Q&A with Michael Craig

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How’s life on the lam?

To quote Thomas Hobbes, “nasty, brutal, and short.” Seems it was a thousand years ago when I told readers of my blog with a confident attitude, “You can call me Mint Jelly, ’cuz from now on, I’m on the lamb.” There is some lag between when I’m writing these words and when you’re reading them, but I’ve given up the fantasy of a life of European capital, expatriate stealth and exotic beauties with strange accents (as well as strange beauties with exotic accents) for my wife Jo Anne, my kids, my dog, my office, my bed, my pen collection and all the comforts of home.

What inspired your PayLamb epiphany?

When I suggested the possibility to readers of the Full Tilt Poker Blog that I would start a payment processor named “PayLamb,” I was motivated by several things: (1) The real-world problems that Full Tilt has in this legal environment − and, necessarily, that its customers have − getting money to and from Full Tilt accounts; (2) being a payment processor is one of the world’s most lucrative businesses imaginable; (3) the irony that the U.S. government’s messed-up, ambiguous position on online poker is costing it a fortune in tax revenues and costs citizens the extra assurances that federal oversight/regulation/acknowled gement would provide; and (4) I just flat-out love saying, “You can call me Mint Jelly, ’cuz from now on, I’m on the lam.”

How many of your family or friends actually thought you were serious about PayLamb?

At some point, just about everyone believed me. Jo Anne and I were laying in bed one Saturday morning and I asked her, “For $20 million, would you leave the U.S. with me and never return?” I was speaking purely theoretically and hypothetically, but in marrying me she’s signed up for some pretty strange twists and turns over the years, so I had to repeatedly assure her I wasn’t actually going to do it. My mom reads the blog and so I told her about the story before I left for London (where this whole scheme hatched and appeared in the blog during the second half of September) so she wouldn’t freak out. I forgot to tell my dad, who also reads the blog, and I found out he was very concerned. A friend of Jo Anne’s who reads the blog was concerned. At least one of my friends confronted me and said, “You’re not freaking serious, are you?”

If you were serious about being a payment processor, could you succeed?

Everything I’ve done I’ve succeeded … eventually … at some level. But I’ve usually failed along the way, too. And sometimes I’ve bailed out before starting if I learned it was hopeless. Any and all of those could have happened if I pursued it. On the other hand, becoming an online-poker payment processor is an almost unprecedented opportunity. If the government gets its act together, Visa, MasterCard, and American Express are going to own this business in a few years. It’s like starting a bank − a completely unregulated bank that needs almost no physical assets, hands money from one party to another and takes a fee for doing so, is a monopoly or near monopoly, and bears almost zero financial risk. What’s so hard about that?

What’s the answer to online poker’s troubles in America?

I think poker is going to win in the long run, and online poker’s opponents can do it the easy way or the hard way, their choice. The easy way is they recognize poker is a game of skill, that it can’t be regulated exactly like casinos (which are regulated at the state level and this probably has to be federal, which puts the feds in a new area of regulation, which is always tricky), but should be regulated because (a) some federal oversight could assure that minors aren’t playing, all financial transactions are above-board, and the government can work with the sites on making it tougher for players to collude and abuse accounts and screen names; and (b) the government’s cut of the action for giving online poker a pass is billions of dollars.

Or they can do it the hard way, which is to keep posturing without taking much action, which allows online poker to lurch on, without the feds getting money and online poker getting someone to help separate the honest from the dishonest. Until one day … at some point, the government will put its heavy boot down, like it always does − like it did with Billy Baxter, like it did with the Computer Group, etc. − and arrest someone and act like they just brought down Osama bin Laden. But this “someone” will fight them, at a cost of potential personal ruin, and win. Then we’ll all know online poker is legal and the government is operated by idiots. The government will probably start taxing but not regulating it after that, and some people and businesses will be ruined in the meantime.

As a blogger do you find it difficult to write about poker all of the time?

I would have been prepared to bet a lot of money that when The Professor, the Banker, and the Suicide King was published in June 2005, that was the last I’d ever write about poker. As much as I loved that experience and as much as I love poker, I never considered myself a “poker writer” and, though I’ve clearly written about little else since then, I’ve never been completely comfortable about it. If you look through my blog’s archive, you’ll see some of my best stuff (in my subjective opinion) has been divided among traditional poker stories and stories having nothing to do with poker, like my wife’s fight against breast cancer, the burdens of owning the world’s most expensive dog, and my daughter running away from home.

Do you have to run topics such as PayLamb past Full Tilt before you write about them on your blog?

I don’t have to run anything by them and I rarely do. I didn’t mention PayLamb to them. Usually, if I communicate with them about such things, it’s about what I’m NOT writing. For instance, when there are stories about some kind of cheating at some other site, you could argue that I SHOULD be writing about it. The forums are going crazy, everyone in online poker is talking about it, it ought to be in my wheelhouse, a bunch of people would read it, etc. So I’ll drop one of my many bosses a line and explain why I’m not writing about it. My reasoning: no matter what I write, I’ll be accused of either (a) condemning Full Tilt’s competitors, kicking them when they’re down, or (b) being an apologist for online poker, which employs me.

In general, I’m out of the loop at Full Tilt, which is how I like it. I’m not kidding myself: I’m not doing Woodward & Bernstein stuff and this blog isn’t the Washington Post. It’s a come-on to get people to play online poker. But at the same time, I feel separate enough from the organization that I can write what I want and even occasionally complain about how Full Tilt does things. I’ve never been to their offices, I have no idea of their management structure; I don’t know how they operate any of their business. I’m fine with that.

You’ve experienced the World Series on two continents. What are some of the differences?

World Series of Poker-Europe is, in a few respects, how I imagine the World Series felt during the ’80s, when giants such as Al Alvarez and Anthony Holden were writing about it. Intimate events loaded with tough players.

When I played the H.O.R.S.E. this year, my starting table had David Benyamine, Barny Boatman, Jens Voertmann and Layne Flack. That’s three bracelets just in the 2008 WSOP! (Florida’s) Vanessa Rousso joined the table later. Flack got moved … and David Williams took his place. The play was intense, the atmosphere friendly.

But I think Harrah’s is really hitting its stride with the “Vegas” World Series of Poker. They are learning to accommodate the huge events that the market is demanding, and also providing a variety of games and buy-ins so the same high-rolling, experienced crowd at my H.O.R.S.E. table can play a $5,000-$10,000 buy-in event in H.O.R.S.E., or mixed hold’em, or the split games and mostly duke it out amongst themselves.

Now let’s move on to your poker career. You recently won the Sunday Mulligan tournament on Full Tilt for more than $47K, your biggest cash. Can you take us through a tough spot or turning point and how you worked your way through it?

Not long before, I had won a similar tournament on Full Tilt − $50,000 Guarantee, also with about 1,000 players − so my memories crisscross. They also had some things in common and are contributing to my improving understanding of the dynamics of late-stage online tournaments. In general, I think the players toward the end of the tournament are either waiting for big hands or chopping. I’m learning the chopping game. I already play more aggressively than most other successful online tournament players − I probably play two-three times as many hands as, say, Jon “PearlJammer” Turner. Now I’m focusing on cutting risks, switching up, getting paid off on big hands, flat-calling raises in position and stealing on the flop, and especially how to keep from losing big pots.

For instance, I’m developing a theory that I haven’t seen anyplace else and originally struck me as counter-intuitive. The big problem with having a good stack (and I pride myself on being a good short-stack player but I typically succeed in online tournaments as a front-runner) and playing aggressive is that you encourage short-stacks to move-in against you. Then you’re stuck with the odds to call them with mediocre hands. I’m starting to think it may be BETTER to have short stacks to your right and big stacks to your left. Assuming the big stacks are solid, conservative players (and not maniacs like me!), I can get away when they give me action, even allowing me to “steal” in early position. And by being after the short stacks, I reduce the chances get getting action I can’t get away from.

Editing the Full Tilt Poker Strategy Guide and writing the Professor the Banker and the Suicide King certainly had helped your game, but how much of your results do you attribute to developing your own style?

I think if I had merely READ the Strategy Guide − several times, closely − and played as much online poker as I’ve played (1,500-2,000 tourneys a year), I would be a winning player. The lessons sunk in extra-well because I was helping present them but it’s not like I got a lot of extra instruction that’s not in the book. There’s some great advice there. It formed the foundation of my game and, with a lot of experience trying it out and experimenting in online tournaments, I’ve made it my own.

How would you describe your style?

In no-limit hold’em? Before the antes kick in, I want to see a lot of flops, look for ways to win big pots, maybe “pose” a little as a loose player but I’m really looking for ways to get someone’s entire stack, especially when I can do it after the flop. After the antes, I want to be the player who brings the action. (This is generally not the case if I have a short stack, though.) No matter what position I’m in, I’m looking to raise if no one’s in the pot. And if someone’s in the pot, I’m looking for situations to flat-call in position to hit a flop or steal on the flop. My template is “I’m doing it unless …” The “unless” is what I learn about the players: who defends their blind a lot and who doesn’t, who might be looking to “put me in line” for raising so often, whose stack size do I have to worry about (loose big stacks, tight small stacks), who’s not playing with me unless they have a big hand, who’s folding their way to the money, who can give me trouble later in the hand (it’s only here that I start evaluating my own hand in this process − my nightmare is raising with 7-6, getting called, hitting second pair, and then having to sort through an all-in situation), and all the other ways I try to take the temperature of the table every hand.

Do you bluff much?

I try to semi-bluff a lot. Big bluffs don’t work that much online − a lot of guys will call with anything and figure there’s another $75 tournament starting in 15 minutes if they’re wrong. But I’m always looking for situations − weakness by opponents, the texture of the flop − where I can get away with one.

Was there a breakthrough point in your tournament career, one where you went from small cashes and average results to more consistent cashes and a big score now and then?

There wasn’t one particular time. I think I just keep accumulating experience and improving, especially in situations late in tournaments. I’ve definitely gotten better at managing the downside of the aggressiveness game, better at dealing with reversals of fortune, and especially better at playing a short stack. In one of the Sunday $750K Guarantees on Full Tilt, I lost a giant pot (trips over trips) and was left with just 48 chips. We were still 200 from the money and I didn’t even have enough to post the full ante, which was 50. They paid 500 spots and I finished 64th. Obviously, you need a certain amount of luck there. But you also need patience, an even temperament, and good judgment.

And finally, do you ever miss practicing law and what would it take to get you back into a courtroom?

If you ever hear I’m back in a courtroom, it’s either because I’m in big trouble because someone’s sued me, or I’m in big trouble because I have to return to law to make a buck. I loved practicing law, but that was then. I love what I’m doing now − which is NOT practicing law − even more.