love – I think it’s time to ask him how the proliferation of the game online has changed the poker landscape since his Main Event win. Naturally, he points to Chris Moneymaker and the poker boom as an obvious turning point.

“I think during the poker boom the general standard of play dropped dramatically,” he explains. “This was because you suddenly had all of these internet players who didn’t have much experience and most of them were horrible. That’s all changed now though. These days, the same players who started in 2003 have played hundreds of thousands of hands and are incredibly good, so the game is tougher than ever.”

It is another interesting facet of Ferguson’s persona that, despite being one of the pre-boom stars of the live game, he is unquestionably an online player at heart and clearly harbours a great deal of respect for his internet brethren. I ask him if his background playing on IRC and his studious approach to the game has helped him adapt to the influx of online players and whether this explains his consistent success.

“I think it helps a lot,” he agrees. “The mathematical background has really helped me adapt to online players as the way they play directly relates to the way I’ve always thought about the game. From a mathematical standpoint, it’s purely about the plays people are making and the logic behind them – and I think the difference between playing live poker and playing online has generally been over-exaggerated.”

“What we’ve seen is that people who play primarily live don’t expect people who play primarily online to be any good at reading people. They think that they won’t be able to pick up on any of the other aspects that you need to know to do well live, but they do. They pick it up very fast and what that shows is that a fundamental understanding of the game is very important in underpinning everything that you do.”

Fulfilling neither the criteria of seasoned live grinder or online superstar-in-the-making, a fundamental understanding of the game is not something that Tom is blessed with – but credit to him, he’s successfully managed to get it all-in with Ferguson drawing incredibly thin with an under-pair to his pocket tens. As the board bricks out, Ferguson simply smiles magnanimously and offers his hand to the victor.

“When I first started out, I was kind of alone in the poker world because all the players I respected were playing at such a higher level that I didn’t really get the time of day from them,” Ferguson recalls after Tom has bounded away with a story to one day tell the grandkids. “One day I showed them my research and although I knew it was entirely accurate, it was very much against the way people thought at the time.”

“That actually made me feel great at first because I knew something that all of these guys didn’t and I could prove it, but I soon realised that they weren’t actually thinking on the same level to begin with, so that knowledge became less important to me. These days I feel that the internet kids have that same understanding and that’s really helped me adapt to new players – I’m already there and I’m ready for them!”

With three more bracelets to his name since his 2000 Main Event triumph and further live winnings of around six million dollars in the past decade, it’s hard to argue with Ferguson’s closing statement. He’s a player who has passed poker’s test of time by being both studious and adaptable, and – anomalous results against office luck-boxes aside – there are no signs that poker’s Ante Christ will be letting up soon.
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