Sunday, June 03, 2001

The real deal at poker

Contractor plays his cards right, wins big at Las Vegas World Series

By Jim Knippenberg
The Cincinnati Enquirer

        It's all in the cards, right? You get a couple of aces, you win the poker game. Handful of garbage and you lose. Right?

        Wrong, says Jim Lester: “The cards have little to do with it. It's not a game of luck. It's a game of skill and maybe a little luck.”

        Mr. Lester knows about this stuff: He's fresh back from Las Vegas and the 32nd annual World Series of Poker, where he pocketed a neat $470,000.

        The 41-year-old Eastgate resident, married to Cathy, an elementary school teacher, and father of two teen-age sons, is given to understatement: “That was a pretty good tournament.”

[photo] Professional poker player Jim Lester of Eastgate hold a royal flush
([name of photographer] photo)
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        So good that Jeff Shulman, editor of Card Player magazine, wrote this about it: “The superstars of poker are really shining this year. Chris Ferguson, Phil Hellmuth, Men "The Master' Nguyen, and Jim Lester. ... ”

        OK, so if it's not luck, what the heck is it?

        “A couple of things, mainly a combination of math, odds and psychology,” Mr. Lester says. “By psychology I mean learning to read people. You can tell if a person has a hand and what's in it by his face. The better the player, the harder to read his face, but it still can be done.

        “My strategy has always been to play a lousy hand as if it were great. Start raising, then raise people back. It's hard to keep your cool when you're doing that and looking at a $500,000 pot, but it often works.

        “What you can never do is break a sweat. That tells the other players something.”

        He must not be telling them anything: In the past seven weeks he has won $800,000 in assorted tournaments and estimates lifetime winnings in the millions.

        Heaven knows he's had plenty of practice. He started playing seriously at age 12 when he got a job with a masonry contractor.

        “We got paid on Friday, and all the guys played poker,” he says. “I lost my whole paycheck — $120 the first week. When I told my dad, a pretty good player, he sat me down and taught me some things.

        “The next week I won $500 and I was hooked.”

        Today, 29 years later, he's still playing poker and still working as a masonry contractor, only now he owns the company.

        “Makes it convenient for getting away for tournaments. Some of them are a month long.”

        Tournament play is a different animal from your friendly neighborhood game. A field of 400 or more starts and plays up to 18 high-stress hours a day with just three 10-minute breaks, a 35-minute lunch and a 75-minute dinner. The first day ends when the field is whittled to the last nine with chips left.

        They advance to the final table the next day and play at 4 p.m. until one guy has all the chips, usually four or five hours later, although some have been known to go 24 hours.

        “That can take a toll,” Mr. Lester says. “You're eating dinner at 3 a.m., going to bed at 6. It takes you at least a week to get back on track after something like that.”

        Mr. Lester made the final table four times, something that happens only once or twice per tournament.

        His biggest win was the 10th event, the $3,000-limit Texas Hold'em. He pocketed $233,490 in that one and won a solid gold engraved champion's bracelet.

        “The only place in the world to get one is to win at a final table,” Mr. Lester says. “Larry Flynt offered me $20,000 for it before they engraved it. They're that highly prized.”

        His other prized piece of jewelry is a gold ring from about 1880. It's just a plain gold band, except there's a tiny door on the back (palm side) that opens to reveal a wee mirror. “A dealer would wear it so he could cheat. As he dealt, the cards passed over the mirror so he'd always know what everyone else was holding.”

        The mirror is long gone, but Mr. Lester is going to have it put back, but not so he can cheat: “We use professional dealers. But I wouldn't, even if I could.”

        Well fine. Let's lob him a few fill-in-the blanks.

        “Deal 'em.”

        My advice to aspiring poker players ...

        Put in the time. I've been playing 30-40 hours a week for 29 years. It takes that long.

        I think Lady Luck is ...

        Oh, her. An excuse for bad poker players.

        Three people I'd really like to play poker with ...

        Donald Trump, because I heard he likes high stakes. I might win myself a casino. Johnny Bench because I've always admired him. And my sons if they ever took an interest. I think it would be neat to teach them.

        When playing, I try not to think about ...

        Work. You can't play and keep your focus if you're thinking about work. That's the hardest thing for me.

        I never forget ...

        That sometimes you just can't beat Lady Luck — yeah, her again. No matter how hard you try.

        If no one had invented poker I'd be ...

Probably a golfer. Of my 10 closest friends, nine are golfers. I play occasionally, but not that much.

        My No. 1 fear at the table ...

        I used to really fear the world champs I'd play against. Now that I realize my skill level is about equal, I don't so much.

        The one thing no one realizes about poker ...

Is the amount of money that can be won. When I tell someone I won half a million last week, they look at me like I'm crazy.

        The hardest thing to remember ...

The value of that money. You get so caught up in a big game that the money becomes meaningless. As a kid, I played poker with match sticks. Now, I look at a $5,000 chip and try to think of it as a matchstick. It eases the pressure.

        One thing I wish you had asked me ...

The question everyone asks me. Why are you a contractor and not a full-time professional? Because I need contracting to keep stability in my life.


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- The real deal at poker
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