It’s been tricky to tie Liv down this year. She has been busy travelling the world, playing tournaments and most importantly, launching her new charity. We were finally able to meet for lunch in Boisdale of Canary Wharf, ready to discuss all things poker!
THE PSYCHOLOGY OF POKER
AWH – I notice lots of players wear sunglasses, what’s that all about?
LB – People feel like they are giving something away with their eyes. I think for the most part people actually don’t. When it comes to physical tells, the face is the least reliable because you are aware of your face and your hands. What you are not aware of is perhaps your posture and definitely not your legs or your feet. Often if I’m really in a difficult situation and trying to decide if someone is playing a big hand – because I can see they are physically excited in some way – I just have a look at their feet. If they are excited, they are bouncing around, if they are bluffing its fight or flight and they freeze. A confident face and rigid feet, tells me something is up. If you have a good hand you are trying to tell the story of a bad hand and vice versa. You are trying to create a story through your bets, your demeanour and the length of time you spend thinking – it’s both a science and an art.
AWH – Do people try and psyche you out?
LB – Yes, it’s great. I love that part of the game – the verbal part. It’s a beautiful sprinkle on what could otherwise be quite a boring theoretical game.
AWH – Has anyone ever chatted you up at a table?
LB – Yes, most of the time I don’t have time for it and I don’t care, but if I’m enjoying a conversation with someone and they are being flirty I don’t mind.
AWH – How much of the game is science?
LB – I guess science applies to both the mathematical theory and the psychology. I might be looking at an opponent and thinking, ok he seems confident. So he’s confident that means he’s playing this range of hands. What’s my own confidence in that – let’s say it’s 80%. So I will scale my play to those 80% of hands from just reading you. That’s before the maths and the game theory kick in. People with the gift of the gab still exist but to succeed they also need that scientific background. They have to put in the work now. Still, one of the reasons poker is so popular is that amateurs can beat the pros. You and I could play ten hands now and you might win. But if we play 100,000 hands, I will beat you every single time.
AWH – Do you have a mentor?
LB – No but I’m very lucky, my other half is one of the best in the world. Igor Kurganov – he plays all the high stake tournaments (Ed. Note – Igor’s career winnings from live events exceed $11m.) Sometimes we come up against each other and he’s the person I fear playing against the most. He knows me so well and on top of that my best theories have either been developed by him or with him. We work on them together, but he’s a little better than me – top three in the world.
STARTING OUT IN POKER
AWH – How did it all start?
LB – I hadn’t played a hand of poker until after University. I had just graduated, moved down to London for a gap year and planned to go to UCL to do a Masters in Physics. That summer I was playing a lot of guitar and started doing some modelling for rock and alternative lifestyle magazines. I was very into heavy metal at the time, a big fan of Metallica and Slayer (Ed. Note: Liv’s nickname on the poker tour is ‘Iron Maiden’) I started applying for a few game shows – why not right? One of them invited to me for some auditions and without saying what it was about, they said ‘you can use your skill and deception to win £100,000’ and I thought let’s try this. I got selected for the show and it turned out they wanted to take five poker novices and teach them how to play (Ed. Note: Ultimate Poker Showdown appeared on Channel 5 in 2005.)I played terribly, didn’t know what I was doing but absolutely loved it and started playing in a local club here in London, called the ‘Gutshot’, which is a poker term. I had some decent success and won the second tournament I played there, which was a £5 buy-in and I won £750, which was mind blowing – it was the next few month’s rent.I remember throwing all the cash at my boyfriend at the time and saying, “look… I only took a fiver with me!”
AWH – What do your parents think of it all?
LB – Now they love it. They are huge supporters and follow the industry almost more than I do. But at the time they were definitely a little worried. No one in my family had ever gambled. We never played poker growing up. Although I used to play games with my Dad, he and I were always extremely competitive. I’d say the only prerequisite to playing poker is being competitive. It’s a game of outwitting your opponents, being put under pressure and putting your opponent under the same pressure. You can learn so much from playing the game and I think to an extent its part of the human spirit – we like to win.
AWH – Can we talk about money, how do tournament winnings work?
LB – Let’s say we all wanted to play a $1,000 tournament and 1,000 people enter.
Everyone puts in the $1,000 to make a $1million dollar prize-pool and you’ll each get a fixed number of chips. Lose your chips and you’re out. Usually the pay-out goes to 15% of the field. So if you finish 151st you get nothing but if you are 150th you will double your money. It goes up really, really slowly until you get to the final table and then 9th might get $40,000, 8th $75,000 and first prize would be $250,000.
AWH – Do the organisers put any money in?
LB – Usually the organisers take a small fee for hosting the tournament. Sometimes for special tournaments they add money to it, if they have a sponsor or have sold TV rights. Those are obviously the best tournaments to be involved in. AWH – So it’s not like Wimbledon, Andy and Novak aren’t paying to be in the tournament!
LB – No it’s considered a classic gambling game. Gambling is wagering money on an outcome, right? People do it here in The City, technically that’s a form of gambling. So when people say, ‘is poker gambling?’ I think the answer is yes and no. Classically it’s wagering money on an outcome but at the same time you have control over when and how, you wager your money. It’s about making correct decisions or intelligent investments and if you play perfectly, you can still lose because of the element of chance. A
WH – Do you play a lot online?
LB – Yes when I’m back home – it’s called grinding – I’m not grinding as much as I used to.
AWH – Grinding??
LB – Yeah, not that kind of grinding…!
WOMEN IN POKER
AWH – As a female player, on the face of it, you seem quite outnumbered?
LB – Yes definitely. There is a big deficit, but it has got better. When I first got into the game 10 years ago, the frequencies of women in the game and attitudes towards women in the game were very different. Now, it’s rare that men would bat an eyelid at seeing women at the table. It’s more on the amateur circuit that players are likely to give a woman shit – or be shocked that a woman is playing.
AWH – Are there any female-only tournaments?
LB – Yes, they do exist, but there’s no need for them per se. The reason why they have them is historically there was that uncomfortable environment. Hostility is the wrong word but many women just didn’t feel comfortable playing in a mixed environment. Young or old, you are very aware you are being looked at a lot. If a woman walks into a sports bar and she’s the only women, she will just get stared at. Men don’t even realise they are doing it – if you aren’t used to that or don’t like that, it’s an uncomfortable feeling. That combined with the highly competitive, stressful nature of the game itself meant some women don’t enjoy it. One way to get around that is womenonly tournaments.
AWH – Did being female and in the minority at that time help?
LB – Absolutely. It was one of the reasons I pursued it so much. I was doing presenting in the industry, writing and playing, basically anything to do with poker. My name was starting to get known a little bit, very few women were playing and I was this young rocker girl, who talked a lot. I felt there was a decent chance that if I won a tournament I would get an endorsement deal. Particularly back then when there was a lot of sponsorship dollars flying around.
AWH – What’s the ambition?
LB – I’d still like to win another big major, maybe a World Series Bracelet or a European Poker Tour event. A woman has never made the final table of the World Series Main Event – 7,000 people enter it and I’d love to win there.
AWH – Outside poker, what else are you up too?
LB – The thing I’m working on most at the moment is the charity I co-founded, it’s a fund-raising organisation based around effective altruism (Raising for Effective Altruism – www.reg.org.uk). Within certain cause areas, there are charities that are more effective than others and in the grand scheme of the world’s problems, there are those that are easier to solve than others. It’s about gathering data and using scientific method to figure out ‘how do I get the biggest bang for my buck’, when I donate to charity. As it turns out there are a small amount of charities that are really, really good at helping their causes. On the whole its money that goes overseas, because of course the pound goes further in Angola, than it would in London. I encourage poker players to donate a percentage of their winnings to these specific charities. One guy who won the World Series (the richest poker tournament in the world) ended up winning $10million and he donated $250,000 to the charities we support – pretty cool, right!