INTERVIEW WITH CHRIS “JESUS” FERGUSON
2000 World Series of Poker main event champion
LDP — You made the finals of the National Heads-Up Championships two years in a row. Why have you done so well heads-up?
CF — One thing is, I used to play online all the time, and one of the things I used to do was play heads-up. So, back in 1989 I played on IRC poker for play money only. It was the only site out there. If you play play money now, people don’t really take the game very seriously, but back then they did. I’ll tell you why. First of all, there weren’t any real money sites. The other reason is because there were statistics. You could see how well you were doing. There was a tournament leader board, and a ring game leader board. Because of that, there was a lot at stake — more than money at stake, there was prestige at stake. One thing about online is you can play a lot of hands online. You just can’t in a casino. The other thing is that online, you can play a lot of heads-up poker which you can’t in a brick & mortar casino. So playing online 17 years ago really honed my heads-up game.
LDP — You’re known as a tournament specialist. Tell me about that.
CF — I play almost exclusively tournaments. I play a little bit of live action, but I don’t like figuring out someone’s game. I just don’t like taking money from people after figuring out how they play. That’s just not my style. But once they put their money down for a tournament, it’s all over. Now, that money’s gone. I’m out to win the tournament. There’s something to shoot for in a tournament. More than money, I think.
LDP — Are tournaments a more pure form of competition for you, then?
CF — Yeah, I guess that’s it. They’re also a lot more fun. In side action, after 8 hours or so, you’re still playing the same game. That’s not really true in tournaments because as the tournament progresses, the strategies change. The game you’re playing becomes different and you have to take into consideration different strategies. Early on in a tournament, everybody’s got a huge stack, so you’re playing a little bit carefully. You don’t want to lose all your chips, but you’re also trying to win someone else’s chips at the same time. As the blinds increase, your stack relative to the blinds goes down. Blinds are increasing a lot faster than your stack can. You’re playing a middle stack game and that requires a different kind of strategy. Now, even if you don’t make a mistake, your entire stack is at risk. Early on in the first round, you really do have to make a mistake to lose your entire stack, or your opponent does. When you get close to the money, the game changes again because now you’re trying to limp into the money and then you’re trying to move up the money ladder, and there are a lot of different strategies that come into play as the tournament progresses. So, I really feel that you’re playing a different game as the tournament progresses. It just makes it a lot more exciting. There’s a real goal. You’re not just winning money. After a live session, win or lose, I kinda feel: What was this about?
LDP — Do you prepare differently for different opponents (like in the Heads-Up Championship where you know who you’re playing)?
CF — You don’t necessarily know who you’re gonna play. You do in the first round and in the second round, but in later rounds you’re not sure because you don’t know who’s gonna win the other matches. I’m not even thinking ahead to the next match; I’m only thinking about one match at a time. Do I spend a lot of time thinking about how I’m gonna beat this guy if I have a night to prepare? I would say, not really. If I didn’t know someone, I might ask around, but I had already played against everyone I was facing. I might ask around and get some general idea how this guy plays.
I hadn’t played Chip Reese much, that’s true, but I’d played him a little bit. I knew how he played. He’s incredible. He’s still one of the best high-limit players in the world. (Editor’s note: Mr. Reese passed away late last year.) And Freddy Deeb, I think he was voted as the best live-action player in the world. People don’t know him too well cause he doesn’t play too many tournaments, but just the fact of his reputation, I know how he’s gonna play. I’d played against him a little and he played very much as I expected, which is not to say he played easy. He played very, very tough. He’s definitely one of the best players in the world.
Josh Arieh I had definitely played against before. He and I played heads-up the year before in the World Series. Jim McManus and I played in the main event the year I won it, so I’d played quite a bit against both of them. I knew very much how both of them played. I had Huck Seed in the semifinals. I hadn’t played very much against him, but his reputation precedes him, so I knew what to expect from Huck. And the truth is, I hadn’t actually played that much against Ted Forrest, but Ted is more of a ring game player than a tournament player. Both of those guys are amazing, amazing poker players.
LDP — Your Web site says you got serious about poker in 1993. Fast forward to 2003 when the boom hit. Why is poker so popular now?
CF — It’s pretty clear. You can ask the top 100 players, this is something we don’t argue about. It’s all about televised poker and it’s all about the hole-card camera. Poker has been televised for a long time; back in 1972 I think they televised the World Series main event. The innovation that created the poker explosion in my opinion, and I think in the opinion of all the top players, is the hole-card camera. The fact that you’re watching incredible professionals make incredibly intelligent decisions in real time — and you know the outcome of these decisions, you know what they should choose — makes it incredibly fun. I kind of equate it to watching Let’s Make a Deal. I think LMAD actually might be more exciting if you knew what was behind Door No. 1, Door No 2, and Door No. 3. If you know what they’re choosing ahead of time, that puts a lot different spin on LMAD. The real kicker is, let’s make LMAD a real skillful game. Let’s make these guys really figure out what’s behind Door 1, 2 and 3.
LDP — What percent of poker is skill and what percent is luck? Have you ever put the numbers together, being a mathematical kind of guy?
CF — Yeah, actually I have. There are some mathematical ways to tell you how much luck and skill are involved in the game. Take a game like chess; chess is 100% skill. What it really comes down to is how long of a period you’re gonna play. On any one given hand, it might be 99% luck and 1% skill. Over the course of a tournament, it might be 30% skill and 70% luck. Over the course of a month, maybe it’s 30% luck and 70% skill, and over the course of a year maybe it’s 90% skill and 10% luck.
LDP — I sat to your left in the $1,500 WSOP stud event in 2001. You were in Seat 2 and the player in Seat 1, a former bracelet winner, flashed his two hole cards to you as he slid them toward the muck himself after I raised. I threw up my hands in disgust, and you quickly told the dealer you saw those hole cards. The dealer was required to show me the cards, too. One of them was an ace. What do you think when players shoot angles like that?
CF — I really hate it when players do stuff like that. I think he was trying to do something for me or something like that. I would never want to take advantage of something like that. It’s an insult to the game of poker.
LDP — You always seem to be in control at the table, never overly distraught or excited. Is that just your nature or did you perfect that style?
CF — It’s my nature when it comes to the game of poker, but is it in my nature in general? I don’t think so. To a certain extent maybe, but here’s an example of the kind of person I am: It’s very hard for me to stick a nickel in a slot machine. I can’t figure out why in the world I would ever want to stick a nickel in a slot machine. Because of the negative expectation, it’s very hard for me to ever want to do that. If I bring that kind of mentality to the poker table, I’m always trying to make the decision that’s best for me. In terms of the expectation, I’m trying to figure out very hard what the best play is. It doesn’t matter what has happened in the past. Well, it does a little if I’m trying to figure out how you’re playing or something like that, then it might matter.
LDP — You take the same amount of time to make each fold, bet, and raise. Did you develop that style over time, or have you always done that?
CF — People say I count down so many seconds before ever making an action. That’s not really true. Sometime I will take more time or less time for action if I want to influence my opponent’s play. So once in a while I will act fast on this hand. I want him to be aware that I’m acting fast. I might act fast with a weak hand if I think he’s the kind of opponent that will think I’m weak. Then I might act fast on a strong hand, or I might want him to think I’ve got a hand I don’t have to think about. Sometimes I’ve thought ahead…if a spade hits, I’m gonna bet out. So, my opponent might think, “He doesn’t have a flush or he would have thought about what to do.” But mostly what I think it is, there are a lot of really close decisions in poker. Just because you think you have the best hand doesn’t mean you should bet. Just because you think you have the worst hand doesn’t mean you should check. There are a lot of cases where I might bet bottom pair and I might check middle pair. I might check-raise with bottom pair and check-fold middle pair. You never know. There’s a lot going on in the game of poker, so there’s really a lot to think about. When I’m taking that amount of time, I’m not just counting down the seconds, I’m really thinking about the hand pretty much the entire time. There’s a lot to think about in a poker hand, and sometimes I’m thinking ahead to the next street.
LDP — That sounds like you’re an analytical player. Don’t you ever play by feel?
CF — That’s definitely not true. Ever since I was very young, I can remember having the ability to feel when people were lying to me. Even in junior high school I used to really study the way people would act when they lie. I think I have this innate ability to do that and that counts very strongly into playing poker. That being said, I really believe that you can be a great poker player without that. Five years ago, people used to scoff at Internet players — he’s just an Internet player, he doesn’t really know how to play poker — I think what we’ve seen in the last three years is that the Internet players have gained a ton of respect in the poker community. I think poker players have come to understand that these Internet players really know how to play. I think what it is, is that a lot of players rely too strongly on tells — not that tells aren’t important, but that a lot of players rely too strongly on them. There might be some kind of sensory overload in some way when poker players sit down at the table. They try to use too much of what he sees in his opponents to determine what to do. Just because your opponent’s weak doesn’t mean you should bet. The fundamentals of poker don’t really include tells and stuff. The way I think about it, the fundamentals of poker really don’t include tells. The fundamentals are how to play when you take out the tells. If they’re really, really about to play extremely good poker without the tells, if they really understand fundamental poker, then when you put them at a poker table and add the tells in on top of that, I think that makes them that much stronger.
LDP — Are you superstitious at all? You always wear the same outfit, the same hat…
CF — I don’t really believe in that stuff at all. Zero percent do I believe in that stuff. That being said, I really feel that poker players should do whatever makes them feel comfortable. So if they have a superstition, you know, if you think you’re gonna feel better wearing your lucky shirt, then wear your lucky shirt. If you have a lucky doll and feel it’ll make you more comfortable, then bring your lucky doll to the table. But where I draw the line is if you start playing hands differently because of your superstitions. There’s a famous case where a guy folded pocket jacks before the flop because he was superstitious. He had lost a lot of money with pocket jacks, so he would fold them before the flop. On television, he made the comment, “They’re very unlucky for me.” That’s where I draw the line. You just can’t have those kinds of superstitions. Those superstitions are gonna hurt you. Having a doll on the table may not help you, but it sure as hell’s not gonna hurt you, whereas if you start playing hands differently than you would normally because of superstitions, then you’re really hurting yourself. For me, if I haven’t won with pocket jacks the past 10 times, I’m gonna play pocket jacks just to prove I CAN win with them.
LDP — Your site says your two favorite games are no-limit hold’em and no-limit five-card stud. That true?
CF — (laughing) Nobody plays no-limit stud anymore, but I used to play that game and to me, no-limit five-card stud is a beautiful version of poker. The most important thing in no-limit stud is calling down a person when you think he’s weak, and bluffing yourself when you think you can get away with it. It’s not hard to read your opponent’s hand — either he has it or he doesn’t. It’s all about reading your opponents. That’s what makes poker different than all the other games — the aspect of bluffing, and in no-limit five-card stud, bluffing is king.
LDP — You have five World Series bracelets, right?
CF — I do, and I have 2 WSOP Circuit rings. To me, those are more valuable than the bracelets because those are $10,000 buy-in events. Of course, the real ring, the most valuable ring is the one I won in the WSOP championship event in 2000.
LDP — What tips can you give my readers?
CF — People meet me on the street and I always tell them to go to my Web site because I have tips on there. I thought a lot about writing those out so that they’re accurate. A big tip not on the site, one mistake that beginners make, is that they play too many hands. If you think about it, if you’re in first position in a 9-handed hold’em game, if you’re gonna come into the pot, you’re basically saying you have a hand that can beat 8 opponents, and that’s a pretty damn strong hand. Just to enter the pot in a full ring hold’em game, you have to have a very strong hand from early position. Another mistake beginners make is they don’t really understand the concept of position, so when a guy raises from early position, he’s saying he has a hand that can beat 8 opponents, while if a guy raises from the button, if everyone folds to the button, he only needs a hand that can beat two opponents, plus, he’s got position on both opponents. Be aware of the position that raises come from.
LDP — Is your winning A-9 hand against T.J. Cloutier’s A-Q in 2000 ancient history, or do you re-live the hand occasionally? Does it bring back memories?
CF — I remember that hand (laughs) to this day, there’s no question about it. I don’t think people are as aware of the hand as they used to be. They used to talk to me about it all the time. Everybody in poker knew about the A-9 and the A-Q where I beat TJ on the river. It’s not as famous a beat as it used to be. (LDP — I suspect you’ll want to get back there and do it again? CF — It’s hard to do these days. There might be more than 8,000 players in this year’s main event.)
LDP — Do you ever have any regrets about your nickname?
CF — I don’t really. I kind of stay away from it a little bit. I don’t try to press the nickname. When you see me on TV, you never see me calling myself Jesus. If it’s other people calling me Jesus, I really don’t have any trouble with that as long as they know which Jesus they’re talking about.
LDP — Thanks for your time, Chris.
CF — My pleasure.