Chris Ferguson is one the world’s great poker players so we decided to find out how from the man himself: “Gambling doesn’t appeal to me”

Michael Kaplan delves into the mind of Chris Ferguson, the game’s foremost tactician

The player

Name: Chris ‘Jesus’ Ferguson
Resides: California and Las Vegas
Style of play: Calculating
Tournament winnings: $5,823,894
Biggest win: 31st World Series of Poker 2000 – $10,000 No-Limit Hold’em World Championship; 1st, $1,500,000

Chris Ferguson is at a loose end. Sitting in the living room of the modest Las Vegas home he shares with his pretty girlfriend Fabiola, Ferguson appears incredibly mellow and simultaneously uncertain about what he wants to do next. He’s recently contributed to a Full Tilt poker book, he played on the American TV shows Poker After Dark and High Stakes Poker, and he’s just come back from a World Series circuit event in Omaha, Nebraska. In terms of his play, he didn’t manage to do much there, but he signed a bunch of autographs and spent a night on the town. The folks from Harrah’s had freerolled him into the tournament in exchange for the buzz he’d bring to an event that was too remote and too inconvenient (it clashed with a high profile heads-up tournament) to attract many marquis pros. Generally though, Ferguson, a five-time bracelet winner, is not playing a whole lot of poker these days.

Stretching his long legs, dressed in jeans and a tee-shirt, hair hanging lankly to his shoulders, signature cowboy hat nowhere in sight, he acknowledges that the hiatus is not exactly by choice. ‘There isn’t much to play besides World Poker Tour events,’ he explains. ‘And I don’t play on the World Poker Tour anymore.’

Ferguson is among a group of poker players who are boycotting the WPT due to its insistence on owning the images of players participating in WPT tournaments. For pros like Ferguson, who see value in their names and faces, this contractual obligation has been enough to keep them away from the big events. It’s led to a lawsuit (players claim that the WPT is preventing them from earning a living) and downtime for Ferguson. ‘I’ve been taking it easy,’ he says. ‘Going out every once in a while. Swing dancing a bit. In the near future though, I think I’ll go back to playing those events. Our court date is April 2008. I can’t figure out why they don’t want good players playing on the tour.’

But what’s a tournament superstar to do when the tournaments just aren’t there for him? He says that he wouldn’t mind taking up golf but, even if he does, you won’t see him out on the course, wagering ungodly sums of money against the Daniel Negreanus of this world.

‘Gambling doesn’t appeal to me,’ he flatly states, pointing out that he has no interest in wagering without the best of it and that he would never want to win money off friends via prop bets and the like. ‘I make two sports bets a year, and I look for opportunities by betting a couple of thousand on the team that everybody else hates. I go against the prevailing instinct and realise that most sports bettors are usually wrong. When I see a good opportunity, I can’t pass it up. For example, I’ve won a lot of money betting against the Los Angeles Lakers. They’re my favourite team, but they were a 1/8 favourite to win at home because they had swept through the playoffs. I didn’t expect them to lose, but the team they were up against had a record that was only slightly worse than that of the Lakers. The odds were too good to pass up.’

The quiet man

As far as poker goes, the last year has been fairly flat for Ferguson. However, he did manage to win week seven of Poker After Dark (which airs as a week-long winner-take-all tournament) and finished second (for the second year running) in the 2006 NBC National Heads-Up Poker Tournament (Ferguson particularly likes heads-up because it’s easier to analyse mathematically, and therefore allows him to play with an edge).

Playing on High Stakes Poker, Ferguson could have looked like a fish out of water. After all, he rarely plays cash games – and never for those kinds of stakes. But Ferguson claims that it was no biggy. Especially because he approaches a cash game very similarly to the way he looks at a big buy-in tournament.

‘Actually,’ he says, ‘I play a tournament as if I’m playing a cash game. I think people overadjust for tournaments. They try to last and are afraid of getting knocked out. I don’t worry about going broke. I play a tournament as if I can rebuy. But instead of rebuying, if I get knocked out, I just find something else to do. It’s not like I have to play poker. My attitude is this: can they bust me out of a tournament? Yes. Can they bust me out of poker? No. Not worrying about going broke is the only way to win. People try to last for a long time and they actually cost themselves in the long run. If you tighten up, it should be because it’s the right thing to do, whether you’re in a cash game or in a tournament.’

The approach clearly worked. Playing on High Stakes Poker against some of the greatest cash game players in the world, Ferguson still managed to emerge a winner. ‘I bought in for $100,000 and cashed out for $180,000,’ he recounts. ‘I was very happy with that result. Basically, I didn’t lose a hand. The game, on the day I played, was much tighter than what viewers traditionally see on High Stakes Poker. There were really good players and you can’t mess around with them. Against amateurs, you can get away with playing a lot of hands. But when the top players go up against each other, you cannot get away with that. I think the game is actually elevating to a higher level.’

Still, there was plenty of aggression on Poker After Dark, especially when it came down to three players. In a key hand, Ferguson, the short stack with 20,000 in chips, caught pocket Aces on the button. ‘I immediately moved allin, which I knew I would do if I had a big hand,’ says Ferguson. ‘I didn’t expect to beat these players by messing around. Gus Hansen, though, viewed that all-in bet as a sign of weakness. He moved in with Q-6. Tony G, the middle stack, was all-in as well.’ Ferguson wound up winning the hand and Tony G finished second. So Ferguson tripled up and Tony G won some chips off Hansen. But what Ferguson finds particularly interesting here is the degree to which the hand illustrates poker’s strategic underpinnings. ‘If this was not a winner-take-all situation Tony G would have had a bit of an edge,’ explains Ferguson, referring to tournament situations in which three players remain. ‘If the short stack moves in [and so does the big stack], then the middle stack is liberated to move in as well. That way, if the small stack wins, the middle still has a chance of being in the tournament. If the big stack wins, then the small stack gets second place. And if he wins, well, okay, that’s great.’ It’s a lesson from Jesus that might be worth heeding for us non-deities.

Hobbies and interests

Long before he was a poker star, Chris Ferguson was just another post-teen computer fanatic haunting the technology lab at UCLA in southern California. He was going for a PhD in computer science, swing dancing in his spare time, mastering the art of throwing playing cards and teaching himself how to dunk a basketball. He spent so much time walking around the campus that his pre-Jesus nickname was Christopher Walker. Back then Ferguson had no inclination to make it as a professional poker player – if anything, he expected to create software that would find value in the stock market and allow him to make money by trading with an edge – but he was hardly a stranger to the game.

Applications of strategy always intrigued him, and he grew up playing war games that required winners to understand and utilise concepts rooted in game theory. He managed to win money off his high school friends at quarter-ante poker and, after turning 21, wanted to try his hand at beating the real thing: $1 to $5 stud in Las Vegas. ‘I’d play for 10 hours a day with the intention of paying for gas, food and my room,’ says Ferguson. ‘I wanted to prove that I could survive in this hostile environment called Las Vegas. I wanted to know that I could get to Vegas and support myself and live there for as long as I wanted to. This was a rite of passage for me. It was my way of becoming a man.’

Fierce competition

During the latter part of the 1980s, Ferguson cut his teeth by playing Hold’em and Omaha on the nascent internet, participating in a primitive form of today’s online game. It was called IRC Poker, played strictly for fun, and was patronised mostly by up-and-coming computer geeks.

As Ferguson explains, even though they weren’t playing for hard cash, the competition was fierce, players were smart, and nobody ever wanted to go broke (it meant you’d be given a small stack and would need to rebuild in the low stakes games, which participants despised). In 1991, while still attending college, Ferguson decided to conquer Asian stud – a five-card game in which players are dealt one card down, four cards up, and the deck is stripped of Twos through Sixes.

He wrote computer programs that showed optimal ways in which to play the bluffintensive game. And some of what he discovered applied directly to the more traditional forms of poker. For example, Ferguson recognised that if you play with a full deck, it’s very hard to catch a paired-up opponent when you don’t have a pair yourself, but, with Twos through Sixes gone, it’s much easier. He also created strategies for dealing with the collusion that was rife at the Asian Stud table. He thought the game would be beatable and he was right: within a short period of time, Ferguson found himself earning $75 an hour. But after a short while he got bored and decided to learn Texas Hold’em.

Once again Ferguson turned to his computer. He created programs that isolated various nuggets of tournament play and he spent long periods of time exploring options that applied to specific situations. For example, he devoted six months to analysing nothing but short-stack gambits. Eventually Ferguson filled a number of large black binders with the strategies that would soon become the cornerstone of his very profitable career.

Ready to play, he was immediately drawn to tournaments because they allowed him to go up against top professionals (and therefore learn the game from the best) without needing to put a huge bankroll in jeopardy. He found himself playing alongside guys like T.J. Cloutier, Men ‘The Master’ Nguyen and Daniel Negreanu. Ferguson discovered that people tended to play tighter and better in tournaments than they do in side games and he viewed the competition as a tool for learning. As expected, he lost money during his first two years on the circuit. By year three, though, he was in the black, and he hasn’t had a losing season since.

Ferguson understood the game well enough to objectively recognise mistakes that ‘name’ players made. He learned from their errors, figured out how to exploit them and absorbed things that some of the best pros do right. ‘People talk about Johnny Chan playing badly, but they don’t understand what he is doing,’ explains Ferguson. ‘They say, “Oh, he got in there with the worst hand.” But what they fail to consider is that he’s already stolen 10 pots.

So if you happen to get lucky against him, you might be back where you started because he puts so much pressure on people.’ Picking up knowledge (and knowing what to do with it) allowed Ferguson to rapidly rise through the poker ranks – he began winning poker tournaments in 1994 and made his first WSOP final table one year later – and, he insists, his motivation has never been monetary. But maybe it didn’t need to be.

Before Ferguson won the Main Event in 2000, he was already a millionaire through stock trading. ‘Everyone wanted to play poker for the money,’ he says. ‘But for me it was never about making money. It was always more about the challenge of getting good.’

Six-million dollar man

You can make a pretty decent argument that Chris Ferguson got into poker for the right reasons and that it has paid off for the right reasons as well. Over the course of his career he’s won close to $6m and emerged as one of the most recognisable players in the game. The latter factor, he figured, would result in a major pay day for him – in realms that go beyond playing cards. He’s starred in TV commercials for Milwaukee’s Best Lite beer, received free sunglasses from Oakley, and is attached to the World Series of Poker videogame. But, as Ferguson himself is quick to point out, he’s never achieved the mainstream marketability that he had been angling for. ‘It’s been hard to monetise my fame,’ he admits. ‘But I’ve been doing it mostly through Full Tilt.’

He’s puzzled by the lack of interest from major advertisers, but that’s not his number one concern at the moment. Right now he’s most focused on playing the game that made him famous in the first place. On the day that we meet, an afternoon in mid-February, he’s already setting his sites on the coming WSOP.

No cash

When Ferguson looks back on his playing in 2006, he expresses acute disappointment about generating only three cashes at that year’s Series. So he’s really keyed up to make a good showing in 2007. Ferguson loves the WSOP but, like most pros, he’s quick to point out that it could be better. He’d like to see more big buy-in events and a wider variety of games. ‘No-limit Hold’em is my favourite game,’ Ferguson admits, ‘but I play so much of it that, at this point, I look forward to playing any game other than no-limit Hold’em. I loved the $50,000 H.O.R.S.E. in 2006 and I look forward to playing it again this year.’

Asked about how he’s seen the style of play at the Series evolve over the last decade or so, Ferguson answers without hesitation: ‘People tended to play too tight when I started. So I was aggressive and stole a lot. I don’t think that works today. People play too many hands and tend not to fold as much [as they used to].’ These days, he says, ‘I often play more conservatively than a lot of players do. If people play too aggressively, then the right strategy is a passive strategy. You start with the best hand and hopefully end with the best hand. I want to make people play the game they don’t like to play and the game they are not used to playing. If opponents don’t like to fold, I want to make them play a game in which they will have to fold.’

And what about when he gets to the final table? ‘That’s when I play my best,’ he says of the end game that he’s reached 26 times in World Series events. Then, sounding a little cryptic, he warns, ‘I learn a lot when I’m at the final table.’

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