Strategy Chat with Chris Bolek: “There’s Always Something to Work On”
Chris Bolek’s first live poker tournament cash was in June of 2010 at a Venetian Deep Stack Event in Las Vegas. Having only just turned 21, that cash would be the start of something big for Bolek who slowly but gradually has turned himself into a successful tournament grinder.
His first substantial score came in January of 2013 when he took down the Isle Poker Classic Main Event in Pompano Beach, Florida for $96,000. He would go on to final table a $1,000 no-limit hold’em event at the World Series of Poker that summer, finishing sixth for $58,348. Meanwhile last year was his best year in his career as he would top $900,000 in tournament earnings on the strength of a WSOP Circuit win at the Palm Beach Kennel Club, a second-place finish in the World Poker Tour bestbet Bounty Scramble in Jacksonville, and a win just three weeks later at the Rock ‘N’ Roll Poker Open Main Event in Hollywood, Florida.
Besides winning poker tournaments in the Sunshine State, Bolek has also earned a B.A. in business administration from the University of Florida. We sat down with Bolek recently at the PokerStars Caribbean Adventure to talk a little poker and poker strategy.
When did you first start playing poker? How did you go about learning the game?
The first time I ever played, I was 15 and it was a $5 sit-and-go at a friend’s house. I lost four straight for a total of $20 and thought I had made the biggest mistake of my life. I was also instantly hooked on the experience.
From then on, home games were a weekly event throughout high school. These games were my only learning tool so you could say I learned just by playing poker. It wasn’t until college that I discovered forums online, namely Pocket Fives, and I became an avid stalker of the hand history posts. I do credit a lot of my early learning to just browsing forums and soaking in all the information I could.
What did you struggle most with when you first started playing poker? How did you overcome that?
If I had to break it down to just one thing, I suppose it would be the emotional and logical aspects of the game. The reason I mention both of those in tandem is that in order be logical in your actions, you must be in complete control of your emotional state. I think that before you can improve your poker play, you have to make certain leaps in the way you approach the game emotionally.
Poker has the ability to toy with your emotions if you are not aware and in control of them. This generalization also relates to different facets of the game including individual hand decisions, tilt control, table image, and of course dealing with results. Often, reconciling your decisions with your results is the most difficult part of the game.
As you improved, were there things you did that you felt helped you to do so?
Poker requires you constantly to improve. I think a true interest in the game is a key part of getting better. Having genuine curiosity for poker makes it a much more enjoyable process. Developing a group of like-minded friends and discussing hands with them is a great tool for getting better. Being able to look at various points of view is valuable in approaching the game from different angles and also allows you to discover new ways of looking at situations.
Another helpful tip is to learn to trust your gut. While poker is an intellectual game, you need to learn to trust your instincts when making decisions. You can learn all you want off the felt, but if you don’t execute that when playing then there’s little value in it.
Now that you’ve had success in poker, do you still think there is more you can do to get better? If yes, how do you plan on accomplishing that?
I’ve always thought that poker is a great representation of life. It’s both a visceral experience and very intellectual competition that brings people with varied skills and experiences and also adds an unlimited number of variables into the mix. If you approach a chaotic environment like that and think you can ever reach a level where there is not more room for improvement, then you are fighting a losing battle. I absolutely believe in constant learning. The list of fine tuning that can be done is enormous from bet-sizing, balancing ranges, table image, figuring out your opponents’ ranges, raising frequencies, and transitioning from cash games to tournaments, just to name a few.
Poker is such an incredibly complex game and when you consider all these variables, there is always something to work on. This doesn’t just include strategy either. A big part of improvement is also personal development, both mentally and physically. A sound body and mind is a powerful tool, and when you combine that with continued studying of the game and your approach, you can sharpen some already successful skills.
What do you feel are the most important skill sets to being a good poker player? How do you best learn those skills?
I’ve mentioned how complex poker can be and so it stands to reason that a poker player must be equally complex in order to succeed. The intriguing and also encouraging thing about poker is that there are unlimited ways to be successful. I say this in regards to live poker because I do think that the key to online poker is being analytical and using a good mathematical approach. However, live poker is a completely different beast. The most successful approach to live poker is one that blends intellectual decision-making with very good instincts.
Some people may be very good at postflop play or preflop battles. Others might be loud mouths at the table or the silent observer type. While many aggressive players have a lot of success, conservative play can yield results as well. Everything is up for debate and discussion. Different combinations of skills have produced results in poker, so it’s hard to boil it down to just one set of skills. The one thing that is undoubtedly true though is that no matter what style or approach you use, the best way to sharpen your skills is to play more poker.
Hypothetical situation. It’s the first hand of a major poker tournament with a $10,000 buy-in. You start with 30,000 chips with the blinds 50/100. An opponent about whom you know nothing opens to 250. You have and three-bet to 600, and he then four-bets to 1,500. What’s your play here? Why?
I would start by saying that although we may have never met someone or played a single hand of poker with them, we can always make some basic assumptions about a player with very little information. This doesn’t always lead to accurate decision-making, but it’s certainly better than nothing. We can profile players based on age, their appearance, nationality, mannerisms, who they are friends with, and many other small factors. So while we may know every little, we can make some conclusions based on what we do know.
With that being said, in today’s poker climate I think I would lean towards calling the four-bet in this situation. There was a period in poker’s growth where everyone was eager to get their stacks in preflop and the frequency of four-bets and five-bets was much higher. Today, however, there are a lot of people playing postflop poker.
When we five-bet in this spot, we are hoping our opponent is a preflop battler and with very little information available we can’t make that assumption. We have a very good hand, in position, and we get to play a pot that is already fairly big relative to our starting stack. Calling allows us to control how big we want to make this pot on any particular board texture. Although we don’t have the preflop betting lead, we are still in control of this hand by virtue of position.