High stakes cash big hitter Phil Galfond reveals his secrets in this exclusive interview: “Frankly, I think I’m smarter than most other players”

The world of an online high-stakes cash game master is not necessarily fast cars and lavish trimmings

AGE: 22

If you’re looking for shooting stars in the online world of high-stakes poker players, then Phil ‘Jman’ Galfond is a name you will no doubt stumble across.

The 22-year old from Wisconsin regularly plays the best players in the world at the $ 50/$ 100 to $ 200/$ 400 no-limit hold’em tables. In fact, such is Galfond’s recognition throughout the online ranks that his Full Tilt alias, ‘OMGClayAiken’, attracts legions of online railbirds. And, such fame has led to him being given a seat on the next series of High Stakes Poker. It’s quite a rise for a guy who only ten months ago could be found grinding away at the $ 5/$ 10 tables – but Galfond is not one to be affected by attention.

What were you doing before poker, and what in your background has allowed you to excel at it?

I was a college student studying philosophy at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, though I dropped out after five semesters. I’ve always excelled at maths and logic. I think those two areas are very important to being a good poker player. Psychology is the third that I’d consider most important, which I also feel strong in.

Can you explain the origins of your screen names?

‘OMGClayAiken’ was just something I thought up and thought was funny [Clay Aiken was the runner-up on season two of American Idol]. Most people like to have tough-sounding screen names and I think that’s stupid. ‘Jman’ is a long story and isn’t very interesting.

Can you give us a brief rundown of your rise to the top?

I didn’t play hold’em until I was 19. I started with sit&gos on Party Poker and played them for a while, grinding my way up from $ 10 to $ 100 tourneys in the first year of my career. Then I moved up to the $ 200 ones and took shots at the new $ 1,000 sit&gos. After that I switched to $ 5/$ 10 no-limit cash games, which was probably a bit high, but I picked it up very quickly and never had to drop down in stakes. That was a year and a half ago.

I grinded up to $ 10/$ 20 and built a decent roll in those games, then took shots at $ 25/$ 50 and $ 50/$ 100 on other sites when the games were good and ran very badly. So, I dropped down to $ 5/$ 10 and grinded back. That was about ten months ago. I rebuilt my roll and eventually tried the bigger games again. I haven’t really looked back since.

What bankroll approach did you take to move up so fast and would you recommend others to follow it?

I’ve taken some gambles with my roll, but have never been in danger of losing it all. I take shots in good games when I can afford to and I know that I can move back down if need be. Some people take a shot and then can’t move back down if they lose.

They end up losing everything. I think that most people should be conservative with their bankroll because a big loss can be damaging psychologically and end up costing them a lot more money. I’ve found that I’m fairly mentally strong when it comes to dealing with losses.

What do you think sets you apart as a player?

Frankly, I think I’m smarter than most other players. I certainly don’t study or work as hard as some of the other greats, although I do think about the game a lot.

I think I handle different player types better than most people. I adjust well when my opponent likes to bluff, or when they are a bit of a calling station. Many good players just play a style and don’t alter it enough for different opponents. I’m also well-known for making big calls. I find spots where players aren’t representing any real hand better than most people. Some players with bottom pair will fold to a big bet on the river without bothering to think about what their opponent might have.

What is your day-to-day schedule like outside poker?

I have a lot of great friends within poker, but most of my friends in Madison have no poker experience. I like it that way. I have no schedule at all. I often wake up at a completely different hour every day. When I’m not playing poker I like to hang out with friends just like everyone else. I’m a member of a professional improv company. We perform twice a week and teach classes on improv. That consumes a lot of my time – but I love it.

Can you give us an idea of what you’ve made from poker and what you’ve done with the money?

I’d rather not be specific about my lifetime winnings. I do okay, but I’m not a baller [someone who lives a lavish lifestyle]. I’ve never bought anything over $ 5,000. I don’t own a car. I live in an apartment with a college student and pay under $ 500 per month for rent. I don’t really see the point in showing off. My life is great as it is.

You appeared on High Stakes Poker, what was the whole experience like and the standard of play?

I had a very bad experience with being bumped on the High Stakes Poker schedule in favour of other players [Galfond was scheduled to play in the big $ 500,000 buy-in game]. In terms of the skill levels, the $ 300/$ 600 no-limit game was comparable to a $ 5/$ 10 game that you would play online.

The online high-stakes games seem insanely aggressive to many observers. Is this just a reflection of the power of aggression in no-limit hold’em?

Aggression is a very powerful tool. Many people fight aggression with aggression. That isn’t the only way to do it, but it’s probably the easiest. This results in the hyper-aggro games that you see. As far as strategy adjustments go, this means calling down with weak hands, pushing back and thinking on very high levels.

Where do you see yourself in ten years time – will you still be playing and still be at the top?

I really don’t know where I’ll be in ten years. I would like to think I’ll be retired with a family and only playing poker casually. A lot depends on how successful I am in the near future and what non-poker opportunities show up.

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