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Path of Least Resistance

Poker is a complicated game, but for Howard Lederer, the reasons to devote a career to it are simple.

He’s been on the forefront of competitive, world-class poker for a long time as one of the game’s most dynamic minds; they don’t call him the Professor for nothing. GOM caught up with the two-time World Series of Poker bracelet winner just before he jets off to the Aussie Millions where he’ll try to surpass the success of last year, winning the whopping $100,000 No-Limit Hold ‘Em event. Trophy or not, he’ll come away with greater determination to master the game.

Howard Lederer has an imposing presence. With his large, American-proportioned frame and matching facial hair, you wouldn’t be faulted for thinking he’s cut from the same cloth as one of those overzealous junior-league coaches, shouting at kids to “pick up the pace!” But once you get past the initial civilities, you realise you’re both on the same page. Of course, his knowledge of poker is infinitely greater than most, but he engages conversation and fundamental queries as if for the first time, with devoted thought and time applied. His schedule is a whirlwind but he exudes an air of calm and composure that suggests he has all the time in the world to be thorough with every answer and explanation. Verbose he isn’t; just precise and calculated. Even when he rejects outright an observation or personal trait or motivation you thought you nailed, he has such an accommodating disposition that you eagerly await the explanation, even at your own expense. It’s all part of the great learning process that Lederer appreciates with such conviction. Obviously, all of these traits work collectively to his advantage at the poker tables. But it took a bit of luck to link the game with his potential to succeed.

Lederer was born and raised in leafy New Hampshire, where he showed an early capacity for chess. But the segue into poker, and the gifts he had for the game, weren’t realised until he moved to New York in the early 1980s. Even today, at 44, he fondly reflects on how it all came together. In 1985, he discovered the basement Mayfair Club in the Gramercy neighbourhood of Manhattan and found his calling. (Other names like Erik Seidel and Dan Harrington would evolve from the Mayfair Club as well.)

“The Mayfair Club was a world-famous bridge and backgammon club,” he explains. “These were great game players and champions in their own game, and great minds. But they weren’t good poker players. So I got to be better at them and was able to hold my own. So it was a perfect setting for me. I had been playing poker for three or four years, starting to make money, getting pretty good but not world-class or anything, but there were some pretty weak poker players there.”

At the time, during that hedonistic decade he was just scraping by. “I was just broke in New York playing poker,” he continues. “I was playing 3-6, 5-10 games making a couple of hundred dollars a week, and spending $150 a week to sleep in the living room of a one-bedroom apartment. I wasn’t complaining; I really didn’t care. But going to the Mayfair Club that one night was an extremely fortuitous thing that happened to me.”

From there, the path was paved and in 1993, he packed it all up and moved to poker Valhalla, Las Vegas, to seek out high-stakes games to build up his name and his bankroll. And as of the end of 2008, his total live tournament winnings have nearly hit the $5 million mark with two World Series of Poker bracelets (2000 $5,000 Limit Omaha Hi-Lo event and the 2001 $5,000 Deuce to Seven Draw event), and two World Poker Tour titles (2002 World Poker Finals and 2003 Party Poker Million. And in September last year, he came agonisingly close to winning the £2,500 H.O.R.S.E. event, after sparring with Phil Ivey across the final table. Ivey crashed out in sixth, but Lederer had to settle for third.

But considering he was used to going home broke in his formative New York days, he recovers from near wins with instinctual purpose. “I’ve been there before,” says the brother of fellow poker pro Annie Duke. “I have a lot of experience to rely on to say, ‘Hey, sometimes it works out, sometimes it doesn’t.’ It’s harder when you’ve never won and you get close, and you say, “Oh, am I ever going to win?” I know I’m going to win. I just have to get ready for the next event.”

His approach is a pulled-back, big-picture perspective that refuses to get mired in short-term pettiness—even if it is the difference between a few hundred-thousand or a bracelet. Even tics and so-called ‘tells’ don’t really influence his play. “You don’t make those gigantic lay-downs based on, ‘Oh, he blinked,’” he says. “I’m more concerned with betting patterns.”

But when the finish line is in reach, the determination strengthens exponentially. “When you start getting close; when you’re at that final table and that bracelet is in reach, I don’t let up,” he says. “Some people start to panic and they get really nervous. I think that nervousness is a physical manifestation of short circuiting in the brain. I don’t really have that happen to me anymore. Your brain recognises patterns to make good decisions. And you do it over and over again. And it happened to me, so I speak from experience. It took a long time to hone those skills. Some people succumb to the pressure and they become targets. So all you have to do as a player is stay focused and relaxed and take advantage of it.

“Poker is a very complicated game. To get to the point where you make those decisions well, under normal conditions, you have to develop the proficiency over the years. Then you have to become a tournament player, to make those decisions under the most extreme pressure situations.”

To sum it up, knowing poker is to learn the balance of the objective (the rules and physical parameters of the game) and the subjective (the nebulous human element). And for Lederer, it’s knowledge grasped but never fully realised.
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