June 2007

There was over £1000 in my hand. Freshly minted currency. I’d just picked it up from my first ever live tournament win at my local casino (the rather skeezily named ‘Rendezvous’, on the Brighton seafront).

I could pay off a credit card with this. I’d been slowly finding my feet since getting my first job in poker, but the chunk of bills in my hand was a LOT of money to me. This was a windfall.

Screw it. I’d never been to the World Series of Poker.

Me and my money were going to Vegas...

Beating the Odds

I did pay off that credit card bill eventually, and although I’m incredibly glad I hopped on a flight to Vegas on a whim, but I still wouldn’t suggest you follow in my footsteps on this one. It was a risk, but by going to Vegas, I met the people who ran the European Poker Tour and ended up being offered THAT gig. That was the big time for me; hosting a show on a major UK television network. What a ride.

The truth is, I took a huge chance and the odds were *not* in my favour, but just like with poker, sometimes we’re rewarded for doing the wrong thing at the right time. There’s a lot that poker can explain to us about life and as I’d jumped into both poker and TV broadcasting without any formal training, they both became my ‘teachers’, one for the other.

In Part 1 of this series, I talked about how poker and broadcasting impacted my life. Here are three more lessons I learned from these two tough teachers.

Find New Ways to Succeed

If most of the people out there are zigging, you need to develop your zagging skills.

In poker, it’s important to figure out how people are playing so you can adjust your own game. If you sit down at a wild, loose/aggressive table, then you may need to tighten up your starting range. If your opponents are all sitting on scared money, too nervous to commit, you’ll want to go the other way and pick up as many as possible of the pots they’re not willing to fight for.

The same principle holds true in broadcasting. There is an enormous number of people who would love to work in TV and the competition can be fierce. When I lived in London, I’d be at auditions and screen tests with hundreds of different faces and all of those people wanted the same job I did. So how was I going to stand out? It became important to figure out what the prevailing style of broadcasting was and then find a way to differentiate myself from the pack.

I realised that what I needed was to find my own style and then learn to tailor it to whatever the situation required. Was it a serious news programme? Adjusting my voice so that it was a slightly lower tone tended to make me sound more trustworthy and believable. Was it a commercial for toothpaste? Break out the wide grin and talk like you’ve never known anything but sunshine and kittens and world peace. Figure out what the best style is to fit the situation and commit to it, while making sure that you’re not giving them exactly the same as the other 100 people nervously learning their lines in the waiting room.

Although I definitely advocate talking to your peers, getting coaching and watching people you respect do their thing, you need to make sure that you’re not simply becoming a carbon copy of them. The skills need to become YOUR skills. You have to internalise them, understand how and why they work and know how to adjust them. You can’t simply plug in a ‘how-to’ formula and expect to become an expert at anything. I saw quite a few poker players attempt to mimic whatever magic it was that some of the high stakes poker wizards make work, and then fail miserably because, quite frankly, the skills just weren’t theirs.

Look up to people, find mentors and coaches and hey, even idols if you want (Padma Lakshmi, call me. Let’s do a show together) but don’t try to BECOME them. Put some zag in your step.

Make It Personal

In poker, you want to get into your opponents’ heads and figure out what makes them tick in order to understand what they’re doing. Are they just in town for a weekend of gambling fun and so they’re playing a much looser game? Are they hoping to min-cash because they satellited their way in and it’s a lot of money to them? Poker players aren’t just a faceless mass of people, although the tendency in pop culture now is to stereotype the whole group as hoody wearing, anti-social maths whizzes. Figure out who is sitting in front of you. Everybody has a story.

I like to chat a bit between hands and find out who people are. I’m genuinely fascinated by life stories and poker people, in particular, tend to have some corkers. You can get information about their playing style from what they say as well, so keep your ears open for any bits of knowledge that drop.

Unless you’re an absolute pro, I don’t advocate talking during a hand to get information. Clearly, if it’s a multi-way pot, talking in the hand is a big no-no anyhow. Even when you’re heads-up though there’s a strong likelihood that you’re giving away more information than you're gaining. So keep the chatter to the gaps between deals.

When you’re working in TV, it’s the same principle. If you treat all of the people you interview like they’re basically the same, you won’t get the best information out of them. You tend to see this when an interviewer isn’t super familiar with the subject they’re asking about; for example, a mainstream media journalist interviewing a poker player about the game. They will likely have assumptions about poker and the type of people who play the game. If they can’t get past their preconceptions to actually learn about the person they’re interviewing, it’ll be a fairly boring, basic segment - favourite starting hands anyone?

I realised pretty quickly that the same questions don’t always elicit the same answers either. Poker players will often unconsciously tailor their answers to what they think the reporter can understand (not what the audience might understand), so knowing the subject and digging a bit deeper usually lead to more interesting answers.

Personal is always more interesting, plus it’s more truthful.

One piece of advice I was given early on in broadcasting was to treat the camera like a person. Not some generic human but a specific person you know and enjoy talking to. It was easy for me to imagine my mom sitting behind the camera, listening to me tell a story about a player or watching me interview one. Personalising the audience made my cadence more normal and conversational and took the stilted, rehearsed quality out of my voice.

If I was conducting an interview with someone, rather than write up a strict list of questions before and sticking to that script, it was better if I spent the time really listening to their answers. When my mind was occupied with what I was going to say instead of what they were actually saying, we never ended up digging down too far from the surface.

In poker, it’s much the same. We need to attempt to understand our opponents at some level. They’re not just a faceless group of people; they’re individuals with a variety of drives, foibles and skills. Spend the first hour or so at a new table trying to see how much you can figure out about people. How often are they opening, what hands are they showing down, are they talkative? Don’t drive the table to distraction by keeping up a non-stop patter of stories and questions, but put some feelers out there and most of all, keep your ears open.

Make it personal.


Don’t Make It Too Personal

I know what I just said, but please, don’t make it too personal.

One of my biggest leaks in poker early on occurred whenever I felt I was being outplayed. That ugly feeling of being outsmarted made me mad at myself and I’d get so down that it affected my game. I hated playing poorly but when you’re learning something new (and in poker, we are often learning something new) then it’s a simple truth that we’re going to make mistakes.

When making mistakes becomes this awful, dreaded, horrible thing, that’s when it becomes easier to just stay in our comfort zone where it’s cosy and safe rather than trying this strange new thing that’s causing us discomfort. I’m a big believer in the idea that if I’m not making mistakes, then I’m not trying hard enough. And, if I’m not trying hard enough, I’m stagnating.

This is true in broadcasting as it is in poker. Mistakes are not a rare occurrence. I can see them when I watch my footage back, although other people might not pick up on some of them. A slight timing issue here, a verbal stumble there, a poor question, the wrong framing - these things happen in live TV all the time. If I beat myself up over every little thing, then I don’t think I could do my job effectively.

There was a time when I actually DID berate myself for every little thing. I prepared and prepared and over prepared, to the point where one of my producers actually told me they thought it was hurting my work. They said they appreciated my work ethic but that sometimes I should just try to ‘wing it’. I was appalled and terrified by the idea. Not surprisingly, though, they were right. I became a lot looser and more conversational in my reports when I didn’t memorise the entire thing, word for word.

I had to be able to accept mistakes as building blocks to getting better, both in poker and in my TV career, instead of being signals of failure. If I hadn’t found a way to do that, I’d never have got anywhere with either. Push the envelope sometimes. Overreach your grasp. Be prepared to fail because you were audacious. It’s hard to know how far you can go until you try harder than you think you can. Yes, these are all ridiculous clichés, but they’re also true.

I still struggle with this lesson. I hate to be corrected. I despise doing something that could be improved if done another 1000 times. It makes me feel like a failure sometimes when I get it wrong. But I push past this because we all can improve, all the time. I definitely saw how much my poker game stagnated (and let’s be honest, degenerated) when I stopped being able to play poker online because of legal restrictions in the different countries where I was living. My game is nowhere near where I’d like it to be and if it’s going to improve, I need to suck it up, go out there and be wrong a lot of the time until I get it right.

Failure is totally an option; it’s just not the ending.