High Roller Radio has interviewed some of the greatest gamblers, casino insiders, sports bettors, authors and poker players in the world. Here, 'Part 2' of our Q&A with 2004 World Series of Poker main event champion Greg 'Fossilman' Raymer. Raymer, a patent attorney with a masters degree in biochemistry, discusses his world championship victory, Mike Matusow, Phil Hellmuth & more.
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What you’re seeing is kind of like reality TV for some of these guys. I’m sure there’s some reality to most of those shows but it’s always funny to me when I see the credits for these shows that they have a writing staff. Why do you need a staff of writers for a reality show? You’re just supposed to be filming it like a documentary. You’re just supposed to go in and film and this is what the guys at the pawn shop say but it’s obvious some of those lines are being fed to them. Either they’re telling them what to say or at least they’re giving them options, that’s basically all of the reality shows. Poker isn’t like that. Poker doesn’t have writers, as far as I know, unless it’s for Lon McEachern or Norman Chad, no one is writing for me.
Q: Is it true that you told your wife, at one point, you’d play on a $1,000 bankroll online and if you lost it you’d quit poker?
GR: That’s basically true. I had only been playing small games at that point, like $3/$6 limit, and I had been winning money. My wife was still concerned because she didn’t understand yet that poker was a game that you could beat and be a long term winner. So she thought I just basically running good. From her point of view this is no different than slot machines or roulette and that I’d been running good and was bound to start losing. She was worried, especially since I’ve had this ‘winning streak’ in her mind, that I would turn into a total degenerate gambler and start losing everything. She had these concerns and to make her feel better we made this deal. So I took the $1,000 cash and she thought, or at least her plan was, that I’d start losing as expected and lose the whole thing. She thought I’d quit poker as I promised but at Christmas time she’d probably give me another $1,000 to go and play. So she thought we’d do this deal and I’d only lose $1,000 a year. I never came close to losing it. I went on an incredible rush immediately and won several sessions in a row playing $3/$6 Hold’em as soon as we made the deal. Over the next year or two, I moved up to the bigger games, became a regular in the $10/$20 limit hold’em game in San Diego County. I would occasionally play in this $2/$5 game, a regular game at Oceanside, and we’re talking like 1997. There were no no-limit or pot-limit games in any public card room or casino in the country, at that point in time, so that was an unusual game. I happened to live there and I would take a shot at it occasionally or maybe drive up to LA when there were some tournaments series’ at the Commerce or the Bike. I got a new job working for Phizer in Southeast Connecticut, moved there late in 1998, and that put me very close to Foxwoods. I was playing $20/$40 limit hold’em and the Tuesday night no-limit tournament and, basically in that time from ’98 til 2004 when I won the main event, I was able to grow my bankroll to the point where I now a regular in the $75/$150 mixed game at Foxwoods.
Q: You don’t hear of that too often; someone winning right from the start?
GR: I was lucky in the a sense that when I started I was in Chicago and I playing in something called the Rockford Charity Casino games. There’s an Illinois law with charity Vegas nights with bets up to $10, they would do it at a ballroom and hold it at different hotels, the Hilton, the Marriott, the Holiday Inn, and it was different charity and different location every night. They would have these $3/$6 limit games and these $3/$6 Omaha Hi/Lo games and, especially or the hi/lo games, if someone besides me folded pre-flop I would look at my watch to note the time. The next time someone, besides me, folded pre-flop I’d look at my watch again and usually it was an hour or two hours later. It was a good game. You could flop the nuts and have almost everyone call you to the river, for most of the people it was like bingo and they’d play every hand until the end.
Q: I feel poker was already changing when you won the main event. How has it changed since then? Are the kids, these so-called ‘young guns’ really as crazy and as aggressive as the blogs make them out to be?
GR: I’m not sure crazy is the right word. They’re certainly aggressive, in many cases, and the truth is that the average poker player now is tremendously more skilled than they were before the poker boom. If we were to go around at the world series, say a $1,500 no-limit hold’em event, measure everyone’s skill levels and pick the second worst skill-level player at that table, then transport him back in time to a $1,500 no-limit hold’em event before the poker boom, he’s probably on average the second best player at that table.
Q: You’re moving into poker coaching now. Why?
GR: I enjoy teaching, it’s something I’m good at. One of my nicknames in my college fraternity was ‘Shell’, after the old Shell 'Answer Man' from the Shell TV commercials. Some of your audience may be too young to remember but Shell used to have these ‘Answer Man’ TV commercials. I used to have guys lined up outside my room in the fraternity to help with their homework. I’m good at explaining things, at helping people understand things they don’t get, and I enjoy doing it. I would have just become a teacher, a high school teacher or something, if there wasn’t so little money in that profession, that was the only reason I chose not to pursue it. I don’t like bureaucracy and all teachers are part of a bureaucracy, whether it’s a public or private school, and it doesn’t pay that well. So, I pursued other things but I still love teaching, and I’ve been teaching really since I won the main event.
Q: You have a Masters in biochemistry. How does hat relate to poker?
GR: It doesn’t really, I just have a good mind for math and science type subjects so the math side of poker just always comes easy to me. Poker is a math game. It’s pure math in a sense.
Q: The game of poker has certainly gone professional, you have rocket scientists, bankers, investment gurus and stock brokers playing. It’s a lot tougher these days.
GR: The best players are just tremendously better than they used to be. If you take any of these guys that are making money now in the high stakes games and you put them back in time? They would just crush. They would be like Stu Ungar and make the old timers look like idiots. We have developed so much more knowledge and understanding of the game and that’s why you’ll see guys five-betting pre-flop with weak hands because it’s technically correct to do sometimes. Of course, they’re folding the 7, 3 off suit the vast majority of the time it’s dealt to them but sometimes you’ll find yourself in a spot where it’s correct to raise with any two cards because of these certain factors. Now this guy re-raises and you know a big part of his range is any two cards because he knows that you were correct to raise with any two cards. So, you’re four-betting even though your hand is horrible and he’s possibly five-betting for the same logic. You can get into these pre flop raising wars where nobody has a hand. and nobody is really making a mistake. Even if one guy has a horrible hand and the other guy has two aces, it does’t mean the guy with the horrible starting hand was playing badly. If you tag teamed me in and I see this horrible starting hand and this guy now four-bets me? If I think he’s folding to an all-in I may shove. I mean, I could five-bet all-in with your stack if it’s six or seven times more than his last raise and he might fold.
Q: Always to ask you about sunglasses in poker, some believe they provide an unfair advantage. You became famous for your shades, they were scary, and you freaked people out with them. What about shades in poker, should they be outlawed?
GR: I really don’t see why it’s a big deal. The people arguing against them, I think, will acknowledge they do offer some kind of advantage but for whatever reason refer not to use them. So it’s like, ‘Since I prefer not to use them, I don’t want anyone else to use them and get that advantage.’ I don’t really see what the big deal is. Anyone who wants to can wear them.
Q: Can you tell us about how you got into fossils?
GR: My wife took me to this rock and mineral show in San Diego, she wanted to look at some gemstones, and while I was there it was like, ‘Oh, look at this, here’s a nice little fossil, this would make a great card protector. Oh and it’s that cheap?’ So here’s this cool little piece of stone, with a little fossil in it, basically a polished piece of marble, and you can see this pattern and the fossil. It’s essentially a sea shell from over 300 million years ago and the players at the poker room all thought it was pretty interesting. When I told them how old it was they thought it must have been worth a fortune and I immediately thought of it as a business opportunity. They were cheap, people thought they were old and valuable, so I went back to the show and bought more of them and the started selling them at the poker table. Now, wherever I play poker I just start buying different fossils, sizes that would make good card protectors, and have them sitting on the table. Naturally, people get bored and need something to talk about and that’s when they ask about the fossils. I tell them, ‘This is 10 million years old, this is 300 million years old, and, oh by the way, I sell these. This one’s $15 and that one's $15.' This was all before I won the world championship. It was part of that deal I made with my wife. Here, I had this $1,000 bankroll and I realized I could go buy some fossils with that money, and that’s how I picked up the name ‘Fossilman.’ People wouldn’t remember my name Greg but they remembered I was the guy who sold fossils. 'You’re that fossil dude.' So I said, ‘How about Fossil Man.’ Nowadays, I don’t sell them at the table like that. Every tournament it’s a brand new fossil, if I win the tournament I sign the fossil and put it on my trophy case, and if I don’t win the tournament I sign it over the player who knocked me out. I also sell them on my website and give them to my students when I do the seminars.
Greg Raymer Thank-you!
2004 World Series of Poker Main Event Champion
Q: I guess the same could be said for Phil Hellmuth?
GR: Hellmuth is also extremely well liked. Again, Phil is being himself on TV but he is amping it way up. Both of them are kind of being caricature of themselves when they’re at the table being filmed. The best example of that for Phil Hellmuth came quite a few years ago now, six or seven years ago maybe. A friend came up to me and told me the funniest story about Phil, that his friend had knocked Phil Hellmuth out of a tournament the day before. You know, it was the middle of Day 1 of a $1,500 no-limit event, amongst the bracelet events not the biggest deal. It was something simple like it folded to Phil, who was short stacked, he shoved from the button. Everyone else had folded and now Phil shoves fro the button, it might been the small blind, and he only has five big blinds. This young guy calls from the big blind with King-Queen. As far as the math is concerned it’s an obvious snap call. To be honest, even if you know that Phil would very seldom shove with a worse hand, you’re getting the right price. If he shows me Ace-7 before I make the call, and he has me beat, I’m still getting the right price to call there because I’m putting in four more blinds to win seven. It’s his five plus my one, plus the ante’s, and you’re almost getting to 2-to-1 and you’re only a 60-40 underdog.So it’s a snap call even if Phil showed him his hand. Phil understood the call was correct and, of course, the kid paired one of his cards and knocked Phil out of the tournament. So Phil just says, ‘I guess it wasn’t meant for me today, you guys all have fun,’ and he stands up to leave the table. As he stands up he realizes, that even though this wasn’t an event being filmed for ESPN broadcast, they had cameras in the Amazon room that day filming b-roll footage. When they saw Phil stand up they realized he had just been knocked out. So they rushed over to film it. So now Phil has seen them coming over, cause they had seen him stand up, but he was walking away from the table. So Phil turns back toward the table, sets his bag down, waited for the camera crew to get there and set up the shot, and then starts lighting into the kid saying, ‘You know I have King high beat,’ and he did the traditional Phil Hellmuth rant.