It's all a bluff

August 11, 2017

Two players remained at the 2012 World Series of Poker $10,000 Pot Limit Hold’em Championship: Phil Ivey, widely regarded as the best poker player in the world, and me, an equity derivatives trading veteran who only recently had become a professional poker player. At stake: a first-place payout of $446,000 and a World Series of Poker gold bracelet, representing the most prestigious title in the poker world. I was playing for my second bracelet, while Ivey was playing for his ninth, the second most of any poker player in history.

I had just made a semi-bluff into a huge pot, putting Ivey in a difficult decision that would likely determine the tournament winner. He sat twelve feet away, his eyes laser focused on mine. If I showed weakness in any way—an exaggerated swallow, an unnatural blinking pattern, an accelerated pulse in my carotid artery—he’d see right through me. 

But I’m not swallowing, my pulse is normal, and when I blink, I blink with purpose and confidence. Ivey is known for his intimidating stare, so I avoid eye contact and focus my stare at the cards in front of me. Can he see right through me—does he know that all I have is King-high? Or is he afraid of the confidence in my eyes and believes I have KJ (King/Jack) for the best possible hand—the Broadway straight?

The two most common questions people ask me as a professional poker player are 1) do I count cards and 2) do I wear sunglasses? The answer to the first question, as any poker player understands, is no—card counting is a blackjack strategy and doesn’t really apply to poker. Poker is the ultimate intellectual game, and the type of analytical thinking I do at the poker table is very similar to the type of thinking I did as an equity derivatives trader for fourteen years. Bluffing, posturing, reading your opponents—these all play a part in the game, but at its core, poker requires you to calmly and methodically make timely, calculated decisions in the face of uncertainty and risk. Which brings me to the second question about sunglasses. Yes, I wear them on occasion, but not for the reasons you might think. I don’t wear them because I’m trying to hide the strength of my hand or because I’m trying to be tricky. I’ll reveal something poker players might not even admit to themselves: Sunglasses are, on the margin, a sign of weakness, not strength.

When I’m playing my best and feeling confident, I want my opponents to see that confidence in my eyes. Confidence is scary at the poker table, and players tend to avoid confrontations with confident, competent players. But what do I do if I’m playing against the best poker player in the world and I’m not feeling particularly confident? This is where sunglasses can help. Early on at the Final table with Ivey, I tried to suppress my jitters by wearing the most opaque sunglasses I could find. The reality that I couldn’t see as well with them on was a small price to pay for the benefit of hiding my fear. Once I put on those glasses, I took solace in knowing my opponents couldn’t see my eyes, and I could fake my confidence until I found it. One by one, players were eliminated until, at last, I found myself in a poker player’s dream scenario, heads up against Phil Ivey, playing for a championship bracelet. 

The stadium filled as a record crowd gathered to watch Ivey play for bracelet number nine. Despite the stakes, I felt like I was playing with nothing to lose; there was no shame, after all, in losing to the best poker player in the world, and I was already guaranteed to receive more than $275,000 for second place. My fear turned to confidence and excitement as I embraced the role of underdog and removed my sunglasses for the heads up battle.

Back to the pivotal hand. Ivey’s terrifying stare lasts several minutes. He eventually calls my semi-bluff on the turn. When the final card flips and my King-high does not improve, I fear for the worst. I check and Ivey goes back into his terrifying stare. I look straight ahead with as much confidence as I can muster, knowing that if he places even a small bet I will likely have to fold. But Ivey eventually checks back and mucks in disgust when he sees I was bluffing with the best hand!

After this hand (where Ivey must have missed a big draw), I was able to hold on for a victory that no one, not even I, would have predicted. While I wouldn’t say the sunglasses were the reason I won, they certainly proved a useful tool (as did their absence during this crucial hand).

Next time you see a poker player at the table wearing sunglasses, don’t be intimidated by that stoic facade. See the sunglasses for what they are—a sign of fear. And please don’t mention that I told you so.

Frankenberger ’95 is a two-time World Series of Poker Champion, a former World Poker Tour Player of the Year, and a former equity derivatives trader. Follow him on Twitter @AMFrankenberger.