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Poker Interviews

card handAsmo is Aces
By Lee Munzer

In this article you will meet one of the top tournament and live action players in the world, Louis Asmo. I always enjoy spending time with Lou. He's intelligent, interesting, insightful, and very outspoken (as you'll see). The Columbus, Ohio native was introduced to poker at a picnic when he was just five-years-old. Now 55, the youthful looking, 5' 10", 162 pound, former business owner devotes most of his time to poker and fitness.

Louis has lead a colorful, interesting life that includes a tryout with the St. Louis Cardinals baseball team. From pitching to poker he researches each undertaking, determines the requirements, considers his alternatives, devises a plan, and works through it a good formula for success. His poker accomplishments include a gold bracelet victory in the 1997 World Series of Poker (WSOP) $3,000 limit hold'em event and a hard fought second place finish in the inaugural Tournament of Champions of Poker (TOC).

Lee Munzer: Louis, when I mentioned I was getting together with you a good friend inquired, "Isn't Asmo the guy who had aces against Chiu in the 1999 TOC?" It's hard to believe a flopless hold'em hand will go down as one of the most memorable high stakes tournament poker hands in the twentieth century. I can't imagine beginning this interview without getting your comments. Here's my condensed, original tournament report from Poker Digest:

Hand #32: This is the pivotal hand in the TOC. Chiu, is dealt Kc-Ks and Asmo receives Ac-As. Yet, we don't see a flop! David, on the button, thinks for approximately 20 seconds and raises to $75,000 after Lynn Bauer limps in under the gun. Asmo ponders his move for 14 seconds, looks at the dealer, pushes his checks forward, and says, "All in." Doyle Brunson folds from the big blind position. Bauer mucks quickly. Chiu is studying Asmo's $600,000 and playing with 18 blue ($500) chips. He keeps separating them into four piles (4-4-4-2), then restacking them. We're nearing two minutes. His left hand is on his chin. Asmo continues to look straight ahead over his bifocals. Suddenly and gently, Chiu taps his defeated hand on the table and mucks it face up! Remarkably, he concludes that Asmo has him covered with pocket aces.

The crowd is bewildered when they see David's black kings. The plot crystallizes when Asmo smiles and reveals his black aces. At the next break, I ask Louis why he made such a big bet (as opposed to setting a trap). He tells me he tried to make David think he held A-K and didn't want action. He thought it was his best chance to take $600,000 from the chip leader. Of course, I asked him why he showed his hand. He replied, "I respect David and thought it would be good for poker." He smiled and inquired, "Did you hear the crowd howl?"

Louis Asmo: You did a great job of reporting. That's the reason I requested you for this interview. You can't imagine how many players have approached me and asked why I showed the hand. I'm glad I did or else their question would be, "What did you have?" Even strangers approach me and, after congratulating me for finishing second, they bring up the hand. They usually want to discuss alternative betting strategies.

LM: Are you happy with the way you played the hand?

LA: Yes, I put a lot of planning into that hand. I knew I had to go through David, the chip leader, to win. Fortunately, he was seated to my right. Since final table play began I had been thinking of how to play specific big hands against him when he bet or raised in front of me. In this case, I knew he had a pretty good hand because he was raising an under the gun limper. The typical way to trap someone who has a strong hand when you have pocket aces is to make a smaller (as opposed to an all in) raise let's say $200,000 in this case. So, I devised a plan to play aces as if I had A-K as you noted in your TOC article. I believe I would have 'sold' almost all the top players. Unfortunately, David had the luxury of a chip lead and made a terrific laydown.

LM: That's great advice for our readers plan in advance for different scenarios. You mentioned top players. Care to name a few?

LA: There are so many and I wouldn't want to leave anyone out inadvertently, but I will tell you two of the best who give me problems ... T.J. Cloutier and "Miami" John Cernuto.

LM: Why specifically those two?

LA: Well, T.J. is flat out the best tournament player in the world. His "reading" ability and understanding of how to play each hand is scary. When you play with T.J. you need to be able to think on a higher level. When I play a hand against him, I'm playing more with representation than cards. "Miami" is unpredictable and gets the most out of pots he enters. They both are great at shifting gears, waiting for premium hands, then convincing you by their actions that they don't have a premium hand.

LM: Name a common thread that runs through the top tournament players.

LA: One that falls under the umbrella of discipline is an ability to handle adversity. Conversely, going on tilt is a loser's trait - one that you won't see in the top players.

LM: Let's discuss the learning process. David Chiu told me he has never read a poker book he learns through experience. What's your method?

LA: I learn a great deal through experience ... and different things in live games, satellites and tournaments. However, starting in 1996 I read several books such as Hold'em For Advanced Players, The Theory of Poker, and Seven Card Stud for Advanced Players. I needed a refresher in poker I hadn't played competitively for 25 years.

LM: What are your opinions on live game strategy versus playing in tournaments.

LA: I'm glad you brought that up. I'm here (in Las Vegas) playing live for awhile because I enjoy it, it's lucrative, and there's no major tournament activity. But, when I play tournaments, such as the WSOP or The Orleans Open events which leads into the TOC, that's all I play satellites and tournaments.

LM: Is that because you want to stay in tournament mode?

LA: Yes, live games and tournaments clash. By that I mean the requirements to play well in each are different and I need to stay with one or the other. For me, it comes down to being in a groove. It may be overly dramatic, but to give you an analogy, I wouldn't want to warm up left-handed, then go out and pitch right-handed. I wouldn't be ready. In live action, your goal is to win money. You have time on your side. In tournament play, your goal is to survive. I don't care if I have three chips left or even one chip. It's life or death to me. In life you do anything to survive from calling on mental strength to taking a vitamin pill anything to survive.

We may be straying from your question, but I want the readers to know that just because you're an excellent tournament player, it doesn't necessarily make you a great live action player in fact, the best tournament players I've met tend not to be good live players and vice versa. To give myself the best chance to be successful in both, I play one or the other for a period of time.

LM: Can you discuss a concept that differs in live play and tournament play?

LA: Sure, one of my goals is to get as much money into every hand I play in live action when I'm in a pot I want to play as aggressively as hell if I have an advantage because I'm working on a favorable percentage. That thinking is totally wrong in tournament play. Even when you believe you have an advantage, the way you play a hand is based on stack sizes. While playing in tournaments, I've often said to myself, "I don't have the chips to play this hand the way I want I think I have him, but I can't afford to be wrong or I'll be eliminated." Here's another one ... I berate myself when I habitually count my chips in live action. It's meaningless. But, in tournament play, it's genius you must know where you stand at all times.

LM: You mentioned playing satellites. I watched you play a few at the Sam Boyd Poker Classic in November, 1998. You did well. What are your thoughts on one-table, no-limit satellite play?

LA: The first thing - and an important thing - is satellites are a great way to learn. In my case, I walked in to Binion's to play in my first WSOP event in 1997. I had read Sklansky's Hold'em for Advanced Players book, but that was about it. I played in a satellite and immediately realized it was a microcosm of a final table. You start with ten; then there are nine; then eight; and so on. With each change your strategy must change your chip count standing, your position relative to the big stacks, and your overall requirements to survive.

Satellites will teach you the very important art of tournament chip management ... if you let them. Another thing I take away from satellites is the knowledge of how my opponents' play in given situations. Do they understand short-handed strategy and position? That said, I usually don't play the real small limit ones because the vigorish (house take) is enormous as a percentage. But, if that's all they offer I'll play because the learning experience is so valuable. I'm a total believer in satellite participation.

LM: What are your strengths?

LA: To me success starts with discipline. Without it you can't succeed at any form of poker. Part of my discipline has been to develop one of Rocky Marciano's credos - refuse to lose. He had 49 heavyweight fights and won them all. Marciano was flat out persistent. I called on his philosophy when I won the gold bracelet in 1997. I never went on a run of good cards. I'm not a streaky or flashy player. I wanted to win so badly I could never put it into words. I felt like Rocky leaning on the ropes when I almost went broke, but I said to myself, "You're not gettin' me out of here." I refused to die. If I had a son and I could give him two - and only two - lessons about life, I would tell him to work on self-discipline and be persistent - refuse to quit.

As far as other strengths, it's hard to rate myself, but I exercise which helps in long tournaments and I'll tell you what I study mathematics and psychology. I believe that's a rare and valuable combination. I've read about Henry Ford. He had those skills. Usually the marketing guy and the finance guy are two different types. The skill requirements are polar. But, when one person possesses strength in both areas, he is generally very successful.

LM: How do you work on these skills?

LA: I read and study in both disciplines. When I play, I try to reduce everything down to a mathematical concept, then I factor in my observations. I study players and their habits. I categorize them are they conservative, do they want to gamble, are they aggressive etc. If a person is conservative by nature, that will not change in the course of play even though he's learned to check-raise sometimes. He cannot make himself fearless and I'll be able to use that knowledge -more in tournaments than in live games.

LM: How can you improve?

LA: Through experience. I continually fine tune my game developing ways to get an extra bet in at the right time or maybe save a bet when I'm beaten. One of the things that's helped me is the study of people. When I first started playing, I watched the best players. John Bonetti was the first. This is a guy whose got it in his belly. He doesn't even know how he knows what he knows. When I was in sales, we used to talk about this concept. There were some 'naturals' who you didn't need to teach they just knew how to sell. Then I watched Phil Hellmuth move his chips. Then along came Tom McEvoy and I watched him. Then T.J. sat down at my table and I didn't take my eyes off him. Watch, learn, and emulate watch, learn, and emulate.

LM: I'll ask you about luck in a general way. You take it where you want to go.

LA: That's a beautiful question. I do not generally get lucky in the sense of "Wow, he's on a rush." My luck is when I'm holding and you can't draw out or survival luck. It's there. As far as how much luck is involved in tournaments, there's a lot in one hand and very little in a four day event. That reminds me of a funny story that illustrates this point. I had just won the World Series limit hold'em event and a local television show host in Ohio asked me to come on his show. Well, he insisted we play poker for match sticks. This guy didn't even understand the simple concept of kickers. I had to point out his A-9 beat my A-4. So, of course he goes on the air and says, "Well, Lou is a world champion, but I beat him."

I believe the good players and poor players perceive luck in different ways. Given enough time, the skillful player knows how to work around this thing called luck. The weaker player actually calls upon it and relies on it. I'm hoping luck stays out of the equation. I've sat there saying to myself, "Dealer, don't give us one of these phenomenal occurrences, please." In other words, when I root for luck it's usually hold'em luck - I don't want my opponent to hit a two-card out on the river.

LM: Is there more luck in Texas hold'em or seven-card stud?

LA: Stud! Wait, don't write that. I'll say there's more volatility in stud. A bad player with a bad hand can come back more easily in stud. In hold'em you can have someone drawing slim or dead due to the use of community cards. We started by discussing aces versus kings. Well, aces are over four-to-one favorite with five cards to come. Aces over kings in stud are a much smaller favorite.

LM: In my opening I said you were outspoken. Here's your chance.

LA: (Laughs) Outspoken who, me? Well, I won't tell tales out of school because I've discussed my TOC opinions with Mike Sexton (former President of the TOC).

LM: What do you like about the TOC?

LA: I applaud Mike's hard work to bring corporate sponsorship to poker. I believe the concept of a champion of champions is terrific. The format is excellent - over three days the winner must demonstrate proficiency in four games. The 90 minute rounds permit skillful players to be patient - one of the keys to poker. Finally, the Orleans' staff does an excellent job of running the event.

LM: Where does the current President, Chuck Humphrey, have room for improvement?

LA: I don't like the expanded payoff structure. In 1999, the players voted to distribute the prize pool to 45 players - as opposed to 27. The payoff structure has remained the same since then for the most part. I've called it a "bingo" structure. The TOC is a tournament for winners, not the masses. The expanded payoff is lousy if you want to continue to attract world-class players, but it is conducive to building numbers. If the primary objective is to build the numbers and decrease the money from the top places, this is the way to go but it's not the road we should be taking.

LM: Let's say you were the Commissioner of Poker. How would you design an improved format?

LA: The first thing I'd do is establish the majors of tournament poker along the guidelines of golf - they have four events, but I think we could have five. Currently, the WSOP is our flagship tournament. The United States Poker Championship (USPC) carries a $7,500 buy in and is considered a prestigious event, but attracts relatively few players. The TOC has potential, but I see it teetering on the brink of socialism and I'm worried for it. I see a market for at least two more excellently run, high profile events. I use golf as a benchmark because the Professional Golf Association has some open events and many that you must qualify for such as the Masters where the prize pool is substantial, but the money is almost overshadowed by the associated prestige.

My idea would be to obtain a corporate sponsor such as MGM/Mirage and work directly under one of the most knowledgeable poker people in the world, Bobby Baldwin, the President of Bellagio. Bobby has the space, knowledge, decision making prowess, and financial power that we need. I'd follow in the footsteps of Jack Nicklaus. He designed and built a course at Muirfield Village as a monument to his feelings about golf. He wanted the course to be challenging to ensure that if you won there, you were playing great golf. You don't cash a paycheck at the Memorial Golf Tournament for just showing up. When I say showing up and relate it to the TOC, I'm exaggerating for illustration purposes, but you know what I mean. I'm not saying exclude anybody. We reward excellence, and rightly so. That's what capitalism is all about. If you don't open it up for a Bill Gates, you don't provide motivation for people to go out and do extraordinary things. The TOC pay schedule is simply too stretched out. The traditional payoff structure should be used at the TOC, especially at the TOC.

LM: I'll play devil's advocate and say we, the players, voted overwhelmingly to spread the prize money in the first year. I thought the attempt at democracy was innovative and welcomed.

LA: I appreciate the attempt at fairness, but I believe a House of Representatives format should be used when it comes to deciding these matters. In other words, put a person in to vote who knows how to vote. If the professional players had voted, you would have seen a 3-to-1 vote, at least, in favor of the traditional payoff system. I know that's not practical, but we're just talking philosophy now. I'll be blunt about this I believe the organizers knew where the vote was going to fall. They realized the expanded payout favors a big turnout and more revenue in the future. I'm looking for the true Jack Nicklaus to emerge and be rewarded commensurately at the TOC. I'm not talking about every tournament, just the one that crowns the champion of champions.

I recall something Tom McEvoy once told me, "In hold'em, you must continuously define your hand. It's either playable or not. If not, you must fold." As the TOC evolves, the product must be examined and, possibly, redefined. If the TOC can't be a solvent product, it should fold. The TOC is many things. It presents a great opportunity for us to change the face of poker. I commend the organizer's efforts and some of the things they have done, but, I simply see room for improvement. These are my opinions.

LM: I rest my case on outspoken. What does the future hold for you?

LA: I'm going to let my poker ability answer that question. If I remain a professional it will be because I find the game challenging, rewarding, and the poker quality of life improves. By that I mean I'm looking forward to the day when player-to-player abuse and player-to-dealer abuse is a thing of the past. I'd like to be able to sit down with a group of polished, articulate, well-behaved people.

LM: What's your favorite rock group?

LA: (Laughs) That's an easy question for me Steely Dan. I don't think there's anyone even comparable. In the seventies, if you had a potential hit album, but you couldn't play well, record companies would back you up with Steely Dan. It comes down to preference and as a former guitar player, I'm always biased towards skill. These guys outplayed everyone, including the Rolling Stones.

LM: I'm sure you'll be outplaying everyone in a big event soon, Louis. Thanks for your time and thoughts.

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