Photo provided by FullTilt Poker
Competitiveness runs in the family
His parents had a predilection for games of chance and initiated their children into a number of different card games – mainly because they saw this as an opportunity to spend more time together as a family. At the many heated family battles, Howard’s competitive nature was encouraged by his father. Usually parents let their children win, but Howard still believes that his father never lost to him on purpose – This way Howard was taught early on what it means to fight for a victory. It was also his father, the author, teacher, and linguist Richard Lederer, who first introduced him to the game of poker that would later become Howard’s lifelong passion.
In his younger years, Howard was more fascinated by chess than by poker, however. His love for the game was so intense that at the age of eighteen he decided to move to New York, known for its great number of chess clubs. He enrolled at Columbia University and was soon a regular at most underground gambling clubs. It was in the backroom of one of these clubs that Howard discovered poker. He was so taken by the game that he did not do anything else for two years but play poker – 70 to 80 hours a week. He played all night, barely slept and lost a lot of money. He earned his nightly buy in by running errands for other players.
Fascinated by Texas Hold'em
Howard’s unhealthy lifestyle finally caught up with him and he realized that playing all night was not helping his game. He slowed down, got more rest, and finally saw his results improve. He started playing at the Mayfair Club, a renowned Bridge and Backgammon Club and legendary home to some of the best players in the world. Here, Howard was playing only amongst world-class players and became part of the elite circle who were the first to experiment with no-limit Texas Hold’em, then virtually unknown in New York. A poker day at the Mayfair usually began at four in the afternoon and would continue until two in the morning, when the players would retire to their favourite bar to talk about the night’s events and discuss poker. No-limit Texas Hold’em was new to all of them but, like a kind of study group, they brainstormed strategies and gave each other tips, making a continuous effort to improve their game. Besides Howard Lederer, the early members of this group included poker legends such as Dan Harrington, Steve Zolotow, Jay Heimowitz and Erik Seidel.
In the late 1980s, Howard started tutoring his sister Annie Duke and helped her improve her poker game. Annie would play poker during the day and then come home at night to discuss game strategy and iron out all the kinks in her game play with Howard. Annie proved to have talent and the questions she posed became more and more difficult for Howard to answer. He encouraged Annie to go to Las Vegas and try her luck at the World Series of Poker (WSOP). Howard’s intuitions about his sister’s potential turned out to have been correct – Annie Duke is one of the women who cashed most at the WSOP. She has even managed to knock her brother out of several WSOP tournaments. At the 1995 WSOP, Howard and Annie wrote poker history as the first brother and sister duo to make the same final table in pot-limit Texas Hold’em.
Moving to Las Vegas
It was in 1987 that Howard took part in the WSOP for the first time, where he placed thirteenth in limit Hold’em and fifth in the no-limit Hold’em main event. At the 1988 WSOP he was able to make it to the top ten twice. In 1991 he won the “Annual Diamond Jim Brady” tournament in no-limit Hold’em.
In 1993, Howard decided to take his game to the next level by moving to Las Vegas. He started participating in cash-games and no-limit Hold’em tournaments with high buy ins and soon made a name for himself on the professional poker circuit. Howard worked very hard on perfecting his game. In 1994 he won his first “Hall of Fame” title by winning the $ 2,500 no-limit Deuce to Seven Draw tournament at the 1994 “Hall of Fame Poker Classic”, and also was able to defend this title the following year. Up until 2000, Howard took part in numerous World Series of Poker tournaments and finished amongst the top ten at most of them.
At the 2000 WSOP, Howard was able to fulfil the great dream he shared with most professional poker players: by eliminating poker celebrities such as Chris “Jesus” Ferguson and Allan Cunningham, Howard won his first WSOP Gold Bracelet in Omaha Hi Lo.
One year later, at the 2001 WSOP, Howard continued on his path to success and won his second Gold Bracelet, this time in no-limit Deuce to Seven Lowball. 2001 was not just a lucky year career-wise, Howard also found private joy in his new marriage to Suzie Weiss.
The following years, Howard travelled from tournament to tournament and, apart from the WSOP, took part in numerous renowned poker events. In 2002 he placed fourth at the L.A. Poker Classic, second at the “Hall of Fame Poker Classic” and won the Poker Finals of the World Poker Tour (WPT) Season 1.
2003 was also a successful year for Howard. He won the “PartyPoker Million II” No-Limit Hold’em tournament at the WPT Season 1, as well as the "Five-Star World Poker Classic WPT Championship Season 1" in no-limit Hold’em. He also made it to second and third places several times.
In 2004, his tournament results were quite notable: two victories at the "Five-Star World Poker Classic WPT Championship Season 2" (no-limit Hold’em and pot-limit Omaha), a second place finish at the heads-up limit Hold’em tournament, and a third place finish at the WSOP limit Razz
Howard Lederer was also very active in online poker. He was a member of Team FullTilt and contributed to FullTiltPoker’s “Learn from the Pros” section by providing commentary and analyses. Each week, he also spent a minimum of ten hours playing poker and chatting with players on the website.
He also founded the Howard Lederer Poker Fantasy Camp, an internet website on which users can play against and learn from poker professionals. Furthermore, Howard Lederer has released a DVD called “Secrets of No Limit Hold’em” and works as a commentator for a poker show.
The poker professor
Howard plays a very analytical and tactical game. This scientific approach, along with his exemplary conduct at the poker table, has earned him the nickname The Professor. In an interview he mentions how surprised he was when he was first called The Professor: he does not actually hold a PhD – or any other University degree, for that matter. Somehow, the name does suit him though and it has grown on him:
“…Somehow the description does make sense, because I do have an analytical and somewhat academic approach to the game. I enjoy teaching others – seeing as I come from a family of academics I seem to have inherited this ability from my father. To be honest, I didn’t really like my nickname at the beginning, but now I’m comfortable with it.”
Another attribute befitting a “professor” is Howard’s calmness and level-headedness on the felt. Nothing ruffles his feathers, not even a major bad beat (losing despite holding an excellent hand). Howard explains that this as an ability that did not come to him naturally at first but one he had to work on hard; at the beginning of his career, his temper had been far from the calm and composed nature he exhibits today. Now, having sat at countless final tables and in front of hundreds of cameras, he has experience enough to know never to reveal his weaknesses at the poker table. Of course, he still gets nervous from time to time, but he now knows how to mask it. Naturally, this requires mental strength and experience and, according to Howard,
“…Even today I still lose my composure – but when I do I don’t show it. Don’t get me wrong, when I’m sitting at the final table and I am as calm as I would be reading the newspaper at breakfast, then that’s not a good thing either. Even bad beats should hurt a little bit, however you need the mental strength and experience to be able to tell yourself that this hand should not bring you off course. Don’t let it affect your game.”
Only once did Howard Lederer get aggressive at the poker table, when Daniel Negreanu made inappropriate remarks about his sister Annie in 2000. But this fight with Daniel has long been forgotten, emphasizes Howard. Although they are not the best of friends in private, they give each other all due respect at the poker table.
Tony G. is another fellow poker professional that Howard would not exactly call his best friend. At the 2003 World Poker Tour “Grand Prix de Paris”, Howard refused to shake hands with him after Tony had eliminated him from the tournament – not because Tony had beat him, of course, but because of Tony’s extremely obnoxious behaviour. Compared to Tony G.’s verbal outbursts though, Howard’s reaction was fairly harmless.
Howard’s advice to beginners is to play aggressively, a tactic that has helped him a great deal. It is, of course, also very advisable to visit the poker schools that are offered by many online pokercasinos such as William Hill Poker or to work on your playing style using poker strategy programs.
The most difficult decision Howard so far has had to make over the course of his poker career was at its very beginning, at the WSOP final table:
At the final table, 22-year-old Howard Lederer was up against Johnny Chan, who was chip leader by a long way. Howard was holding a pair of threes and raised from the button. Chan called and the flop revealed J-9-2, two of these cards being diamonds. Howard and Johnny both checked. The turn brought a 4; still, there were two diamonds on the board and Johnny bet. Howard knew that he had the better hand and was sure he could provoke a bluff, letting Johnny believe he was playing the draw. So Howard called and the river brought another 4. Just as Howard had suspected, Johnny bet approximately $ 50,000. Howard called and won with his pair of threes.
This is what Howard has to say about this experience:
“…It’s not that I thought: I am better than Johnny Chan. It was this hand though, that showed me that I could take someone on. Looking back I think that this experience really helped me move a considerable step forward. It gave me the self-confidence to play this way against the best players in the world.”
Poker and Zen-Buddhism
Howard describes the game of poker as a form of art, much like archery or swordsmanship. To be able to learn and perfect such an art, it is important to harmonize body and spirit and understand the process one goes through to master it. To achieve this, Howard began to engage in Zen Buddhism. The Zen teachings helped him gain clearer insight into the learning process each true poker player must go through in the course of their development from being a beginner to becoming a master of the game. They also helped him get through some critical moments at the poker table.
On his website, Howard describes the four basic phases that a beginner goes through on his way to becoming a master poker player under the heading “Poker and Zen”:
Grasping this concept is one of the most difficult lessons to be learned in tournament poker. Howard soon realized that the more he forced himself to focus on the present moment, the less he succeeded. To overcome this hurdle he developed his own Zen-based form of “poker meditation”, which helps him focus by relaxing.
This is what Howard has to say about his professional poker career:
“I have started to walk the last ten miles on my poker journey, and I am prepared for that walk to take the rest of my life.”
According to Howard, there is no overall best poker player. As the “best cash-game player of all time”, he names the late poker pro David “Chip” Reese, who passed away only recently (04.12.07) at the age of 56. Stu Ungar had been the best no-limit tournament player according to Howard, although he had not been a very good cash-game player.
Andy Beal vs. The Corporation
One of the highlights of Howard’s career was winning against the banker and multi-millionaire Andy Beal. Along with several other poker stars (Doyle Brunson, Chip Reese, Todd Brunson, Jennifer Harman, Chau Giang, Barry Greenstein, Ted Forrest, Gus Hansen, Ming La, Phil Ivey and Johnny Chan), Howard was a member of the infamous group called “The Corporation”. The purpose of this collective was to pool all their money together and challenge banker, millionaire, and well-known poker player Andy Beal to a game.
Howard and the other members finally had accumulated 10 million dollars to go up against the mathematical genius Beal in a heads-up matches at the Wynn in Las Vegas. After two weeks the “Corporation” had lost everything. Following a one week break though, Phil Ivey played against Beal non-stop for three days and won back all of the 10 million dollars, plus an additional 6.5 million. After this spectacular downfall and the loss of 16.5 million dollars, Andy Beal pledged never to play poker again.
This legendary match, surrounded by much speculation, fascinated the poker world while the media desperately tried to get at information – without much luck. The “Corporation” operated very secretively and made sure that little news was made public since they challenged Beal in a private match. But then again, they could have just played in a private establishment, rather than using the private rooms of a famous casino. It was their very secretiveness – and not quite unintentionally, it seems – that captured the public attention.
The match “Andy Beal versus The Corporation” went down in history as the highest stakes poker game ever played. American author Michael Craig even wrote a book called “The Professor, the Banker and the Suicide King: Inside the Richest Poker Game of all Time”. The Professor referred to in the title is – of course – Howard Lederer, Andy Beal is the banker. “The Suicide King” refers to the eccentric and at times ruthless player Ted Forrest but it also designates the king of hearts because on some cards it looks as if this king had rammed his sword into his head.
Away from the poker tables
It seems poker talent runs in the Lederer family; even Howard’s sister Katy has been engaged in poker, although not as a player but as an author. In 2003, Katy Lederer published a book called “Poker Face: A Girlhood among Gamblers” in which she describes the transformation of her siblings Annie and Howard from “normal” New Hampshire private school kids to professional Las Vegas gamblers with millions in their bank accounts. This book is not just aimed at poker players though, but it also has a lot to offer artistically. Another well-known publication by Katy Lederer is her collection of poetry, “Winter Sex”.
When not at the poker table, Howard Lederer likes to spend time at home in Las Vegas with his wife Suzie, his son Mattias and his three dogs. He enjoys watching good movies, plays golf, and goes to concerts a lot. His favourite movie is Stanley Kubrick ’s “Paths of Glory”, but when asked about his favourite celebrity he replies that he is not particularly star struck.
If he could change anything he wanted in the world, he says he would end poverty.
Howard also likes to play basketball and regularly goes jogging to stay trim. Because he suffered from weight problems, he underwent gastric bypass surgery to combat his obesity. Before the operation, Doyle Brunson lovingly used to call Howard “Bubba” but when he lost a lot of his weight as a result of the operation, Doyle shortened the nickname to “Bub”.
As Howard had to change his diet after the surgery and lead a healthier lifestyle anyway, he decided to become a vegetarian. This resolution turned out to have been a good choice, seeing as it earned him lots of money a couple of years later: during a game at the Bellagio, David Grey, one of Howard’s poker colleagues bet him $ 10,000 that he would not be able to eat a hamburger. Although Howard was a convinced vegetarian and had not eaten meat for years, his gambling instincts eventually got the better of him: He ordered a cheeseburger, ate the whole thing – every last crumb – and took the $ 10,000 off Grey.
Another much talked-about bet revolved around Howard’s eating habits once more, around his weight, to be precise. Backgammon pro Mike Svobodny bet Howard and his poker colleague Huckleberry Seed $ 100,000 ($ 50,000 each) that they would not be able to reach the same weight within a year. At that time Howard weighed 140 kg, while Huck Seed only weighed 90 kg. Both of them lost their bet: while Howard hardly lost any weight at all, Huck actually lost even more weight trying to bulk up.
Without a doubt, Howard is one of the most remarkable personalities of the professional poker world. Other poker players could learn a thing or two by taking Howard’s role-model behaviour and attitude as an example.
Either way, it means a great deal to us that this wise and spiritual poker professor is willing to pass on little bits of wisdom and lets us take part in his journey towards becoming a poker master.
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