One of things I love about the game of poker is that it can be a great leveller. Little old me can sit down at a table with celebrities, poker pros, millionaires and sports stars. I don’t think there’s a game or situation in the world that would ever allow that.
I recently spotted the former NBA star, Andrew Bogut, playing at my local casino. As it would happen, he was on the same table as six-time WSOP bracelet winner, Jeff Lisandro.
I thought it would be fun to speak to Andrew about his passion for poker. Andrew has always been a straight shooter and he was extremely generous with his time. In this interview he talks about how he got into the game, his friendship with Phil Hellmuth, how poker landed him a number of business deals and the card games he played when he was a member of the Golden State Warriors.
When were you first introduced to poker?
It was probably my second year in the NBA. I never played it: in fact, I hated seeing it on TV because I thought “this isn’t a sport, why is it being televised on ESPN?” Then, in 2006, I was with the national team and a teammate of mine called Aaron Bruce essentially taught me the basics of it. Aaron went to school in Texas, and he obviously knew the game. I always knew basic card strengths, but I didn’t know the betting rules of Texas Hold’em, and that’s when I fell in love with the game. Then, funnily enough, I started watching a shitload of it on TV to learn, so I went full circle.
What is the attraction of poker for you?
Gamble plays a big part; but I think it’s the mental warfare of it. You might have a rival at the table that you get into it with a few times, and then you overthink and underthink things, and just figuring out position is something that most amateurs have no idea about. I just enjoy the battle.
I would like to go on a world tour eventually and play in some big tournaments…. I know all the big prizes in poker are from tournaments, so doing the Aussie Millions and WSOP is definitely on the bucket list, and I’ll get those done.
Are there similarities between playing basketball and playing poker?
Just the competitiveness and the mental warfare. It’s not a physical game when you compare it to basketball, but you might have a person on the table that keeps stacking you or keeps sucking out on you, and you automatically have a rival, which is similar to my team versus a team that we hate.
Having retired from basketball, it’s a great sport because it doesn’t put a toll on my body, which has been banged up during my career, and it’s a game where you can sit and have a coffee or a meal and just play. That’s kind of the beauty of it.
Because there are a lot of big-name professional athletes from a range of sports that are attracted to the game of poker.
Yeah, and as athletes we’re action junkies, so being on a court or a field is the peak for us in competitiveness and getting the juices flowing. I think playing poker is the next best thing for us because there’s a lot of juice in the game and I love the competitiveness and battle of it.
Tell me about the poker games when you moved to the Golden State Warriors. From what I’ve read they became legendary. How did those games start?
The game of choice in the NBA is called Bourré; it’s a very dangerous game because it’s one of those ‘match the pot’ games if you lose. I’ve seen a guy almost lose a car playing that. There’s not a lot of nuance or skill in the game. It’s mainly a drawing and luck game.
That was the game on our plane, and we had few guys that had learned poker and enjoyed it. Big Steph (Curry) was one, Klay (Thompson), me, David Lee played a fair bit and Draymond (Green) learned as a rookie.
And Joe Lacob, the majority owner of the Golden State Warriors, had a poker charity night, so he had Phil Hellmuth host it and all the players had to come and play with a bunch of sponsors; and a group of other players then caught the poker bug, so we then decided to play Hold’em on the flight. We had about five or six gamblers that would play and it ended up becoming a much more fun game than Bourré.
What are the players like?
They’re all different; and it’s kind of funny the way their personality is on the court, or the field is similar to how they play poker.
Draymond is really aggressive like the way he plays on the court; he likes to bluff a lot, put a lot of pressure on you, talking shit and getting into you which is fun.
Steph is kind of the quiet assassin, similar to how he is on the court. He doesn’t say a lot and takes his time with things.
— Stephen Curry (@StephenCurry30) December 12, 2018
Klay is loose at times and then David Lee was more in the middle and a bit more conservative.
I always took mental notes laughing about how their personality on the court was similar to the poker game.
You once described Klay as the fish of the group?
Yeah, he was at one stage, but I think he’s gotten a whole lot better. I said that in a podcast a while ago [laughing] and he sent me a text saying I’ve got much better now; I’m waiting to play you again. He was definitely a straight and flush chaser, so he’s learned the hard way, but he was newer to the game than the rest of us, and he was still trying to figure things out.
The problem with Klay was [laughing] you could tell when he was drawing as he had a few giveaways and tells, so, if he’s cleaned that up now, he’ll be doing a little bit better
Is that similar to when you played basketball; i.e., some players have tells on the court that you can read?
Basketball is a little different. There’s nuances and tendencies the way a guy might drive right 80% of the time and left 20% of the time, so there are times that those numbers can help, which I guess then reflects in a poker game — that this guy always bets into his flush draws, or this guy might 3-bet you with nothing to see where you’re at.
There is a form of player scouting in professional poker. We know that a lot of pros watch other pros games who are on TV or get the tape and do a bit of scouting and pick up some tendencies in their game, so it’s very similar to many professional sports these days. A lot is analytic.
I understand there were occasions the poker game on the plane continued well after it landed?
Yeah, we’ve had a few hands as coaches were exiting the plane. Some got passionate and if they stacked a decent amount they would say ‘five more hands.’
Sometimes we’ll land in a city, and it takes so long to get the stairs to the door because it’s 2am. We had a rule that we wouldn’t stop playing until we landed, and the door opened. Sometimes we’d be in the middle of a big hand and people were exiting so we had to finish that hand.
What did the poker games do for team morale? I noticed in a recent article where the Warriors Assistant Coach Bruce Fraser said: “When you have that kind of chemistry, camaraderie, sort of enjoying the whole process, that really helps set the tone for the culture.”
Well, it forced us to talk to each other as we’re on the road and on a lot of planes. Most teams I’ve been on that don’t play cards; everyone’s on a laptop or an iPad with their headphones on, so there’s not a whole lot of chatter. Whereas we’re playing four hours of poker. Between hands you’re talking shit, making fun of each other, bantering, making inside jokes, so there’s all that going on, so I think it’s a positive,
Look, there’s some gambling that has got some bad raps historically in the NBA, where there were some big amounts lost and players didn’t pay up but that’s a whole different situation. Our game was pretty amicable, and guys played in the right spirit. And yeah, there were times that players had a cheque to write but I think it was definitely a net positive rather than a negative
Even the part-owner of the Golden State Warriors Chamath Palihapitiya is quite an accomplished player himself. He’s appeared on Poker After Dark and according to Hendon Mob, has over $175,000 in tournament cashes. Do you play much with him?
I play a fair bit with him actually. He has a home game every now and then, so I’ve played in a few of those. He’s a much better cash player and a very tough guy. It obviously helps he has a mass amount of wealth behind him, so you feel like every hand for him is a freeroll [laughs]. He’s a very good player — a very tough player — and I’ve had many battles against him.
I started w Blackjack and played from 15-20 yrs old as my main gambling obsession but then switched to poker. I became less numerical and algorithmic and more psychological. Poker is the most beautiful game that way…
— Chamath Palihapitiya (@chamath) June 11, 2020
Your relationship with Phil Hellmuth. I noticed a few years ago he was asked by TMZ which athletes were the best poker players, and he essentially said that you’re at a professional level. High praise!
Yeah, I had a crack at him about that because he ruined my schtick. Usually when athletes show up to a casino or a game, everyone looks at us like dumb jocks that are just there for the thrill. He kind of cost me a bit money doing that, but I had a bit of laugh with him and said, ‘don’t put my business out there Phil, tell everyone I’m terrible, I’m a stupid athlete that just can’t fold a hand’.
But yeah, I’m friends with Phil Hellmuth. I play in games with him to this day. He’s in a few of the cash games I’m in, so it’s a pretty tough table. We’ve done some venture capital stuff together and we help each other out network wise as well. He’s obviously the winningest poker player of all time, and I don’t think anyone’s going to catch what he’s done poker wise.
He’s an unbelievable player and I think at times gets a bad rap because of his persona and schtick, which a lot of it is an act. He plays a long game with things and gets a bit of hard knock at times from people. They always debate whether he’s the greatest or not. That’s not even up for debate in my opinion. The guy has more bracelets than anyone else by a mile, so I think more credit is due towards Phil, but like I said he rubs some people the wrong way and they take that personally and want to discredit what he’s done in the game.
You mentioned that you’ve done some venture capital deals with Phil. I guess there’s that other side of poker, the business side. From what I’ve read, you’ve managed to network and leverage poker to land some business deals.
You’re exactly right: I got lucky through my love for poker. David Lee was playing with a lot of venture capital guys in the Bay Area, and he mentioned it a few times in passing and I asked him how I can get in that game, so he shot some texts through and got me in the game with some of the brightest and smartest in the world.
I didn’t go there for that reason; I went there to play cards because I’m a poker degenerate and love playing poker. And then I said ‘holy shit’ I’m sitting next to some of the best founders, the best capital investment and angel investors, and a lot of them are my friends to this day. I’ve been lucky enough to be mentored by one of the guys just to get me through the dos and don’ts of venture capital; what you should look for and what you shouldn’t do. He was even nice enough to get me into a few deals that he had done, and to be honest I just built my network accidentally.
Like I said: I didn’t go into the game thinking I’ll just lose a few thousand to these guys and network, which some people do. There are some people that look at that as a strategy, but I just went in there for the love of poker and ended up getting lucky.
Essentially poker is a game of information. In order to make the best decisions you need to gain information from your opponents. I imagine it’s been perfect for you sitting with these venture capitalists, in that you’re getting great information about investing while playing at the table.
No doubt. As far as venture capital and investing I was the dumbest guy in the room, so I’d be an idiot not to be asking as many questions as I can, and although some of them might’ve sounded dumb or felt dumb at the time, I don’t have that much pride that I’m not going to ask them. I want to learn.
I think one of the guys that helped me out was Bill Lee, who is a pretty good poker player, and he took me under his wing. We had a few meals together and he broke down the dos and don’ts, and still to this day if I have questions about something: a deal, whatever, I’ll ping him and get his thoughts.
He’s a big basketball fan as well and he’s helped me a lot with navigating that landscape. He’s been sensational.
Who’s the best poker player you’ve played against?
Well obviously, Phil Hellmuth. The game we play in is hard and players will try and mess with him and push his buttons. He’s obviously a different cash player to being a tournament player. He’s very conservative playing cash especially with the guys we play because there’s some wild cowboys in that game that will push your buttons.
It’s a bit like playing Michael Jordan in basketball or Tiger Woods in golf. There’s a bunch of different guys I play with who are very good players, but Phil’s the most dominant one.
Is there any particular player you’ve been intimidated by when you’ve sat down at a table?
Oh yeah man. The first time I played in a high stakes cash game I was shitting myself. From 2006 to 2014 I played in games that were on NBA planes which was a $5/10 game of no limit with the odd $2/5 or $5/10 casino game. You generally wouldn’t have more than $4k in front you and then getting into a cash game where the stacks are sometimes six digits; that’s definitely intimidating no matter how much money you have for the first time sitting down.
I guess the first day I played I was really conservative and didn’t play very many hands, and the more and more I saw the hands getting turned, I realised there were a lot of shenanigans going on and a lot of bluffing, and so I backed myself to play more hands and get in the rhythm.
It’s a mindset: as hard as this is for people to understand, if you’re playing in a high stakes cash game you can’t be counting every penny, otherwise you’re just not going to be successful. You’ve got to prepared to lose some money to win some money, and generally the really tight nitty, play one hand an hour guys in that cash game don’t do well.
What is the poker dream for Andrew Bogut?
I’m not too sure. I would like to go on a world tour eventually and play in some big tournaments. I’m a better cash player than a tournament player right now. I haven’t played enough tournaments to better myself to be quite honest. I’ve probably only played 10 or 15 tournaments in my life.
I know all the big prizes in poker are from tournaments, so doing the Aussie Millions and WSOP is definitely on the bucket list, and I’ll get those done but obviously COVID has thrown a big shit sandwich all over the world.
What’s your favourite game?
The other issue I’ve got is that I’ve got into PLO, and I can’t go back to Hold’em at the moment. [laughs] PLO is such a degen game; you’re always in a hand and there’s a whole separate strategy to than there is to Hold’em. Hold’em is more of a patience, sit and wait game, whereas there’s so much action in PLO.
I’ve been playing PLO for the past 18 months, and I’ve gone back to Hold’em a few times and struggled playing a long session of Hold’em compared to PLO.
As a big sporting star, what’s it like sitting down and playing with the general public at the local casino?
As you know, you go to a cardroom and there are a million different personalities. There’s two ways it usually goes:
You’ll have a guy at the table wanting to stack or bluff me so he can tell his mates. Phil Hellmuth goes through that a lot, and he uses that to his advantage. He knows that when he gets on tables, people want to bluff him, show him, and tell their friends, so I get that.
And there’s the other side: of things: if you stack someone, they’ll say “you’ve got enough money why are you on this table?” So, there’s two different spectrums of it.
That just goes with poker: people lose money and act differently. For the most part I try and fly under the radar, as hard it is being seven feet. I don’t like being known when I sit down and if someone recognises me, I say hello to them and just keep it quiet. I don’t like people yelling in the room “hey there’s that guy!” I just want to play cards and be a poker player like everybody else, so that’s how I go about it
If you could invite five people to a home game – who would they be?
The home game I’m in is a pretty good one as it is. I’m not too much of a celebrity guy. I just like to have people that want to enjoy playing for four or five hours. I like having Phil (Hellmuth) around just because we usually mess with him a lot and like seeing him blow-up.
[Laughs] We’ve put slow-roll bounties on him before without him knowing, so that’s been really funny. He’ll go to the bathroom and someone at the table will say “a thousand dollars if you’ve got the nuts and slow roll Phil!” [laughs] You get a $1,000 from every player if you slow roll him and he loses his shit. Phil is a fun one to have around.
Draymond is a great guy to have around, David Lee’s fun. Having guys that have a good sense of humour where they talk shit and not take things too personally and just banter, I think that’s a big part of poker. That’s why casino games are sometimes boring because it’s just so quiet. You have three or four grinders just trying to make a living, another couple of guys talking about random stuff that doesn’t make sense, and then you have three guys who don’t say a word.
If you get a good group of friends that have known each other a long time and you learn each other’s tendencies and nuances, sayings and swear words, that’s a big part of it.
Finally, do you have a favourite hand?
In PLO, 8910J is a great hand and you can do a lot of damage with it, particularly if someone has AA, KK, or QQ.
In Hold’em, I like 910 of hearts.
So, if you’re up against Andrew at the casino and the flop is QJ8 then proceed with caution?
Exactly: hopefully all hearts!