Life in the Streets
By Vincent Olmos
Full-time poker prop and part-time columnist for The Cardroom Vincent Olmos decided to take a break from his usual commentary this issue and took the time to interview the local poker-playing legend known as “The Wizard.”
Vincent Olmos: Tell us a little bit about yourself, Wizard!
Wizard: I wanted to let you know that I started out at the Gardena Club in Gardena, California playing Lowball. Lowball was the big game before Hold’em. Hold’em came along 20 years after Lowball and we used to have Lowball tournaments. I had some trophies from back then, that I don’t even have anymore (laugh) or can’t find them.
In the Gardena Club years ago, we used to have Sailor Roberts, Amarillo Slim, Stu Ungar, Johnny Moss, and we had a guy named Telly Savalas. He’d come in with his brother George. George would have the satchel with all the money in it. He never went anywhere without George. This was back in the heyday, when the Bicycle Club was across the street from the Gardena.
I really enjoyed Lowball because Lowball was a thinking man’s game. If you noticed, as soon as everybody got out of playing the button in Lowball they would go out and smoke. Because they knew that position was very important. The same as it is in Hold’em.
A lot of people play position super strong, some play it weak. I tend to play it for what it is. It’s three times more powerful position on the table. The only position that is more powerful than the big blind, is the button, cause the button you can go in all directions. You can have king-deuce and flop four deuces, and you can have king-deuce and flop four kings. You can have ace-queen-jack on the board and a 10 on the river and you have make a straight. So there are many avenues you can go.
How old were you when you started playing?
I’m from the Midwest originally. I moved out here because I met a young lady and we lived in the L.A. area for a while then I moved up north. I’ve been up here for the last 15 to 20 years.
Any old Vegas memories with the legends?
I enjoyed playing Lowball at the old Fremont Hotel in Las Vegas, across from the Four Queens downtown. I sat down in the $15/30 Lowball game and Johnny Moss and Stu Ungar were at the table. So were Amarillo Slim and Sailor Roberts—four of the greatest players that ever lived. Especially Johnny Moss. He won the WSOP three times. He was one of the only players to win it three times, besides Stu Ungar.
I bought in for $300 and cashed for nine racks of chips. I played with Doyle Brunson, Antonio Esfandiari, and Barry Greenstein at the Borgata at Atlantic City. Barry Greenstein told me something that changed my life: “You’re a great player. All you need to do is work your position stronger.” That’s what I’ve been doing since I met him. He’s a great man, he gives all his money to charity. I don’t know if you know him—Barry Greenstein—but even if he loses he gives all his money to charity, which is really wonderful.
My main reason for playing around the WPT and different events was I promised my father before he passed away that I’d try to play with the best in the world, and I have. I like when I sit down and know what I know, and play with who I played with in my life. I really appreciate this interview and I hope that other people can take the knowledge that I have.
What keeps you going?
I’m 64 years old, you wouldn’t believe it. I work out every day. I take very good care of myself.
What other things about poker do you enjoy?
I got into poker years ago, when I found out that Lowball was around and 7 Card Stud. I really enjoyed 7 Card Stud before Lowball. Stud is a real … it’s game that fights against each other. One time I was playing 7 Card Stud at the Bicycle. I had two aces wired with a 9 on the board. My next card was an ace and my next card was the fourth ace. Right next to me, the guy had 888 on his board. He had four 8s and we hit the jackpot. The bottom line is the cards are always fighting against each other.
People don’t realize it, but as soon as you get a setup with cards one hand is trying to kill the other hand. Just like things in life. I like the knowledge of poker. I’ve read 13 books on poker, I have a lot of them highlighted and underlined. I really like living in the Bay Area. There’s so many places to play. Park West is one of the greatest, Lucky Chances is great, Capitol Casino is really a nice club. I play the $4/8 Omaha there a lot. I beat it big the other night.
I’m just proud to still be around, be one of the OGs, be someone people look up to sometimes and say, “Hey, he’s still got the chops.” I can still pull in the $1,000 pots and can still bluff with the best of ’em. I learned bluffing from Stu Ungar, one of the greatest bluffers I’ve ever seen in my life. He told me something about bluffing that really, really intensified my game. He said if you’re going to bluff do it on the third street, don’t wait till the river. Do your bluff on third street.
If I see a dry board hit the flop—a dry board is like two threes and a jack—and I’ve got ace-king or something to that effect, I’ll check the first round if it’s down to three players. Then I’ll see what the first player next to me has as far as chip count (if I’m in a no-limit game) and I’ll look and see what the other person has chip count. Then I’ll make my bet according to what the first man next to me has—half of his chips. That way I’m pretty sure the man behind will throw away and will bring it mano to mano. And that’s how you win and bluff in no-limit Hold’em. He taught me that and it’s been wonderful ever since.
Why do they call you the wizard?
I’m pretty efficient, my knowledge of the game. At one time I was training, and people were paying me to train them, but I stopped that. It just kind of stopped.
Do you have any hands that would make an ESPN highlight reel?
Yes, I do. I have a hand I played at the Oaks Casino and we hit a jackpot. I had the king of diamonds and the king of clubs. The flop came Ks-Kh-Qh. I bet it blind and flopped quads. I bet it blind a second time and the Jh hit the board and I hear raise on my right-hand side and the lady made a royal flush. I flopped quad kings and she turned a royal flush. I looked at her and said, “Really?” She looked at me and said. “Really.” That’s all I had to hear. The river came. I checked, she bet. I said show me the royal, and she couldn’t turn it over fast enough. That’s one of the highlights of playing this game.
What are your strengths in poker?
I think my main strength is that if I’m playing no-limit, I like to get all my money in before the flop. If I’ve got a structured hand where I’ve got 1, 2, 3, 4 or 5, and the best in the hand, I want to see that before the flop with whomever I’m playing against.
To give you an instance, I was playing at King’s Casino and I had pocket nines. I went all-in before the flop and a guy called me and he had pocket sevens. I told the dealer to put up three deuces, and the dealer went deuce, deuce, deuce. The people went crazy, they couldn’t believe that I called the flop with the hand I had. A lot of times when you have the big pairs (pocket kings, pocket queens) you’re going to see three eights or three nines hit the board. It’s going to support the hand that you have, to make it stronger.
The worst play I’ve ever seen in my life up was at Jackson, with a 19-year-old kid. He comes into a $2/5 no-limit game, sits down and he buys $500. I’m sitting next to him with a little more than that. He nurses it up to about $700. I have the button and he has the small blind position. I throw my hand away. The bet went $2, $, $5, $5, $5, call, call. I threw my hand away and he left it at $5. He showed me two black kings, pocket kings. Before the dealer can put the flop out there, the young man pushed $700 into the pot, before the flop, with six people behind. The flop comes Q-4-Q and a little guy in the back goes, “Is there a queen on the board? I’ll call.”
The kid turned his hand into a bluff. That’s one thing you don’t want to ever do with a power hand. You never want to turn your hand into a bluff. That’s exactly what he did. He made his hand inconsequential, and literally he would be better off just taking his money out of his pocket and saying here’s $700. He had no protection for his kings.
I said to him later on in the bathroom, “You had the number two hand in the whole deck, why would you not bet $40 and maybe get one caller? I guarantee you the Q-6 in the back would not call you. That’s your only defense to that hand. Now those queens are cementing your kings and making your hand much stronger.”
He didn’t understand what I’d said, so I told him to get a book—Basics of Hold’Em”—by David Sklansky, and just read it before he even sits down at the table again. So he’s crying in the bathroom, “I don’t have money to get home.” I took a twenty and gave it to him to get out of there and go home, and told him to read a book … 19 years old.
Bottom line to Hold’em: you have to play strong through your blinds, weak out of your blinds, and eventually, sometime in your round, you have to get up from the table. You have to give your hand a chance to develop stronger. And if you don’t you’re really making a mistake in the game. Because, as soon as you get up from the table you get what is called a whole shot. And if it’s nine handed, it becomes eight handed, and that ninth hand is getting stronger. And when you come back and look at your hand, if you’re playing Omaha, you’re gonna see 1-2-3-4. If you are playing Hold’em you might see pocket kings or pocket aces. You might see a bigger structure ace-king suited, pocket nines, there’s a whole lot of hands you can have. But basically, you’re taking that whole shot and a lot of times when you get up from a power seat, say the nine seat, you get up and walk around and people are playing around you, they’ll hit the jackpot around you. And that power seat being empty makes the jackpot.
What makes you upset when playing poker?
Stupid moves. Checking a set on the turn when I shouldn’t have checked it because he might make a straight on the river. I saved a bet, but I could have bet and he could have dropped, because he had a gutshot straight. And the 6 hit the river and he makes a straight.
Not thinking in the game when I’m playing. A lot of times people come into the game and think they can just bogart the game. You can’t bogart poker. Poker won’t allow it. If you have pocket 3s and flop a set in the small blind position, when it gets around to you you’re still gonna have three 3s. You’re still gonna have a structure that’s on the board. If the board is 7-2-3, that’s your pot. You might want to slowplay it, you might want to play it strong. You might want to structure it around two opponents, check to see what their stacks are. If one’s got $400, bet $200. You’ll find out if he’s got three 7s right away. If he doesn’t have three 7s and he’s speculating for a 4-5 straight he’s gonna call you. if he’s got a set of 7s he’s going to put his money in, and you’re gonna know. You’re gonna know if you have to put in that other $200 or not. But at least you have a structure that you have a chance to win.
My father told me something long ago, and Dad rest your soul, he said if you’re gonna play pool, play at a pool hall. If you’re gonna bowl, go to a bowling alley. When you go to a casino, your main objective is to win one dollar more than you walked in with. And if you can do that, you’ll be a winning player for the rest of your life. And that’s my goal. Whatever I buy in, I try to win one dollar more. if I come down and win back a dollar, I’m done. Plain and simple. I’m usually one of the oldest guys there. I’m 64 years old. I’m not a young whippersnapper.
How do you deal with the bad beats?
I look at a beat beat this way: even a blind squirrel can find an acorn, if he kicks it. So maybe the bad beat was because he was in a better position than I was. I was in an off position, behind the button and shouldn’t have been in. I was in the dead zone, shouldn’t have been in the hand.
One of the tournaments I played, I waited 13 hands for a hand [to play]. On my 13th hand I had K-K. I decided to put all my money in with pocket kings. The small blind called me with 8-9 offsuit. The flop came 8-8-9 with an 8 on the turn. He made quads. I lost with K-K and am out of the tournament. So I played the side action games—$5/10 Hold’em, maybe $20/40. But I didn’t get upset with myself, because I waited 13 hands to play that hand. it just so happened that the small blind had 8-9 and I was in the +1 position right outside the blinds. I was the setup and I could do nothing about it. I took it in stride and got up from the table and said thank you.
Most of the time if I’m in a tournament, a big tournament, I’ll do it by satellite. I’ll win a satellite. I’ll sit down at a table with an $800 or $1,100 buy-in. I’ll sit down at a table with nine players for $200 each. Whoever wins that table, wins the satellite. That’s how I get my seat. I very seldom buy in for a full buy-in. The satellites. People don’t use them a lot, but they should.
How would you respond to any Wizard haters out there?
There’s a few, but the bottom line is that I play my game. I’m harsh sometimes and I don’t mean to be. But it’s a harsh game. Someone is gonna hate on everybody. The bottom line is if they’re gonna hate on you, they’re gonna hate on you. They’re gonna not like you because you have the knowledge, and they’re not gonna like you because you have a bigger stack than they do. There’s people that are gonna hate on you for no reason. A lot of people have hate in their heart. I don’t have hate in my heart.
Well said, Wizard. Thanks for your time.