Howard Lederer, the two-time WPT and WSOP bracelet winner, speaks out about his desire to return to high-stakes action
Howard ‘The Professor’ Lederer was one of the first poker superstars thanks to two wins in the first series of the WPT and an impressive back-story.
The maths graduate learned the game in the underground clubs of New York before making a World Series of Poker main event final table appearance in 1987 at the tender age of 23. From there he went on to garner two WSOP bracelets and a fearsome reputation at the biggest cash games in Las Vegas.
And it was Lederer’s cash game play that made him truly iconic thanks to an encounter with Texan billionaire Andy Beal. The businessman had challenged a group of pros to a series of heads-up limit hold’em cash games with blinds of $50,000/$100,000. That series culminated in a legendary clash with Lederer where Beal lost $9.3 million in a single session.
In recent years, however, the sight of The Professor at the poker tables has been infrequent. His name still crops up at some of the big tournaments, but he rarely sits down at the cash tables. So will he ever return to the high-stakes world where he made his name? We met up with him in Las Vegas to find out.
How come we haven’t seen much of you on the poker scene recently?
Howard Lederer: I play some big tournaments, but not too many. I have been so busy with software development and the business is what takes up my time. Poker is a game where a player who gets started in their twenties can have a fifty-year career. I’m taking a five-year hiatus to concentrate on the business side of things.
Does it hurt not being able to play more poker?
HL: I can play, but I’m objective about my limitations so I’m playing zero cash game poker. It’s one of the reasons why I was a successful poker player. I don’t think I can wake up at 8am, work until 7pm, go grab a bite to eat and head over to the Bellagio to play poker against Phil Ivey. I’m not going to be the business guy who turns up at 8pm and burns his money off.
Do you think there will be a time when you are back playing high-stakes poker?
HL: I have that thirst and in a couple of years I will be back to the grind of high-stakes poker. I’m definitely looking forward to that. I love playing the game and I certainly haven’t lost my interest. And there are going to be so many new players I haven’t played with such as Brandon Adams, Brian Townsend and Patrik Antonius. It will be fun to play against some of those guys.
Have you ever played in the Big Game?
HL: The Big Game was my game every day for ten years. From 1993 when I moved to Las Vegas to 2003 when the poker boom hit. I never played $4,000/$8,000 because we never played that high. When I moved to Vegas you had to work hard to get a $400/$800 game going. Then we started playing $800/$1,600.
Did you make a ton of money then?
HL: During that ten-year period I never had a losing year, but I was never the star in any given year. There always seemed to be some guy who came into the game and had a big rush.
You’re regarded by many as the best heads-up player in the world. What is it about heads-up play you love?
HL: It’s a combat sport. It’s just you and that one other person. There is a certain kind of focus you can apply in terms of trying to decipher tells and get into their head. You can’t have that kind of focus at a regular table because you need to diffuse your focus among all the other players.
What’s the secret to winning at heads-up hold’em?
HL: It is kind of like a puzzle. You have to dissect their style and come up with a perfect counter-match. In heads-up anyone can have anything on any street and it’s all about betting patterns.
Do you have a specific approach for your own game?
HL: I don’t think about my style at all. I know I start from position A, where I am going to raise just about every hand on the button and call just about every hand on the big blind. From there, I’m just thinking about what is going to beat the other guy.
Your most famous win is when you took $9m off Texan billionaire Andy Beal. How did that all get started?
HL: I believe I was the first guy to play him heads-up. We played $1,000/$2,000 and I ran over him. That first trip he couldn’t have had a winning hour. Then he came back six months later and he was much tougher to beat. By the time he came back for his third trip it was like, ‘Uh oh. I’m going to have to bring my A-game and we are going to have some swings.’
So what changed in Andy’s game to make him want to come back and challenge a group of top pros?
HL: He was smart enough to realise that heads-up limit hold’em is the one form of poker that will be ‘solvable’. He stuck with it and I have all the respect in the world for him. He was this guy who was a complete novice and turned himself into a world-class player. By the end, there were a lot of players we wouldn’t have wanted to bet on against him.
Were you nervous at all when you sat down to play him?
HL: It was the nervousness of playing for 18 of the best players in the world. If I could have afforded to play in that game for my own money, I would have. It’s tough when you lose other people’s money. I only did it once, where I lost $2 million. It was pretty devastating for a day or two; a little harder to accept.
What was the secret to beating him?
HL: There was something I was able to do to him on the flop that set him up for fourth street. If you added up the wins and losses that were made on fourth street, that is where I beat him.
Why did you not play him the most recent time he came to town?
HL: He made it very clear that I was the one guy in the world he did not want to play. We [the group of pros that played against Beal] made an agreement that we wouldn’t lead with me, but I was in the line-up. We stuck Ivey in the box and said, Howard is going to be next. But Ivey reported back he was really comfortable and had the guy spooked and we knew he had that killer instinct, so we left him in.
Would you drop everything to play him if he came back to town?
HL: Yes. First of all I think I am the best guy to play him. I think I’m the one who gets into his head the most and the guy he does not want to play for whatever reason. And secondly, I love playing that high. It’s a huge challenge. That lack of focus that may come from me being a little too focused on the last email I just answered – that wouldn’t happen with Andy. It gets your attention if you’re playing $50,000/$100,000.
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