Denny Crum is still into The Cards: Coach shares his secrets to success on the court and at the poker table

Sep 26, 2006 at 8:25 pm
When he’s at the poker table: Denny Crum employs a lot of the same philosophies that set him apart during his Hall-of-Fame coaching career. This photo was taken last fall during the 2005 World Series of Poker at Caesars Indiana.    Photo by Eric Harkins
When he’s at the poker table: Denny Crum employs a lot of the same philosophies that set him apart during his Hall-of-Fame coaching career. This photo was taken last fall during the 2005 World Series of Poker at Caesars Indiana. Photo by Eric Harkins
Though he may be retired from coaching college basketball, Denny Crum remains a passionate competitor. These days, he’s often found battling across the green felt of a poker table, whether playing the World Series of Poker or in the poker room at Caesars Indiana, where the Denny Crum Poker Open tournament is running this week. A full tournament schedule can be found at; tournaments take place each day this week, with the main event starting on Friday and continuing through Saturday.
 Sporting a Basketball Hall of Fame ring, dressed in black and looking as collected as his nickname, Cool Hand Luke, Crum sat down recently to talk poker, basketball and the strategic elements that link the two.

LEO: Where’s your greatest strength as a poker player? Are you better in ring games or in tournament play? Do you have preferences for one or the other?
Denny Crum:
I do have preferences. I like tournament play the best. I’ve had some pretty good days just playing regular one-table poker games. I’m not much of a satellite player. But I think my real strength lies in tournament play. I think I do a better job — I’m probably a little more conservative in a tournament than in a regular ring game. I say that because I like to get a real good feel for whom I’m playing with, people’s tendencies. And in a live game, people get knocked out so fast, right and left, that before long you’re sitting there and all of a sudden half or two-thirds of the people you were playing with are gone. In a tournament, everybody’s in there trying to last; it may take two days or seven days to play the tournament, and I have a world of patience — that’s probably my best strength, my patience. I don’t panic. I don’t get anxious. And I don’t play many hands where I don’t feel that I have a legitimate chance to win. I don’t gamble, chasing hands. I may not have the very best hand going in, but I have to feel like I have a legitimate chance to win the pot.

LEO: Do you have a preference among limit, pot limit and no-limit poker?
I like no-limit the best, because I like the concept of being able to bet as much as I’ve got in front of me. And I like the concept of being able to call somebody that I think is trying to buy a pot. Whereas if it’s a limit game where the bets are limited to $5 or $10, or $10 or $20, you don’t have that luxury. You can’t bluff anybody for $10 or $20, and if you call those bets you don’t win very much. So I like the concept of no-limit. I think it’s the most difficult game to play, and I think the strategies are a lot different.

LEO: Do you play Omaha and stud?
I’ve played Omaha, and I’ve played stud all my life. My college roommate and I made all our spending money in college playing dealer’s choice with the fraternity brothers, and stud was always a very popular game. I used to like playing lowball a lot, but there aren’t a lot of lowball games around. I like no-limit the best, and I love tournament play. You can win or lose a lot on the first hand. You have to keep your mental focus. In the World Series of Poker, we started at noon and played till 3 in the morning the first day. That’s a long time to keep your concentration, so the week before I played 13 and 14 hours so that I’d feel like I was in a tournament, and that I could keep my level of concentration and not make stupid plays over that entire 15-hour time period.

LEO: You talked about the importance of getting a read on your tablemates. In terms of your own image, do you try to cultivate a particular type of image, as an aggressive or passive player, as a tight or loose player? And do you think your status as a well-known figure affects the way other people play against you?
I really don’t think it affects them that much. For me, the most important thing is that I feel like the longer I play, the better I’m gonna get, because the more I’m gonna know about my opponents. People have tendencies. Even those that don’t have specific tells have tendencies that you can pick up on. I watch every single hand. I want to know what a guy’s willing to call, what kind of hand he has to play. Some people will play anything. Other people are more like I am, more selective about when they’ll call or raise, or the positions they’ll play in. I want to have as much information as I can, so I like to be in a position where I’m playing behind other players, so I have as much knowledge about what other people are doing before I make my decision. I think a lot of people don’t pay any attention to their position on the table. They’ll play their cards the same regardless of position, and I think that’s a big, big mistake, especially in a no-limit game. It can really cost you.

LEO: What percentage of hands do you play in a tournament?
I’d like to be able to see every flop as cheaply as I can, but in tournament play, I probably play about half as many hands as I play in live competition. In a regular game, you can reach back into your pockets if you run out of money on the table, but in a tournament you can’t do that. If you lose your chips you’re eliminated.

LEO: Talk a bit about the parallels between basketball and poker. As a coach you were noted for developing very aggressive defenses; in poker, playing very few hands might be construed as defensive. And of course shot selection is critical to success in basketball, and it sounds as if you’re quite selective about which poker hands you play.
Oh, yeah. Absolutely. Coach Wooden did a statistical study of 20 years of his team. He expected that all things being equal, rebounding would be the difference between winning and losing in basketball, but what he found was that shooting percentage was the difference. If you take good shots, your percentage will be a lot better. Now what’s a good shot for one isn’t necessarily a good shot for another. So what you teach kids is that this is where you should be shooting from, and during your shooting drills you have them shoot as many shots as possible from those spots. We charted all our shooting drills, because a kid might hit two out of six from one spot and six out of 10 from another, and you want them to understand that. In poker, what might be a good hand to play in one position might not be a good hand to play in another. And what might be a good hand to play in a live game, might not be a good hand to play in a tournament. And I don’t gamble near as much in tournaments, because you put all your money up front, and once it’s gone, it’s gone.

LEO: So in a tournament, you’re much more conservative, and less likely to play speculative hands.
You have to be, since you can lose all your chips in one hand.

LEO: What are the attributes of a good tournament poker player? Do you think, for instance, that the ability to calculate odds is an advantage?
I don’t think calculating is nearly as important as a lot of other things. It’s something you can add to your repertoire. I pretty much can figure out the odds on a hand. I was a math major, and that’s something I think I do pretty well. But if I couldn’t do it, I don’t think it would change much in terms of the way I play. And I don’t think it would intimidate me simply because it doesn’t really make that much difference what the odds are. I lost two satellites trying to win my way into a tournament when I came to the final card as a 221/2-to-1 favorite, and lost them both. Everybody gets beat on those kinds of hands. So even knowing the odds, and being a huge favorite, you can still get beat. I think patience is really the most important characteristic of a good tournament poker player — I’ve played tournaments where I wasn’t catching any cards, and have played three or four hands in seven hours. And I think being able to recognize and adapt to changes at the table — your position, the size of the chip stacks at the table, your ability to pick up the tendencies of your opponent, your ability to stay totally focused for very long periods of time.

LEO: When you get beat on one of those hands where you’re a prohibitive favorite, do you think you’re better at responding than most people?
Probably, because I don’t get as high on the victories or as low on the defeats.

LEO: So you try to keep your emotions out of the game?
Yes. Because if you don’t, it’s gonna affect everything you do. It’s gonna affect what hands you play, what hands you raise on. I pride myself on being able to make rational decisions without emotion involved. I always felt as a coach that if I couldn’t keep my emotions out of what was goin’ on, how could I expect my players to? I wanted them to have total concentration on what we were trying to do, and if I couldn’t do it, how could I ask them to? You can’t ask players to do that if you can’t do it yourself. The same thing is true for me playing poker. I’m very disciplined about that. Even if I have some money in the pot, if I feel like I’m beat, I’ll throw my cards away.   

LEO: What about when things look pretty grim — when things aren’t going your way and it looks like you’re close to being eliminated from a tournament? Do you think your coaching experience helps in those situations?
Mental discipline is really important in those situations. It’s something I’ve learned over the years. I remember playing Duke for the national championship. They had a point guard named Johnny Dawkins who took all their last five-minute shots. We had a special defense set up for him, and at the beginning of the second half we were behind. My assistants wanted me to put in that defense, and I said, “No, it’s not time.” “Well, we’ve never been ahead in this game. We need to get ahead.” I said, “We only need to be ahead at the end. We don’t need to be ahead at the start of the second half.” You have to be ahead at the end, so with about eight minutes to go, we told Jeff Hall to stay between wherever Dawkins was and the ball; if he doesn’t touch the ball, he can’t score. And during those last few minutes it shook them up, they couldn’t get him the ball, and we won. The timing has got to be right. You have to wait until the right time, and even if you’re low on chips there’s a time and a hand where you have a better chance of winning, and you have to wait for the right moment.

LEO: You play poker all over the country, as well as here at Caesars. How do you think the local players stack up?
We have some very tough players here. Lots of these guys are good enough to play anywhere in the world.

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A glossary of poker terms
Satellite tournament: Small, typically single-table tournaments where the winner earns the buy-in for a larger, more expensive tournament.
Ring game (aka “live game”): Conventional poker game played with real money (or chips), where players buy in and cash out at any given time and the game lasts an indeterminate amount of time; in tournament poker, players purchase “tournament chips” with no cash value at the beginning, and winner(s) are determined through a process of elimination — players are eliminated as they lose chips.
Omaha: A variation on Texas Hold ’em, where each player receives four, rather than two, hole cards.
Lowball: A version of poker where the lowest-ranked hand wins.
Flop: In Texas Hold ’em (and Omaha Hold ’em), a hand begins with each player receiving two (or four) hidden hole cards, also called pocket cards. After a round of betting, three community cards, known as “the flop,” are dealt face up, and a round of betting ensues; next, a single community card, known as “the turn,” is dealt face up (with another round of betting), followed by a fifth and final community card, called “the river,” after which final bets are placed. All players use their hole cards in conjunction with the community cards to form the best possible poker hand.