Together with my Top Pair Home Game Poker Podcast co-host Bruce Briggs, I recently interviewed preeminent poker psychologist Dr. Al Schoonmaker. Well known for having published numerous poker psychology books as well as fascinating poker psychology and strategy articles in Card Player Magazine over the years, Dr. Al made for a very unique guest on the podcast. Below, you’ll find the audio of the entirety of Episode 251, which includes the interview with Dr. Al starting at the 12:15-minute mark. You can also read the summarized transcript below.
Interview Transcript (Summarized)
Our guest on the show today is Dr Alan Schoonmaker. He’s a psychologist, a university professor, business advisor and consultant, plus a prolific author of poker articles and books. I hope it’s alright to direct you as Dr Al, and it’s a pleasure to have you on our podcast.
Glad to be here.
So let’s start back at the very beginning, you’ve had a great academic career, a PhD in psychology, worked in the business world, and have taught at university level. You seem like your focus is on poker now, so how long have you been playing poker, and what prompted you to get involved in the poker world?
I started playing poker when I was about 13. I was a caddy and they always had a game in the caddy shop. I read a couple of books and it was extraordinarily easy because I was the only one who had ever read a book about poker. So I knew that you shouldn’t play every hand for example, and that should be looking at the other players instead of thinking about your own cards. My very first lesson in poker psychology was from Oswald Jacoby who was a great bridge and poker player, and he said “If you see somebody who’s overly casual: beware!” We were playing five-card stud and I remember a guy who casually made his bet, and then sat back and smoked his cigarette. I folded a pair of sevens or something like that, and he had aces!
We touched upon that you used to teach psychology at UCLA and Carnegie Mellon University. I’m wondering if you’ve ever participated in some sort of faculty poker game akin to that which we saw in the movie Rounders?
I played an awful lot of poker from about 14 until about 25-26, and then after that I played hardly. I didn’t play poker at all to speak of for 30-odd years. I had things to do! Then, when I was getting to be an old guy I said “Hey! Let’s keep my mind working, let’s go back and play some poker!” I went down to Atlantic City in 1995 or 1996 and the people were there didn’t really play a whole lot better than the people in the caddy shop! We played 8-handed seven card stud and sometimes all eight would see fourth street! People would say “I’m always going to see the next card. If I don’t have anything after fourth street, then I’ll get out!” If you can’t beat a game like that then you should give up the game. It was really astonishingly easy in those days.
The overall level of the game has improved spectacularly because it’s on TV, there’s a zillion books and there’s places like Card Runners and Deuces Cracked with a ton of educational videos. Then you have all kinds of things like PokerTracker and Hold’em manager. I would have never had a chance at all against today’s 22-year-olds – they’re just really good.
You eventually made Vegas your home; how long ago was that?
I moved to Las Vegas in 2000, and it’s one of the best decisions of my entire life. I love this town. It goes 24/7, and it’s the only place in the world where you can call someone at 2am and you’ve got about as much chance of reaching him as you do at 2pm. It’s not at all unusual to meet someone at 3am for coffee. It’s an informal town!
Was poker the big draw that brought you to Vegas? Did you make the decision to focus on poker, not only playing but writing and immersing yourself in it?
Absolutely, I knew I was going to go to one of the two poker capitals of America – either Los Angeles or Las Vegas. Las Vegas had the attraction that Card Player Magazine was here, as well as Two Plus Two.
The first time I came across your name was with Two Plus Two and Card Player Magazine, with some psychology and strategy articles. How long have you been writing for them and been associated with them, how long did that even begin?
I wrote my first book for Two Plus Two called ‘The Psychology of Poker’, and I have to tell you that writing for Two Plus Two is a wonderful experience. Every single word that came out of Two Plus Two was edited by Mason Malmuth. and he’s probably run it past David Sklansky. As a result the book was improved immensely. We did this before the internet and before emails, so he would send me a copy of the manuscript with a pile of hand written corrections. It took several weeks to agree on the book, but it became immeasurably better because those two guys were involved in it. So, Mason was writing for Poker Digest, so I ended up working for them, and then I came over to Two Plus two in 2002.
You mentioned a lot about these 20-year-old kids these days, and they probably know Two Plus Two primarily as an online forum, but it’s good to learn a bit of the backstory of its origins as a publishing house for books and magazines.
I think if you take the top twenty selling poker books of all time, at least six to eight of them are from Two Plus Two. ‘The Theory of Poker’ from David Sklansky is considered by many as the best book. You’ve got all of Dan Harrington’s books are from Two Plus Two, Ed Miller’s ‘Small Stakes Hold’em’ is from Two Plus Two, and they are all very big sellers.
Let me tell you a little bit about David Sklansky. David is an astonishingly intelligent guy. I’ve worked in big league academia and I’ve had lunch 40 or 50 times with Herbert Simon who won the Nobel Prize. I’ve worked at Berkeley with a couple of other Nobel nominees, and David is as smart as they are. He really is.
I wanted to ask you with the books and hundreds of poker strategy articles, and all the writing, what is it that motivates you? That’s a lot of work lot of time put in. Why do you feel the need to share your knowledge or to educate poker players?
As a psychologist I write exclusively about psychology. I did write one book about strategy which is called ‘How to Beat Small Poker Games’. Mostly I write about psychology because I’m a life time educator. I just love to teach.
When I was doing some research I came across a quote of yours. We’re the home game poker podcast and we kind of zero in on the niche, with people who are attending or hosting home games, and this quote from you says: “I play only smaller games because maximising my profits is much less important to me than relaxing and learning about people. I became a psychologist because I enjoy people-watching and a card room is a wonderful place to do that. Players in small games are much more interesting than some more serious players. They’re more varied opened and relaxed. They laugh more, tell better stories, and never forget that the focus of playing in any game is to have fun. As the stakes get higher the players get more serious and more homogenised. Most of them study the same books, know the same odds, and try to use similar strategies. In the small games there are more rocks, more maniacs, more calling stations, more nerds, more deluded experts and more oddballs, which means I learn more and get better material for my writing.”
The point about fun is one of the things I find most fascinating. So many people who write books think that people play to win, and the typical error in most poker books is that they are written by very good players who will teach you how to beat other very good players. There aren’t many good players in these small games and you’ve got to learn how to deal with people who aren’t quite sure whether a straight beats a flush.
The other thing is, is that there is a myth in poker that everybody wants to win. That’s simply not true. The reason people play badly is extraordinarily simple. It’s more fun. It’s boring to throw away your cards hand after hand after hand. It’s fun to play crap and catch that gutshot straight draw.
And it really is very simple math. Bad players lose, good players win, and the more bad players you have the more money gets loss. The more good players, the smaller your share of the winnings are. If I have to share with two or three other good players, I get 1/3 or 1/4 of the bad players money.
I’m sure we’ve got some older senior citizen listeners. If you travel around the United States there are a lot of senior citizens playing in poker rooms as well as in home games of course, and from a psychologist’s perspective Dr. Al, what would you say the main benefits of playing poker are for senior citizens?
Really?! You’d go that far?
Just by chance, a book that will be out within three days is called ‘Stay Young Play Poker’, and it was inspired by classes that my friend George Epstein has been teaching for several years. George is 89 years old, and he’s still writing and playing poker and still teaching, wonderful guy, and he said not one of my people, to his knowledge, has developed Alzheimer’s or dementia.
If you want to stay mentally healthy you’ve got to keep your brain working. I don’t care if you’re keeping it working playing bridge, doing Sudoku, doing crossword puzzles, the important thing is to keep active, and poker has an extraordinarily demanding game and it’s also a social game. You can’t play poker by yourself. So you have to interact with people whether you like it or not, you’ve got to get off your butt and go out. You can do it for several hours while very, very few people are going to do puzzles for several hours. Poker is the ideal way to stay young.
That’s a fantastic answer and I’ve gotta tell our listeners buried in there is a great tip. If you really want to go out and play cards and your spouse won’t let you, just tell them “Hey I’m going to prevent Alzheimer’s!”
What can you tell us about taking notes in poker?
I’m a fanatic note taker. Read my book called ‘Your Best Poker Friend’, it’s got a whole chapter on taking notes. And what’s fascinating to me is that in virtually every one of the learned professions people take notes. If you go to a doctor who doesn’t take notes, walk out. If you go to a lawyer who doesn’t take notes, walk out! Walk out because he won’t remember you! The typical poker player does not take notes because he thinks his memory is sufficient. And that answer is total absolute bullshit. I’ve got a very good memory, believe me. You don’t get a PhD from Berkeley without a good memory, and I know if I don’t write a whole bunch of notes I’m going to forget them. In addition, which player should you take the most notes on?
I’d say the probably the person you think is the best one.
Ah trick question!
I’m serious. All those times you think “How could I be so f-ing stupid?” or “Why was I smarter than I was yesterday?” A typical poker player feels that real poker players don’t take notes. They don’t need them. Well I’m quoting now from Dan Harrington. Harrington said that at the top levels of poker people take hundreds of pages of notes about their opponents. That’s direct from Dan Harrington, who’s terrific.
We again really want to thank you for taking your time to share your stories and outlooks, hugely beneficial. Any other projects or priorities you’re focussing on?
Not at the moment, what I’ve done is made a whole change in my life. I think that the day of the long expensive printed book is over, or almost over. There are several reasons for it. The first is that just one hell of a lot cheaper. Go to Amazon and you’ll see exactly the same books in printed or Kindle, and Kindle is half the price. Sometimes I have no idea what I want to read! I’m having a cup of coffee and I pull out my cell phone and I don’t feel like reading about poker so I can read a mystery novel or I can read a history book. And when I go on a trip it used to wonder what book I should take to read on the plane, I wouldn’t know! Now I got them all in me!
We’ve certainly enjoyed talking to you Dr. Al, some great information and some great stories and really it’s been wonderful talking to you. It’s the perfect type of information that our audience is listening for
Thank you very much for having me.