Chris Ferguson is a poker legend that has another life: “Once you figure out how to beat a guy, I don’t think it’s fair to keep taking his money day after day”

Chris ‘Jesus’ Ferguson on life as a poker outlaw and why playing your best only makes it harder to beat him

WSOP main event winner Chris ‘Jesus’ Ferguson knows his place in the poker world.

‘I’m an outsider,’ he says with a theatrical flourish as he removes his stetson and places it on the table in front of him. He leans back in his chair, half smiling while studying my reaction. I nod, knowing he’s right. But he’s a curious sort of outlaw.

The whole image is deceptive: sharp suit, cowboy hat, boots and 70s rock star mane of hair. It was always meant to be. When Ferguson first arrived in Las Vegas in the late 1990s as a postgraduate student he found wearing the getup made people look at him differently. Rather than seeing a scruffy student, the hat gave him the appearance of authority he was searching for. Today, it could easily look ridiculous on a man of his 45 years, but Ferguson still manages to carry it off – albeit not quite in the manner of a hip young gunslinger.

In many ways he is the epitome of geek chic

He’s softly spoken with a PhD in computer science and an intense fascination with video games. As he sits legs crossed on the other side of the table in a smart London hotel his expression rarely wavers from a shy smile, and the sharp suit belies a much softer centre. He answers every question with the same gentle measured response, which as his girlfriend – sitting alongside him – admits makes him ‘very hard to read’. Ferguson also carries none of the bluster or ego that comes with so many of his contemporaries. In a world of eccentrics and egotists, the man is resolutely polite and affable. In many ways he holds the clearest hope for the poker player who feels disenfranchised by a seemingly inimitable world of the major pros, where players like Phil Hellmuth talk about staring into people’s souls.

This world of mystical instinct is not one Ferguson lives in. His approach to the game is analytical and empirical. It’s all done in a very studious manner ‘Most poker players don’t understand what it is they do,’ he says. ‘I understand what I do. The core strategy I use is based on mathematics and is very difficult to play against. When I think about poker, I’m concentrating more on my own game than my opponents. If I had to tell my opponent how I’m going to play every single hand, how would I play? I’m trying to come up with a strategy that even if he knows how I’m going to play, he’s not going to be able to beat me – even if he watches me for hours. That’s the way I think about poker.’ Thinking this way has certainly been very effective for Ferguson with instant and consistent success in tournament poker over the past twelve years. But right now he’s choosing some strange opponents to test himself against. While his Full Tilt colleagues can usually be found playing in the nosebleed $1,000/$2,000 hold’em games, Ferguson is busy playing freerolls or grinding away at the $0.01/$0.02 tables.

It seems like an odd way to spend your time when your bankroll has six zeros attached to it, but Ferguson insists it’s about more than simply money. He’s trying to turn $0 into $10,000, and at the moment his bankroll is somewhere around the $5 mark. It’s a tough grind, but he tells me playing this way gives him back the buzz he first had for poker when he started playing the game. And he must be a glutton for punishment, because it’s not the first time he’s attempted this type of challenge. Two years ago he tried to turn $1 into $20,000. He lost the first dollar playing Omaha hi-lo, but then he started again, switched to no-limit hold’em and it all changed.

Ferguson turned the second dollar into $20,000 in around six months.

‘It took around 100 hours of play,’ he says. ‘Once I got up to $10, I felt very secure that I was going to make it to $20,000 because I wasn’t just trying to do it by moving up in limits very quickly. I wanted to do it so that it could be repeated – to show people that it wasn’t just a fluke. ‘So the rule was I was never allowed to buy in [to a no-limit cash game] for more than 5% of my bankroll – ever. I could only buy into MTTs for 2% and if I ever had 10% of my bankroll at a table, I would have to leave. It means if I went on a losing streak, I had to move down a level. So no losing streak would allow me to lose my entire bankroll.’

But surely this takes a lot of discipline? ‘It’s hard when you are playing 25/50 and you go on a bad losing streak and have to go back down two levels,’ he admits. While it’s a system most skilled players could adopt it seems almost a counterintuitive project for Ferguson to take on. His poker strategy, after all, is based on mathematical models where his opponents are playing perfectly. It’s safe to say the average punter playing in a freeroll is not going to be ticking that box. ‘The kind of strategies I employ work much better against the best players in the world,’ he admits. ‘I don’t tend to go out on a limb to take advantage of my opponents as much as I could. I play with a more confined style. In these freerolls I will go out more on a limb. If I think they are willing to call a large raise, I will make a large raise. I change strategies depending on who I’m playing against.

‘At the lower limits online it’s kind of ridiculous because people aren’t really taking them seriously. It’s strange, but I’m taking them very seriously. Winning $15 would triple my bankroll right now. If you’re playing against me and you win, you didn’t just beat Chris Ferguson in a freeroll, you beat Chris Ferguson playing at his best. It’s hilarious that people don’t realise I’m on the other side of the computer sweating bullets just to beat them.’ It paints a curious image – Ferguson’s cool, calculated aggression facing a horde of chip splashing donks, and it plays into one of the main criticisms of his play. There are sections of the poker world who view him as a player that is too tight in his approach. British pro Dave Colclough says he always wants Ferguson at his table for precisely this reason. ‘I love to play with Chris Ferguson. He’s such a gentleman, but I always feel if I’ve got him on my table, he’s not getting my chips because he plays too tight. I know he makes moves, but he doesn’t play enough cards in my opinion.’

Fundamental flaws

However, Ferguson believes the currently in-vogue technique of playing a lot of hands is fundamentally flawed. And he believes players who are fond of seeing a lot of flops are going to come unstuck. ‘I think that’s a big mistake. You shouldn’t be making those kind of calls. I’m not saying we have to go strictly by the book of poker. Looking at it mathematically, you should be playing interesting poker. But some people play way too many hands. When the best players in the world play hard against each other, there is going to be an awful lot of money lost by the players who play like that.’

It’s another example of the way Ferguson amiably clashes with the poker cognoscenti. Take his attitude to this year’s WSOP main event winner – the widely loathed Jamie Gold. ‘I thought he played great and just because you are an amateur, it doesn’t mean you can’t play well. He didn’t lose a coin flip, and I guarantee you he was doing a lot of things right. You can only win that tournament by playing well.’ Few players are better qualified to comment on what it takes to win poker’s biggest prize than Ferguson. Alongside his main event title from 2000, he has two WSOP circuit titles and four other bracelets. ‘I love playing in the WSOP. At the beginning of the World Series, it feels like Christmas when I was a kid. My happiest moments are walking into that casino at the start of the event. It’s not about making money – it’s about doing what you love doing with all of your friends.’

Outside of the WSOP, perhaps his best moments have come at the National Heads-Up championship, where he has finished runner-up in the last two years – most recently to Ted Forrest. ‘I never picked up a hand against Ted Forrest. I had a pretty good feel for how to play against him by the end, but I just never picked up a hand.’ Despite the defeat and the manner of it, there is no bitterness from Ferguson. Missing out on a title is not something he is ashamed of. ‘I don’t understand people being mad when they finish second in a poker tournament. I can’t quite figure that out. It’s such an incredible accomplishment. I’m proud of all my second-placed finishes.’

Proud career

Indeed, there’s a lot for Ferguson to be proud of in his career, which strictly speaking began when he first played draw poker for nickels at the age of ten – although it was around 15 years later that he really fell for the game. Back in the tail end of the 1980s – inside the red brick grandeur of the University of California in Los Angeles (UCLA) where Ferguson spent 13 years as a postgraduate student – he would often be found staring at lines of text on a small monitor. Later in life he would play a major role in the design of the software used by Full Tilt Poker, but back then the game was Internet Relay Chat (IRC) poker. It was a simple affair run by text commands. And he fell deeply in love with it. ‘That software, as rudimentary as it was, was probably the fastest poker software there has ever been. I could play 600 hands an hour and from 1989 to 1992, I played a ton.’

He devoted hours of his time towards studying the game, adopting his university professor father’s chosen field of study: game theory. Game theory allows players to create models based on expected patterns of play, optimising a betting strategy as a result. Put more simply, it can, for example, assess a situation where player A is on a flush draw against Player B, who is currently ahead. The mathematic model will then suggest an optimum betting strategy (for example, bet the pot three times in ten and bluff once in ten). This approach in turn took his own game to a new level. He rapidly rose to the top of the IRC rankings and by 1993 felt ready to take on the live game, playing in and winning a series of tournaments in Southern California before achieving his first WSOP cash finish in the 1995 razz event.

He’s adamant the techniques behind his rise to the top are not beyond the reach of the average poker player. ‘Maybe understanding the maths behind my strategies is hard, but once you get the answers, putting them into practice is pretty simple.’ It’s at this point that my eyes light up, but Ferguson reads me like a book. ‘That doesn’t mean that I could explain them all to you in this interview. I saw that coming. It’s always good to be one step ahead,’ he adds with a chuckle. But he quickly comes up with some examples of how the theory is put into practice.

‘A simple application of game theory in poker is when to bluff. I don’t tend to bluff because I feel like bluffing. I bluff because I think my opponent may be weak and it’s the only way I can win the pot. You don’t want to bluff with a hand that can win if you check it down, because you are not gaining anything. If you have a medium hand and bet, you are only going to get called if you are beaten. So why bet there? You don’t need game theory to teach you that, as it can be proved logically. But game theory tells you exactly where the cutoff point is – what hand is worth bluffing and what hands aren’t.’

Cheap and cheerful

It’s a good example of the reasoned pragmatism that applies to everything Chris Ferguson does. He flies economy, because ‘I’m cheap. It’s got to make economic sense for me or why would I do it? I think that’s also very much a part of the way I play poker.’ But that cautious nature contrasts nicely with his outsider instincts. This is a man who finally finished being a student in 1999 after 18 years of study. This is not a man enamoured of the rat race, and he’s not interested in doing what he’s supposed to do in life – or in poker. If you’re a great poker player,

you’re supposed to migrate towards the big cash games where your mettle is really tested. But tournament poker is undoubtedly where Ferguson is most at home. ‘If you want to make money playing poker, cash games are the way to go,’ he agrees. ‘It’s a more reliable source of income than tournaments. But I don’t enjoy playing cash games. I love playing poker tournaments – they are so dynamic and there is more going on. Live play is in a static environment. You are playing against the same people.’

Ferguson is also way too much of a nice guy for the cutthroat world of cash games. On the three occasions we spoke in London and Los Angeles, he was never anything other than friendly and courteous. He’s almost too nice for poker. And he knows that tournaments allow him to gain that edge of spite you need to win. ‘Once you figure out how to beat a guy, I don’t think it’s fair to keep taking his money day after day. I guess I just don’t have that killer instinct. But if a player comes into my world and puts his $10k down for a poker tournament, then he has lost his money already – so it may as well be to me.’ It’s a world apart from the predatory instincts of most poker pros. But Ferguson certainly isn’t your typical player.

It would be difficult to script a more symbolic representation of Ferguson against the poker world than his defeat of TJ Cloutier in the 2000 WSOP main event. Cloutier was the epitome of the hard gambler of poker legend – often seen blowing off steam at the craps tables. For Ferguson, the gambling ethos was anathema. ‘I’m not a gambler at all. It would be torture for me to have to put a nickel in a slot machine. I just can’t do it because I don’t believe there is an edge? Why would I want to play craps? It’s boring as hell. I could have $1,000 riding on it and I couldn’t care less. It makes me an outsider in the poker world.

Life outside poker

‘A lot of these guys don’t have much of a life outside poker. When they get knocked out of a tournament they head straight to the live games. That’s not the way I do it. I like to get away from poker as much as possible. I went out dancing every other night at this year’s World Series. It’s a form of therapy. Getting away from poker helps my poker game.’ When most poker players talk about going ‘dancing’ in Las Vegas they will most likely be referring to something involving dry ice, steel poles and a nagging sense of shame the following morning. But for Ferguson, dancing means dancing. For anyone that has witnessed his moves in the VIP lounge of Tao nightclub at the Venetian, you’ll appreciate he takes his hobby very seriously indeed.

But, like most poker players, he’s constantly chasing that buzz. He needs to set his restless mind new challenges but betting $100k on a game of golf or shooting craps just isn’t going to cut it. So, if plugging away on the $0.01/$0.02 tables makes him an outsider, then he’s fine with that. Perhaps that attitude has persisted in him because he has always lived away from the temptations of Sin City in the more relaxed surroundings of Pacific Palisades in California. But this is soon to change. The sheer volume of time he spends in Vegas playing in tournaments has persuaded him to make the move.

For all the personality that Vegas carries, Ferguson doubts the change of scenery will alter him much. ‘I would like to have more in common with the people I play poker with because we spend so much time together. But I’m just not a gambler,’ he says with a slow smile. ‘When all is said and done, I’m very happy that I’m different.’

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