The Los Angeles area boasts dozens of top-flight poker leagues – including the L.A. Rounders circuit, Moose and Puffington, to name a few. But even in that crowded field, the Silver Lake Rounders poker league stands out as special. Founded in the mid 00’s by Nelson Handel and currently run by savvy tournament director David Hatfield, Silver Lake Rounders is a player-friendly environment with remarkable camaraderie and support that borders on a family home game. Many of SLR’s core group of players (about 30 men and women) have been regulars in the league for over five years and attend monthly tournaments with the consistency of the sun rising in the East. One of its members, Matt Salsberg, is a 2012 World Poker Tour bracelet winner.
If a casting director was looking for someone to play the role of a seasoned tournament poker player, it would be difficult to find a guy with better credentials than John Romano, who’s been a dominating presence at Silver Lake Rounders since 2006. A New Jersey native, Romano’s booming voice, quick wit and outsized personality make him a showroom type player. If he were a big-name competitor, any TD would gladly put him at a front table to juice the game. He is often sitting next to an enormous mountain of chips, and it’s a given that he’ll wind up near or at every final table.
In 2009, John began making regular trips to play tournament poker in Vegas, often at The Venetian. Every year since, he has increased the frequency of his visits and consistently runs well in the $400 - $600 deepstack tourneys he prefers. Romano does not consider himself a professional and says he plays the game for fun and the competition. That caveat aside, the term “professional poker player” was surely invented to include anyone who plays for money and consistently finishes ahead. Romano rarely plays cash games, enters about 40 tournaments a year and still turns a profit. Semantics aside, the dude is a pro.
Acrossthefelt recently sat down with John Romano to discuss strategy and how he approaches the bigger field deepstack tournaments.
ATF: How long have you been playing poker?
JR: I've been playing on and off for a long time. I discovered online poker first because it was everywhere. I just got caught up in that. It was a few years before I actually played live. The first live tournament I won was a $48 entry at Treasure Island in Las Vegas. I beat a bill collector heads up with something like Q-9 against A-K. That alone was enough to make me realize how cool of a game Hold'em was. Now, I think back to the online days (before the poker prohibition) and I was always getting rivered in some sick beat. It seemed impossible to bluff anybody. Sometimes I’d take the full amount of time on the clock just to irritate people.
ATF: How many days/hours a week do you play?
JR: I play as much as I can, unless I hit the wall, which happens every six months or so. Then I take a month or two or three off. Training for tournament poker is like preparing to compete in any other sport. My whole poker year is based around being in sync with the game around June.
ATF: If someone is walking in off the street into a casino tournament like the Venetian Deepstack, what do they need to be thinking about on Day 1? What are your tips for survival early on? What mistakes does a player need to avoid?
JR: For me, Day 1 is the easiest day of the tournament. It depends on the structure, but most big tournaments have a very player-friendly opening day. The Venetian Deepstack events have 40 or 60 minute levels with 15k stacks. Day 1 is basically designed for good players to survive. The key is to realize you have plenty of time to play. Even if you get knocked down as far as 25% of your original stack, with the blinds still relatively low, you can battle back. A player might look at their tiny 5k chip stack and then glance at the growing stacks of 25k or 50k around them and get nervous. I've played tournaments down to one big blind. I didn't come back to win, but you can go much further than you think. Patience and experience play a huge role.
ATF: Once you’ve paid your entry and the cards are finally in the air, if you’re dealt A-A in early position on the first hand, are you ready to ship it right there?
JR: A-A in the first hand? If you raise pre-flop and someone goes all in, you should be ready to risk it all if necessary. Of course, if you slow play A-A on the first hand of a tournament and the flop is 8-5-2 and the big blind immediately goes all in, you better fold.
ATF: Let’s say that you’ve survived Day 1 and are bagging up your chips. Do you log your hands or discuss situations you were in with anyone else to compare notes? Do you look at the things that worked and didn’t work to adjust strategy, or is it more of an autopilot thing?
JR: David Hatfield (TD at SLR) is someone who I discuss strategy with often. We have very distinct and different styles. He is much more analytical than I am, so I like to hear his perspective on the game. If you can make Day 2, you are usually down to 1, 2 or 3 tables. By then, you have your seat position, chip counts for your table and the Internet player databases like Hendon Mob and Poker Pages where you can see if you are dealing with experienced players or newbies. When David and I have analyzed things, a lot of times we are talking about where the tough players are and where the bigger and smaller stacks are located. You can look at stack size relative to the blind structure and see who might be shoving light and who might be playing big stack bully.
ATF: Since you are playing shorter levels at these, where do you draw the line between having patience and playing too tight?
JR: Hatfield and I talk about this often. We agree that sometimes the typical strategy of shoving light late in a tourney before you get below ten big blinds can get you in trouble. Patience pays off, but only with other relatively short stacks around you. Instead of any medium ace in early position, you might wait for a bigger ace or a pocket pair of at least 5-5 before shoving. By the time you start Day 2 in a mid-sized tourney, it is pretty late in the game, so there is a lot of volatility. With so many chips moving around, you give yourself a higher percentage of cashing by waiting.
ATF: How much of your play is by feel and how much is crunching numbers? You have a lot of success. I would think you have the math down. If a “feel” player can only remember simple math at tourneys, what do you recommend?
JR: If a player has a rudimentary understanding of pot odds and knows the basic chances of completing a hand they can do well. Study up on those things and you'll be good. Pot odds is the most important concept but you don't have to be a professor at it. If you are playing late in a tournament, at the 5k-10k level, and have only 40k in chips in the small blind with 7-3 offsuit, and five other players flat call, it might be worth it to complete your small blind for 5k! The math is simple, 5 players plus your small blind, plus the big blind equals 13-1 odds. The odds over time favor experienced players who look for "odds mistakes" and take advantage of them.
ATF: What are your best recent tourney results?
JR: Last month, I placed 10th in one of the Venetian Deepstack events. But an experience I won’t soon forget happened in a $600 Deepstack at the Venetian during the WSOP last year. On the third hand of the tournament, I made a huge mistake and donked off 90% of my stack. I sat there for the rest of the day and resolved not to play anything but A-A, K-K, Q-Q and A-K suited. I cashed in 21st place in a very big field. 12 hours of play and not once did I have more than an average stack. Actually, I was under ten big blinds for at least six hours that day. So far, I've yet to win a large tourney, but that’s what all of this hard work is about.
ATF: What casinos offer the best structures?
JR: I prefer playing in Vegas far more than anywhere in Los Angeles. I like the Hustler in LA best. It’s a tad smaller than other rooms, but is run very, very professionally. I also like Commerce Casino. In Vegas, I hit the Venetian, Wynn, Caesar's and Bellagio.
ATF: It does seem like you make a lot of trips to Vegas to play. How many times do you go out per year? Is it just you on a plane, like the traveling businessman with his schedule all planned out?
Photo: David Hatfield
JR: I play poker in Vegas seven or eight times a year, usually around the Venetian's Deepstack events. The hard part comes when you aren't playing poker. Besides the obvious temptations, Vegas is a very lonely place to be solo. I stay in touch with friends quite a bit via Facebook and the phone when I'm there. Being from L.A., the commute to Vegas is easy. I don't think I'd go very often if it was a ten-hour drive instead of four.
ATF: Sounds like you really enjoy the deepstacks in the $400 to $600 range. Do you practice formal bankroll management?
JR: These days, I’m concentrating more on smaller buy-ins and playing more of them, at least 40 a year. I don’t practice any specific bankroll management. I keep the numbers in my head. But I have been treating it more like a business every year and my results continue to improve. When I play Vegas, I do less of other things and even more of poker. Instead of automatically staying at the Venetian, I will go up the street and get a half price room at Treasure Island because I’m more aware of expenses. But yeah, the $400 to $600 tournaments can offer an insane return on investment. The Rio has these tourneys going on at the same time as the WSOP. $200 buy-ins, 20 minute levels and first place walks away with 31K.
ATF: How much of your time is spent playing tournaments as opposed to cash games?
JR: When I first started playing poker I rivered a full house in a cash game at the Imperial Palace in Las Vegas and ruined this guy’s day. Ever since, I've gravitated toward tournaments. You beat a guy in a tournament you knock him out. In cash games you can take some dude’s rent. Not exactly how I like to play. I do play cash in Vegas from time to time and I tend to play fast loose and aggressive. Cash players use so many skills; it’s great to step onto the killing field of a cash game to tighten up my short game. Cash, to me, is more like a sprint, while tournaments are long distance races. The WSOP Main Event is the ultimate test. With tournaments, everyone starts with equal chips. A tournament is a sport. It’s about the passion of the game. I equate tournaments vs. cash games like sports vs. money.
ATF: How do you handle the boredom that can come from 10-12 hour days at the tables?
JR: I don't get bored. Sometimes impatient, no doubt, but I always love playing. Music helps. On rare occasions, I'll have a few beers depending on the game. Tournament poker is hours and hours of sitting and folding. You’ll go from doing nothing for an hour, to all of a sudden, it’s like somebody flipped a light switch – now you’re on and the light is on you. A minute later, the light switch is off and you’re back to standby mode. You have to be able to mentally flip back and forth like that.
ATF: When you sit down at a table with a bunch of players you’ve never seen, what things are you looking for to clue you in on their playing traits and typical hand ranges?
JR: Really, I focus more on a players betting style than hand range. Figuring out how much pressure can be applied to an opponent is very helpful. I always tell novice players to fight back when they are pushed by more experienced players. Don't go all-in unless you have the goods, but don't be afraid to raise a more experienced player when they bet into you. It matters.
ATF: All players go through periods where they are completely card dead and must steal here and there or their stack will evaporate. What situations are you looking for to do this?
JR: Timid players are great to steal blinds from. Especially if you have a lot of chips or haven't played a hand in awhile. It really comes down to being in any situation where your opponents are least likely to think you are bluffing.
ATF: Care to share any thoughts on how and when to bluff? Without giving too much away, how often do you do it and how do you do it around players you’ve never seen?
JR: Bluffing is a huge part of the game when used sparingly and effectively. It is an art and it’s about opportunity. I equate it to trying to meet a pretty woman at a party or night club. You have to move. Ten minutes later, she can be talking to a different guy, with friends, or she’s left the party. Bluffing is the same way. When the opportunity to bluff arises you have to be bold, brash, and resolute. The longer I play, the more bluffing becomes an innate skill. In any case, you can't bluff too much or eventually you'll have no chips. If you don't bluff at all – you'll also eventually have no chips. As long as your bluff isn't an all-in, what is there to lose? The best part is when an opponent knows you are bluffing but can't bring themselves to call and find out.
ATF: I notice that you seem to play a lot of hands and will check/call frequently to see another card. That can be expensive. What happens when you miss in these situations?
JR: Poker is a game that is meant to be played. So many times players get hung-up on waiting for A-A or K-K. Conversely, other players don't wait at all and treat each hand like a lottery scratch off that can't be folded. The trick is to play a lot of hands to keep your opponents off balance. At the end of the day, when you call a final bet on the river, you want your opponents to be surprised at whatever hand you turn over.
ATF: The best players seem to know when they are good, even if bottom pair is enough to take down the hand. What reads can you rely on with players you’ve never seen before?
JR: I play a lot of hands to the flop and turn because I want to mask the fact that I'm looking for the golden hand. For instance, I raised 3x the BB in a game last week with 6-7 offsuit. The flop came rainbow 4-5-8. I destroyed a player’s night with that hand. He kept betting and I kept raising. Finally, on the river I went all-in and he folded. Unfortunately for me, the river was a king and I'm sure he put me on K-K or A-A, so he folded, but he was weakened greatly. The only reason that gambit worked is because I folded ten other hands after the flop or turn. Really, playing before the flop is simple math. You have great cards, you go in. Or you bluff with bad cards to set a player up for later, but the game of poker actually begins with the flop.
ATF: Everyone cringes when a couple of maniacs join a table and immediately begin 6x raising every hand pre-flop. Nits are easy to deal with. But how do you handle the drunk kamikaze guy to your left who seems to be the evening’s luck box?
JR: Try and call as many hands as reasonably possible against such a player, because when you hit they are guaranteed to go all-in against you. Six-timers don't usually last to the end, but they tend to create a lot of carnage on the way. Sometimes they just keep steamrolling, but eventually they overplay their hand and get knocked out in most cases.
ATF: Are there certain players who you will avoid playing pots with?
JR: No. Some people I find harder to read than others, but the trick is making sure you never let on that a certain player bothers you or has your number, so to speak. Avoiding becoming the target is very important, unless you want someone to focus on you. Playing dumb in poker is a great way to take someone's entire stack if they aren't careful.
ATF: I know that one of your favorite subjects is bubble play strategy. For a lot of players, this would be a good problem to have because they seldom get that far. Do you punish the nits who just want to cash?
JR: Playing the bubble is the most important part of the game of poker. Fear plays a huge role in how players approach the bubble. I've learned that the bubble is to be ignored as best as possible. Given that fact, yes, you need to make the timid pay, because getting through the bubble as fast as possible is very important.
ATF: If your stack is short, can you really do anything else but shove/fold? In other words, what stack size relative to the blinds is that point where you draw the line that this is a ship or fold as opposed to risking a portion of your stack?
JR: If you are very short stacked, under ten big blinds, with say, three players left to the bubble, you'd be shocked at how many hands you can play before having to go all-in. I've been in games with ten big blinds on the bubble and watched players with 35 big blinds crack and go all in with 2-2. The key to bubble play is accepting that you may go home inches from cashing, but if you play strong on the bubble you can set yourself up to win the tournament.
ATF: I like the description you gave to this. You call it the “active bubble” stage.
JR: I've noticed over the last few years that the more active a player is as they approach the money bubble, the more chips he/she has once the bubble bursts. If you are ridiculously short-stacked, then hang on and hope your opponents die on the field of battle around you. If you have chips, take advantage of the fact that many players will sit on the sideline. This was reinforced to me the hard way in a recent Venetian tournament. I mellowed my play to guarantee a cash and it hurt me greatly after the bubble burst. The big stack to my right was drinking Johnnie Walker Blacks as if he was on leave from the Navy. Had I had chips, I would have been able to take advantage of the situation. Since I had cooled it for so long in order to make the money, I was in double-up mode for hours. I finished 9th on the day, but could've done much better.
ATF: I’ve been at a few final tables with you and I’ve noticed you’re not averse to gambling. Sometimes there will be large fluctuations in your stack – way up or way down. Are there any tips you can give to tighter players for loosening up and letting the cards fly? It’s a lot harder than it sounds for some players.
JR: Many players make the mistake of confusing playing a lot of hands with going all-in. Look, if I have $100,000 chips and the blinds are $2000-$4000, what is the difference, really, if I get knocked down to $60,000? The blinds are only going to go up, so you need to play the game. Remember, the more you play, the better chance you have of trapping a player and taking their whole stack. If you were at a final table, who would you fear more? The loose guy playing many hands who rarely goes all-in, or the tight player who plays one hand out of fifty? It's the guy that is going to raise your big blind every orbit that is the troublemaker.
ATF: Is it psychologically easier to risk more at lower buy-in events?
JR: Loosening up is a function of bankroll. I never play a tournament where I couldn't laugh off the entry fee. Last month, I lost the third hand of the $400 Venetian Deepstack when I ran into the situation you asked about earlier. I had A-A and raised to $500. A player raised to $1600. I raised it to $3500 and the player went all in. It was pretty clear to me that he had A-A, K-K, A-Ks or was just a bad player. I’m ahead pre-flop in every case unless I run into A-A and then, it’s the old statistical tie. So the choice of calling an all-in is obvious. In the end, his K-K beat my A-A when a king hit on the flop. Had the entry been $4000, I may have either folded – a bad move – or been upset at losing so much money. $4000 is peanuts to someone else, but to me, it would make me uncomfortable enough to affect my play. If someone else were funding me, it would be a different story. I'd make sure the backer understood that I'd go all-in early if need be. Currently, I max out around the $600 range. Someday that may change, but that’s where things stand now.
ATF: What are the 3 worst mistakes players make at casino tournaments?
JR: Being too timid, too aggressive, or too dumb. I think that pretty much applies to every other human endeavor as well. I've been all three at different times in my life, and as a poker player. I've also been valiant and made calls, in poker and life that people thought were terrible, but I had a great read on the player/situation and cleaned up.
ATF: Ask any player the hand they remember best from a tourney and it’s the hand he/she got knocked out on. A typical problematic hand when it’s late in a tourney and you have 10-12 big blinds, is middle pair, like 7-7 in early position. Limp with other callers and you probably have to hit a set if there is any paint on the flop. Raise to 3x and you risk a shove back over the top with the guy who woke up with J-J. Go all-in and you may well run into two callers and only be 33% in a 3-way pot. How do you play marginal hands like middle pair or A-10, Q-J, late in a tourney when short-stacked?
JR: A-10 late in the game is a far preferable hand to 7-7 in many ways because of the reasons you just spoke about. The key is having a range of playable hands and positions in your head that you don't deviate from. If you've decided that you will only play A-A or K-K late, then you need to stick to that. If you've been playing 4-5 suited with some success, you have to stick with that range until you make the conscious decision to tighten up. Once you know what hands you are willing to play in any given situation, the rest is easy. Me? I fold 7-7 in first or second position short stacked almost anytime. A player with a monster stack will easily play Q-8 suited if it comes down to the two of you and I really don't need to end the game with 2-6-8 on the flop, you know?
ATF: While we’re on the subject, what hands and situations give you the most trouble?
JR: Sometimes I can get into trouble if I get too many K-J's or A-Q's or A-10's in a row. There is another couple of hands that I have problems with, but I'll keep that to myself for now. LOL.
ATF: What do you think are the major breakthroughs a poker player must make to advance their game to higher levels?
JR: Learning the mechanics of the game is the first step. Patience and aggression are next and finally, the last and most important step is conquering one’s fear of the bubble, or put in layman's terms, beating the fear of failure. Humans work harder to avoid loss than they do to make gains. It’s a theory known as "loss aversion,” and the research backs it up lock, stock, and barrel. I’ve never been much for strategy books but one incredibly useful one is Mike Caro’s Book of Poker Tells because you can use it every single time you play in any environment.
ATF: You get to see a fair amount of talented players. What is the difference between a decent, solid player and a great one?
JR: Great players have conquered "the bubble" and have less fear than other players. This may sound simplistic, but the only way to beat a great player is to play a lot of hands against them without letting them bust you. A great player has the ability to shift gears and isn’t afraid to trust his reads with everything on the line. By the same token, he’s difficult to get a read on and isn’t afraid to risk a lot of chips to apply pressure. And he is capable of laying down big hands when the situation calls for it.
ATF: Here’s my last question. If you could sit down and play a charity tournament against the pros you’ve followed and admired the most, who would be at that table and why?
JR: Daniel Negreanu, Phil Ivey, Ben Lamb and most of all, Phil Hellmuth. I'm very curious how I'd react to his tantrum routine. I hope I get to find out some day.