When the Vietnamese woman on his right raises the pot by $400, David Sklansky folds his cards quietly and leans toward his student. “All of the players at this table are probably in the top 1,000 in the world,” the 57-year-old poker pro whispers, “except for Blue Shirt.”
Sklansky and I are sitting at a $200–$400-limit Texas Hold ’em table at the Bellagio Hotel in Las Vegas. The raiser is Liz Lieu, a poker professional whose beauty, sirenlike, has lured many a wealthy amateur into financial free fall. Blue Shirt, a portly gentleman with a dour look and a rapidly dwindling stack of chips, is today’s victim; I am here merely as an observer, a pupil of one of the world’s most successful—and articulate—poker players.
Witnessing the extraction of Blue Shirt’s savings is part of my one-day private poker lesson with David “Einstein” Sklansky, whose 11 books, including The Theory of Poker, constitute a canon of card-playing prose. Sklansky’s books and, for devout students, private tutorials can serve well those who want to perform admirably at upcoming charity tournaments, bankrupt their friends in high-stakes home games, or perhaps even challenge top professionals in the private Bobby’s Room at the Bellagio, home to the world’s richest ongoing game.
My lesson began with conversation, a Socratic give-and-take during which Sklansky challenged me to solve a number of poker predicaments that I had prepared—at his request—in advance. My queries about playing certain hands and extracting maximum value from my wins enabled him to identify my strengths and weaknesses, and to tailor the day’s lesson to my needs and goals. A math prodigy as a child, Sklansky focuses his lessons on the quantifiable fundamentals of the game. “Feel is overrated and imprecise to communicate,” he explains. “Besides, only the pros with the correct feel are still around; the ones with not-so-good feel are broke.”
At the Bellagio tables, we alternate between playing and observing, discussing the intricacies of each hand with such esoteric terms as “pot odds” and “outs.” But Sklansky also articulates strategies that apply as well to everyday life as they do to poker. “The goal is not always to win,” he says, while laying down an unspectacular hand. “Sometimes it’s to lose less.” Frequently, the lesson is basic but not obvious. “When you’re bluffing,” he suggests, “bet a little more than what it would take for your opponent to lay down the hands you think he might have. When you have the best hand, bet a little less than you think it would take. In the first situation, you’ll lose the smallest amount possible if he calls, and in the second, win as much as possible if he does.”
Sklansky charges from $10,000 to $20,000 for a full-day private lesson, and $5,000 for a half-day tutorial. Considering the $20,000 buy-in at this table—and the $100,000 required to join the game taking place behind us in Bobby’s Room—a session with Sklansky could prove to be the best value in Vegas if it spares you from being the Blue Shirt at your table.