Learning Poker at 64 – Too Old?

By Ashley Adams | August 9, 2010

The following article is a guest post written by my poker student, Dr. Burton Reifler.

Why did I take up poker at the age of 64? And how did I go about learning? Ashley Adams, the noted poker author, asked me those questions when chance put us at the same poker table at the Aria casino in Las Vegas recently. So here’s my story. And Ashley, I had one motivation that might even surprise you (hint to readers: I’m a physician specializing in geriatrics).

My wife encouraged me to start playing poker (as the columnist Dave Berry would say, I am not making this up). This needs a little background. I had a medical meeting in Las Vegas seven years ago. To our astonishment we both loved Las Vegas – the shows, shopping, restaurants, luxury hotels, everything. What a change from our only other visit several decades earlier when we couldn’t see the appeal. I got intrigued with getting comps. At the time, I thought that blackjack was the best combination of learning a new skill and keeping the house advantage to a minimum. But once you know basic strategy the plays become rote and playing to get comps started to feel like a job.

When we came back from the trip, we’d watch the WSOP on TV and my wife would say “you should learn poker.” I shrugged her off thinking poker was all bluffing and guesswork. But then one day I picked up a poker book in Borders. After reading it I saw that there was much more to the game than I had realized. I was hooked. A few months later we were back in Vegas where I mustered up the courage to try a live poker game at the Bellagio. I started with limit hold’em but after seeing that no limit games were more available I switched to that.

My three learning strategies have been: seminars, books, and coaching. I’ve attended two World Series of Poker academies – one on cash games, the other for advanced players. Both were well organized, interesting and fun. They were a combination of lectures from top pros, and “labs” where we split into groups of ten players and a pro dealt hands to us, with analysis and critique after each hand. The labs were the highlight each time. I can’t justify the expense as an investment (i.e. covering the cost through increased winnings), but that wasn’t my intent.

My poker library is extensive. I play for low stakes but have spent a small fortune on books. I particularly like three authors and have read and re-read their books. Phil Gordon’s green and blue books are like poker 101 and 102. Good introductory works written in a conversational style with enough advanced points to keep them interesting to more experienced players. Dan Harrington’s books are like upper level courses. My copies of his two cash game and three tournament books are heavily underlined and annotated. David Sklansky’s books are like graduate courses. He is a theoretician (one of his books is on the theory of poker) who brings considerable intellect to the game. I haven’t re-read his books as much as the others because many of his examples are from games other than no limit. The book I am currently studying is Professional No-Limit Hold ‘Em by Flynn, Mehta and Miller. It has some excellent concepts I will try and incorporate into my poker game, such as deciding very early in the hand if I am committed to going all-in.

I’ve had four poker coaches, all of whom I met personally in Las Vegas. The first was a veteran player from Texas who came to Vegas monthly. He was beating me soundly when I asked him if he ever taught poker. He replied by giving me his business card. His specialty was teaching beginners and we had a series of structured discussions over Skype. His total fee was $100 – quite a bargain. My second coach was a pro I met at the cash game Academy. He was very skilled and sincerely interested in seeing me improve but $200 an hour was too high for the stakes I was playing for and I stopped after two sessions. His method was to play hands together online. Third was a fellow student at the advanced Academy. He was a high school teacher who had won a seat through an online tournament. We sat next to each other at one of the lab tables and he made some excellent comments so I asked him if he would like to try coaching. We agreed on a fee of $25 /hr. He is a tournament specialist who coaches me in sit’n goes, again using Skype. Thanks to his coaching and Collin Moshman’s excellent book on sit’n go’s I’m doing pretty well at the $20-$30 level. My fourth and newest poker coach is Ashley himself. He charges $250/month for all the questions I want to e-mail and we’re just getting started. He has already helped me find some leaks (such as playing some hands I shouldn’t have been in and not being aggressive enough when I hit the flop) and his approach is making me more disciplined in recalling and describing a hand.

You’ve probably guessed that skill acquisition is a more powerful motivator to me than making a profit. I try to focus on whether I made the right decision more than whether I won the pot. An opponent with two outs on the river is entitled to win 1 out of 25 times (why does it seem higher?). But making the right decision and winning the pot is what’s really sweet.

Most of my reasons for taking up poker are straightforward and predictable. It’s endlessly challenging, I’ve met interesting people, and since it’s indoors it complements my other hobby, golf. But here’s the reason you might not have guessed. My specialty within geriatrics is Alzheimer’s disease and I’m impressed with recent research that suggests keeping your mind active and learning new skills might have a preventive effect. Physical exercise helps me keep my cardiovascular system in shape and poker is helping to protect me from Alzheimer’s disease. So I’m playing for my health! And to answer the question in the title – no one is too old.

Burton V. Reifler, M.D., M.P.H.

Dr. Reifler attended medical school at Emory University and was a psychiatry resident at the University of Washington. From 1978-1987 he directed the Geriatric and Family Services Clinic at the University of Washington which became a widely replicated model for the diagnosis and management of Alzheimer’s disease. His major research area was the relationship between Alzheimer’s disease and depression and he has authored over 100 journal articles and book chapters.

Since 1987 Dr. Reifler has been a Professor of Psychiatry at the Wake Forest University School of Medicine in Winston-Salem, North Carolina, where he was Chair of Psychiatry from 1987-2001. He is currently Kate Mills Snider Professor of Geriatric Psychiatry and Senior Advisor to the Dean. From 1987-2001 he was Director of “Partners in Caregiving,” a Robert Wood Johnson Foundation program focused on developing adult day centers throughout the country. In 1996 he received the Ruth Von Behren Award from the National Adult Day Services Association and in 2002 the Jack Weinberg Memorial Award for excellence in geriatric psychiatry from the American Psychiatric Association (APA). He is a past chairperson of the APA’s Council on Aging and currently serves on the Ethics Committee of the APA. Dr. Reifler is a past president of the American Board of Psychiatry and Neurology.

By Ashley Adams

Ashley Adams lives in Boston, Massachusetts and has been playing poker for decades. He is the author of two poker books and his specialty is 7-card stud and no-limit hold'em.


One Response to “Learning Poker at 64 – Too Old?”

  1. RyckyRych
    August 9, 2010 at 11:04 am

    Nice! I liked reading this guest article just for the sheer fact that it proves that its never too late to find something new and exciting.

    Another comment I have is that I really liked the way you went about learning the game. You were not afraid to go and seek advice from others you found to be capable at the game themselves. I would have suggested someone I know but it seems you are already in capable hands. 🙂

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