An Interview With Poker Coach Tommy Angelo

Somewhere in between all of the craziness of the UIGEA I spent some time on the phone with Tommy Angelo. Those of you who’ve spent some time on 2+2 probably know Tommy from his brilliant posts there. We had exchanged a few emails before I left LA and I had asked him if he wouldn’t mind doing a little phone interview about his poker coaching.

To get the stats out of the way, Tommy has been playing professionally since 1990. He started coaching three years ago after being swamped by people on 2+2 who offered to pay him for coaching. He could have followed the standard hourly rate and offered to answer emails and review hand histories but his big-picture approach to poker didn’t lend itself to “you should have raised” type of coaching. Instead he put together an entire program. He put together a topic list and offered it on an all or nothing basis. Early on, some of 2+2’s most solid players took his course. They publicly praised what Tommy had done for them, and Tommy has been spending half his time teaching and the other half playing ever since.

Personally, I was a little intrigued about Tommy’s unique coaching style after reading his website, “” Tommy doesn’t take his coaching lightly so there’s a whole process before he’ll even take on a new client. But he’s not an elitist. It’s about making sure that the student is ready for the teaching and will get his money’s worth out of the course. First there’s a questionnaire, then a phone conversation. Tommy told me that both he and the prospective student should be looking for reasons not to move forward. If, and only if, both student and teacher feel that this is going to be win-win does the relationship progress.

Unlike most poker coaches, Tommy doesn’t do any initial coaching by phone or email. He does do follow up work with his clients using phone and email, but only after the main coaching session, which is always in person. You spend four days in Las Vegas studying with him, face to face. The course work is done in a hotel room, and during meals. Also, you play in the same game with Tommy at least twice, for mutual observation. He claims that he can’t teach his methodology part way, and if the curriculum he publishes on his website is any indication, that’s a massive understatement.

Tommy’s approach puts a great deal of emphasis on staying off tilt (get it, Tiltless?). And not just the maniac style of tilt. Tommy defines tilt as “Anything less than your A-game and your A-mindset.” I’ve written about and talked with people about this fundamental concept quite often so what he says rings very true to me. What good is it to teach someone how to play AK in the blinds if their real leak is that when they play for more than 5 hours in a session they lose focus and make far greater mistakes? When you scroll through the list of topics Tommy teaches you’ll find stuff like:

Game Rejection – How to quit when you know you should.
How to be calm, cool and focused whenever you want
Universal unbroken respect for every opponent’s money, cards, and time
Forbidden words and thoughts
Resolve in reserve
Dissipating waves of tilt and bad play
Separating performance from results
Controlled breathing

When I asked Tommy about the unique nature of some of the topics he covers he said that he feels it’s not realistic to separate life from poker. He seems to work on the premise that most of us know how to play better but unless he can get into your head he can’t show you how to control the parts of your mind that keep you from playing your best game.

He and I spent some time talking about Zen and the Art of Archery — which is a book Howard Lederer highly recommends (as do I) — and how it relates to poker. The core lesson is that the master allows his student to fail — sometimes for years — in order to help him appreciate how something as seemingly inconsequential as how to breathe is to becoming a great archer. There’s also some excellent writing about how the master does not care if you hit the target. The only thing that matters is how you draw and release the bow. Hitting the target becomes effortless once the student separates himself from attempting to achieve any goal other than drawing and releasing the bow perfectly. Sort of sounds like not being results oriented, doesn’t it?

But lest one think that Tommy is some sort of Tony Robbins self-help guru, Tommy also teaches many hard-core poker principles in great depth and with fresh insight. According to Tommy, position is a part of every street. There is always someone acting first, and someone acting last. One of the things that kept me thinking after we got off the phone was when he told me that when someone says “position is important at poker,” that’s about as silly as saying that altitude is important at flying, or that water is important at swimming.

In nearly every interview I’ve ever seen with the most elite of the elite poker professionals in the world, when asked what the most important thing in poker is they always respond that it’s position. Yet, in nearly every serious text on the subject of poker, the author focuses on hand strength and how it relates to your position. It may seem like a subtle difference but when you give it some serious thought it really is a substantial difference.

Tommy claims the question of how to play AK doesn’t exist in his world. Across the top of his starting-situation charts, there are no hands, or groups of hands. There are the positions, small blind, big blind, button, etc. Once you’ve defined your position, there’s a menu of possible moves. When your hand selection reaches beyond that, you’re on tilt. And that is one of his central themes. As I mentioned before, tilt isn’t necessarily defined as spewing your chips like a drunken sailor. A bad call is tilt. A bad lay down is tilt. Tommy’s course is designed to teach you how to play solid poker as well as to give you the wisdom to know when you shouldn’t even be playing, and the tools to actually pry yourself away from the table. He teaches you how to use position to your advantage as well as the attitudes you should have towards other players, money, the game, and to some degree, life.

I mentioned to Tommy that his course sounds like a mix of solid poker mixed in with a healthy dose of Barry Greenstein’s advice from his book Ace on the River. And funny enough, Tommy is working on a short book of his own. It’s basically the best gems from the 100 pages of outline and handouts that he gives each student before the course. His book will not be a substitute for his four-day program. It is intended as an accelerator and a refresher.

So what’s an intensive four-day course with Tommy going to set you back? Tommy charges $7000 and offers follow up at $200 an hour over the phone or via email (the $7000 includes 2 hours of follow up). That may sound expensive but people pay $3500 – $4000 for some of these boot camp programs where they spend a few days listening to top pros lecture how to play aces to a room of 200 people. If you’re lucky you might get one of your questions answered in a Q&A. That’s alright for some people but as I mentioned at the beginning of this article, Tommy is looking to pre-qualify his students and putting a significant price tag on his teaching is certainly a qualifier.

Even if your bankroll can’t stand a $7000 investment in becoming a better player you can still benefit from Tommy’s wisdom by visiting his website and scouring the 2+2 archives for some of his posts. He’s shared a lot with the poker community over the years and it’s out there for free until that bankroll grows big enough to take the next step.

Bill Rini
Bill Rini is currently the Head of Online Poker for WSOP. He has been working in the online poker industry since 2004 and has held management roles at Full Tilt Poker and PartyPoker.