Why is Tommy Angelo and poker icon? We analyse the reasons behind his legendary status

Steve Hill goes deep with player, author, tutor and musician Tommy Angelo and finds out why he once folded Aces preflop

Everyone plays poker exactly the same way: as they please.’

As poker phrases go, it’s a fairly throwaway platitude, but the man behind this so-called ‘Tommyism’ is anything but casual when it comes to the great game. Having learned the basics at the age of seven, Ohio-born Tommy Angelo has been involved in poker for most of his life, eventually giving up his job as a gigging musician in a country rock band to turn pro. However, you won’t have seen him competing for bracelets and trophies with the big names, as throughout his career he has eschewed the tournament circuit, preferring to grind away anonymously at home games and the cash tables of Northern California where he now lives. In fact, he rarely even plays poker any more.

So what makes him a poker icon? Well, in 2003, Tommy – who had by then been a poker columnist for five years and a frequent poster on 2+2 – received an email from a punter asking for help with his game. A light immediately went on in Tommy’s head, and so the Tiltless Coaching Program was born, offering a more meditative approach to the mental attitude required to succeed at poker. Over the course of one, two or three days, for a fee of a few thousand dollars Tommy will spend one-on-one time with clients in either Palo Alto or Las Vegas, eating, playing and breathing with them, getting inside their heads and ironing out any psychological issues. Since the course started he has had 65 clients, including the likes of Phil Galfond, Jay Rosenkrantz and David Benefield.

It might sound like new age gobbledegook, but Tommy’s Tiltless program received far greater credence (and clients) after the release of his self-published book, Elements of Poker, in 2007. A unique approach to poker strategy, it’s arguably the diametric opposite to Harrington on Hold’em, and you won’t find a list of pot odds here. In fact a random flick through is more likely to uncover involved instructions on how to breathe. With more humanity than other drier texts, Tommy takes an almost holistic approach to the game, with the implication being that if you live well, you play well.

Tommy Can You Hear Me?

A few of the PokerPlayer staff have read the book, and I reread a few pages during the course of writing this piece, even getting into the spirit with some breathing exercises while playing online. It may be a coincidence, but over the course of three gruelling evenings I managed to freeroll my way to within one agonising place of a World Series package. Having just bust out, by rights I should be punching the keyboard with hatred. Instead I feel strangely serene, secure in the knowledge that I played well and did the right thing. And if you believe that, you’ll believe anything…

But Tommy does make some reasonable points, insisting there is no such thing as a streak, only the present tense. As the back of the book says, ‘the truth is there is only the hand you are playing.’ He is also a big believer in folding hands, and once folded pocket Aces preflop in a cash game, presumably to get over the psychological barrier.

One of poker’s deeper thinkers, Tommy has even committed some of his experiences to song, releasing a six-track CD entitled I’m Running Bad, with the title track lamenting the fact that he can only afford to take his significant other to a cheap Mexican restaurant. Conversely, the companion track, I’m Running Good, thrillingly promises ‘No Taco Bell tonight babe/Anything you want.’ The culinary theme continues on I Need Money, where Tommy fancifully claims, ‘I can eat baloney for a week/For the price of one T-bone steak.’ Other titles include The Raiser’s Edge and The Slowroller, though in typically perverse fashion the CD ends with a non-poker song called The Present, in which Tommy poses the profound question, ‘Does a bear shit in the woods if my nose is out of reach?’

Tommy Angelo, come on down…

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