Ben Johnson is a top professional poker player. I’ve never met him, but I have friends who know his family. Anytime the topic of poker would come up in a conversation, they’d tell me about Ben’s poker exploits, how he was fast becoming a poker star. These same friends got me in touch with Ben (thanks C and C), who kindly agreed to our interview, even though he was in the middle of a poker tournament. Enjoy.
Suber: Who is Ben Johnson? Can you give us a little bio, including how and when you got into professional poker?
Ben: I live in Brooklyn, NY, and I grew up in Philadelphia, PA. I’m single, I just turned 30 in January. I’ve been playing poker for eight years, playing professionally for the last 3. I discovered poker when I saw the movie Rounders in 1999 as a senior at Pomona College in Claremont, California. I had played tournament chess growing up to a reasonable but finite degree of success. So I was intrigued when I saw a game (that seemed more glamorous than chess to me) with which I could start fresh.
Once inspired by Rounders, I ordered my first poker book and played my first couple of live sessions sometime during my last semester of college. After graduating (majors in Russian language and politics) I moved to Brooklyn, and got a job as Legal Assistant in an effort to decide whether or not I wanted a career in law. Because I was working full-time my poker playing was limited to about one night a week of low-limit hold‘em at one of the local clubs (RIP Diamond Club). Some chess friends and I would also make occasional trips to Atlantic City to play. At this stage the money in poker was pretty scant, and I still considered poker primarily a hobby that had the potential to someday lessen my workload slightly.
In 2002 I changed jobs and started teaching chess to kids. I found this work much more satisfying, and it also gave me more freedom to devote more time to poker, at which I was slowly improving. Bear in mind that internet poker was practically non-existent at this point so the learning curve was much steeper than it is now. Over the next few years poker became more popular, and I started to develop some sort of a clue about how to play. I was fortunate that when poker exploded in 2004 I was just good enough to be able to take advantage of it, and I’ve basically stayed ahead of the curve since.
Suber: What is your favorite type of poker? And why?
Ben: To me the most interesting form of poker is deep stacked no limit hold’em. Limit poker is about making many good small decisions while no-limit is about making precious few momentous decisions. Aside from tournaments, limit hold’em has actually been my bread and butter over the years, but you just have to love the sheer psychodrama that no-limit hold’em provides.
Suber: How would you characterize your game? Is it like anyone else’s game?
Ben: First I’d like to acknowledge that no matter how I characterize my play and to whomever I dare to compare my style of play, my friends will make fun of me for it. So I have to preempt them. With that out of the way, I’d say my overarching tournament style is tight but sneaky. However, the bottom line is that you have to try to figure out what each individual table will let you get away with. As for a comparison, I could perhaps compare my game to a poor man’s Allan Cunningham or Chris Ferguson’s game. Perhaps a very poor man.
Suber: What are your poker strengths and weaknesses?
Ben: I don’t think I am a very good hand reader. I am ok with the part that deals with assessing someone’s overall tendencies and with assigning a range of hands to an opponent, but when it comes to that “does he have it or doesn’t he” critical decision, I am wrong far more often than the best players are. I also feel as if I may give off more information in my own betting than some other professionals do. The good news is that I am still improving.
In terms of strengths I think that my greatest strength is my mental fortitude. This is manifested in tournaments in that I never give up and am able to concentrate for long periods of time (I think I may owe this to my years of chess playing). In cash games it helps me stay mindful of the big picture and shrug off a brutal session or extended downswing more easily than some others might.
Suber: Who do you think the really good poker players are? And what differentiates these folks from just the good players?
Ben: There are tons of great tournament players these days, but among those with whom I’ve played, I’ve been most impressed with Phil Ivey, Erick Lindgren, Michael Mizrachi and Daniel Negreanu. Each of them seems to have a sixth sense about when to apply pressure to people and when to put the brakes on. In addition, all of them are capable of hunkering down and playing tight when they get low on chips. This aspect of their games rarely shows up on the tv shows.
Suber: Do you play online poker? If so, what stakes? And in what poker rooms?
Ben: Over the last few years I’ve played a ton of online poker on almost all of the sites, and as I mentioned earlier, my primary game has been limit hold’em. I worked my way all the way up from playing $2-$4 years ago, and these days I play all the way up to $300-$600 when the conditions are right. As the theory of limit hold’em has advanced over the years, the high stakes limit online games have become agonizingly aggressive and thus recently I’ve been focusing my attention on no-limit cash games, which I’ve found bear almost no relation to limit hold’em and also, to my surprise, differ greatly from no-limit tournaments.
Suber: If you’re in a cash game or playing online, how long will you normally play? Do you set goals for how much you want to win? Or do you play until you get bored or lose a certain amount? How much can you feel comfortable losing?
Ben: Almost all of the cash games I play are online rather than live, and I am a chronic multi-tabler- I usually play 6 tables at once. This is rather labor-intensive, and I’ve found that my play level starts to deteriorate after about 3 hours of play. I usually try to quit or take a break around this time but must admit I don’t always accomplish this.
Most poker players will tell you that it is a bad idea to play only until you win a certain amount. Shortening the sessions when you are winning can drastically impact your bottom line because there is a good chance you are either playing your best or playing in unusually good games.
Many poker players have mixed feelings about a “stop-loss” limit, meaning a number at which you quit when you are losing. If you think that you press and play worse when losing then it is reasonable to set a stop-loss. I don’t have a rigid rule in place, but I do try to quit when things seem to be snowballing. It’s hard to assess how much I feel “comfortable” losing- my worst day online was fairly recent, and I lost $55,000 in about two hours. I felt pretty uncomfortable. A good chunk of this was lost playing a guy heads-up over whom I had no discernable edge. In summation I could theoretically be comfortable with any loss as long as I made good decisions regarding game selection and was playing well; it’s much more discomfiting when I play badly and make more poor decisions, as I did in this session.
Suber: Do you think playing against women is different than playing against men? If so, who do you prefer to play against?
Ben: As Depeche Mode says- “People are people.”
Suber: Any advice on how to become a professional poker player?
Ben: Don’t rush into it, and build your bankroll slowly. Mistakes and bad decisions are inevitable, both while playing and in bankroll management, but try to make each mistake only once.
Suber: How do you give other players the impression that you have a hand stronger than you actually have?
Ben: I try to give away nothing whether my hand is strong or weak.
Suber: Any good advice about bluffing?
Ben: I don’t know how effective this advice would be for other people, but my approach is to try to ignore what I actually have in a hand and focus on whether or not the play I am making is correct given the information that I have. If I feel it is profitable to make a play whether or not I actually a big hand should theoretically be irrelevant.
The other thing about which I like to remind myself in tense moments is that poker tournaments are, in a sense, just a charade. Having played in a lot of poker tournaments one quickly gets accustomed to seeing brilliant plays being punished and horrific plays being rewarded. It doesn’t happen all of the time, but it happens often enough that when I am playing in tournaments, I try not to take my actions too seriously. You may win by making the wrong decision, and you may lose by making the right one, so just relax and try your best.
Suber: Are you good at reading people’s tells? Any stories you’d like to share about tells you’ve figured out?
Ben: As I mentioned, I am much better at gaining information from betting patterns then I am at reading physical tells. So unfortunately I don’t have any crazy stories about knowing a guy had jack-ten suited because he scratched his right ear with his left hand before betting.
Suber: Do you recommend any poker books, either strategy or stories?
Ben: Bob Ciaffone’s books have helped my game immeasurably over the years, and I always feel like he doesn’t get the credit he deserves. The Harrington tournaments books are also very good, and David Sklansky and Ed Miller’s No Limit Hold’em book is also a pretty good primer. Also if you play online, pokertracker can be more valuable than any book if used correctly.
Suber: Anything else to add?
Ben: I can’t think of any other indispensable information. Thanks for the interview, I’m honored that you’ve taken an interest. If anyone needs to reach me, email at [email protected].
(Thanks for a great interview, Ben! – Suber)