One, he’s a riot. The “singing cowboy” never fails to entertain. His Elvis impersonation is also worth the cover.
Two, he’s clearly a selfless, caring guy, promoting charities like the Wounded Warrior Project and making friends wherever he goes while on tour.
Three, he’s a player. The former actor started out working as a dealer and playing $1.00/$2.00 limit back in the mid-’90s at Hollywood Park Casino. He slowly worked his way up to the higher stakes, a move aided in part by his marriage to another pro, Marsha Waggoner. After a few years of grinding he finally won an event at the Hustler Casino in 2002, then made an amazing 18 final tables in 2003. He finished second in the WPT 2005 Legends of Poker (a $5K NL event), has cashed in nine WSOP events, and is currently in second place in CardPlayer magazine's Player of the Year points race.
So the funny man making friendly and goofing around at the other end of the table is more dangerous than he looks. The main reason why I bring him up, though, is that after hearing him interviewed on a couple of podcasts recently (Ante Up! and CardPlayer's The Circuit), it turns out he’s also someone who despite all the clowning is remarkably articulate when it comes to describing what makes a good poker player. I recommend both interviews. The Ante Up! one (which appears in the episode titled "The guys celebrate a year together") is probably more full of yuks while the Circuit interview contains more practical wisdom. Three pearls that James casually drops while laughing with Scott Huff, Gavin Smith, and Joe Sebok on The Circuit are . . .
1. If you find it difficult to move beyond Sklansky and loosen up as a player (e.g., starting hand selections, semi-bluffing, etc.), try not to think of what your doing as “loose” but rather as “creative.” If being creative is not one of your strengths -- in poker or in life -- find someone who is creative and try to emulate that person.
2. Like creativity, empathy is another desirable quality for a poker player. Remember, empathy simply refers to identification with another’s situation or feelings or motives. (People often confuse empathy with sympathy, which refers to sharing another’s feelings -- e.g., feeling sad when someone else feels sad. Indeed, on the show the group repeated this mistake and laughed about “feeling sorry” for your opponent just before you crush him.) James explains that if you can identify with your opponent’s situation, you’re going to be better able to make reads at the table. Ask yourself what factors influence his decision when trying to interpret his or her actions. Again, this is something one can work on in one’s non-poker life as well.
3. Writing about poker is another way of becoming a better player. James talks about how when he writes about “the basics” or “the fundamentals,” describing even the simplest aspects of poker to an audience, he is not simply writing to other people but is also writing to himself. In a way what he’s saying is analogous to the axiom that there is no better way to learn something than to try to teach it to someone else. Such advice rings true, I’d imagine, with anyone keeping a poker blog. We write about these things to share them with others, but also to sort them out in our own muddled heads.
As both Sebok and James point out late in the interview, whenever James talks about poker he’s always also talking about people and relationships -- all that he professes about the game proves that for him improving as a poker player also means improving as a person. A lot going on under that ten-gallon hat, I’d say.
Photo: courtesy PokerNews.