Interview with Matt “Hoss_TBF” Hawrilenko

Matt “Hoss_TBF” Hawrilenko
Matt Hawrilenko in 2009 after winning Event No. 56 at the WSOP for $1,003,218

Matt “Hoss_TBF” Hawrilenko is one of the top limit and mixed game poker players in the world. He regularly played in some of the highest limit games online, as high as $2k/$4k and was a Full Tilt Poker pro. In February of 2011, Hawrilenko's most successful month, he won an amazing $1.7 million, dominating the 2-7 Triple Draw games. Despite being an online cash games specialist with millioPns in profit, in 2009 he added a WSOP bracelet to his resumé, winning the $5,000 buy-in Six-handed NLHE event for over $1 million. Hawrilenko was born in Massachusetts in 1982 and currently resides in Boston.

Note: This interview was conducted on July 17, 2012

Interview with Matt Hawrilenko

Hey Matt, thanks for taking the time to speak to me. How are things at the minute?

Things are great. I'm currently staying with the in-laws in Calgary, which I do every year as my post-WSOP detox. It's very clean living here, lots of vegetables, and anyone who doesn't work out at least twice a day is frowned upon.

Haha sounds good, and like a far cry from Vegas.

Yeah no neon, and there are bulls, but none of them are mechanical.

Nice. So how did you feel your World Series went this year?

Every year I go into the WSOP recognizing that the median expectation is to be down money. I had my chances this year, but the big hands didn't really go my way. I was chipleader with 15 left in the $2500 8-game, then lost a huge pot with rolled up queens versus David Baker's split tens. I made queens full and he made quads. I busted out of the 10k 6-handed with jacks versus jacks and busted out of the main event with a straight versus a set. So much of it is just variance.

All three hands would have gone nearly the same way, save a bet or two here or there, if I had held the other guy's hand, so it's really just variance. Sometimes that variance just happens to look uglier than others. Besides poker, it was a great year.

For the duration of the WSOP you stay in an amazing pad that you call "Math House". Who stays there with you and what's that like?

So it's every year that a bunch of friends and I rent a house. Bill Chen, Jerrod Ankenman, Terrence Chan, Gavin Griffin, and a few other really great, really smart players whose names aren't quite as well known. It's always a ton of fun, a ton of really nerdy fun.

For when things don't go so well, does it get everybody down, or is it nice to get sympathy from others who go through/have been through the same?

I think there are a few things going on that make the house so great. First off, I think we all set our expectations appropriately. We've been playing poker long enough and understand tournaments well enough to expect to lose a little money each year. I don't think anyone has really unrealistic expectations any given year. For the most part, save maybe busting out of the 50k or main event, we're all pretty even keel. We also make pretty good bankroll decisions, so we're all well-enough rolled or savvy enough that one bad year at the WSOP isn't really going to affect anyone, and I think that helps us maintain a pretty even keel throughout. Finally, we're all really close, so it's almost like a balanced portfolio. I had a crappy year, but I got to watch Gavin take 2nd at a final table, got to watch Terrence chase Evdakov's cashing record (Terrence had like 8 cashes with 2 weeks left in the series), got to watch Bill make the final table of the 50k, and I got to see THREE people from our house in the final 18 of the 5k LHE. At this point, these guys' victories are my victories. It's just so fun to see good friends do well.

Aww, that's really nice to see, that it's camaraderie and not jealousy or competitiveness.
So after the Main Event you tweeted:

"So ends my last tournament as a pro. With grad school on the horizon, I'll see you all next year, but I'll be the guy folding on the bubble." (@hoss_tbf).
That's obviously kind of sad for the poker world. Tell us a bit about that decision, and was your disappointing series part of that decision, or were you planning to go anyway?

Sure. Well, I've never wanted to play poker forever. The plan was always to make some money while pursuing other interests and figuring out what I wanted for the next stage. Don't get me wrong, I've loved poker, made some of my best friends here, but for me, it's important to be involved in the world around me and make my own small contribution in some way. This is not at all a value judgment by the way, it's just personally important to me. So for the last few years, I've had a growing interest in psychology and I'll be starting a PhD program in the fall. I started dipping my toes in the water a little less than a year before Black Friday , figuring any transition from poker would have to be measured rather than cold turkey. It's REALLY HARD to find something better than poker with the income and flexible lifestyle it allows.
Hah yes poker can be an ideal job when it's going so well.

So I started by taking a few classes, reading a bunch on my own, and volunteering in a lab doing clinical research at Clark University, which is close to where I live, in Boston. I absolutely loved the lab environment, the collaborative atmosphere, and am really excited by a lot of the research problems facing psychologists now. In fact, it actually reminds me of how poker was about 8 years ago. There is a real dichotomy between researchers and practitioners, just like when I started in poker, when the overriding sentiment was that "math guys" would never be any good because the simple, clean math doesn't apply to the real complex world of poker. Fast forward to now, and the language of all the top players is the language of game theory, distributions, bluffing ratios, etc.

There are some amazing clinical psychologists out there, but studies show the vast majority of practitioners don't use evidence-based treatments. I think there are a number of reasons for this, and I also think math guys can really help move the research forward, so I think exciting stuff is on the horizon. So no, the disappointing series definitely was not part of the decision. In fact, when Black Friday happened [April 15th 2011], I had a real decision. I'd been having an amazing year in poker thus far, but simultaneously getting more involved in the research of my lab. I had to decide whether to move to Canada or continue to deepen my work in the lab. It seems like it should have been a hard decision, but it was completely obvious. At some point, you just have to say: "okay, I've made enough to live the life I want, I'm done." This is much easier to say when you actually have figured out the life you want to live :).

So when you chose not to move abroad after Black Friday, was it just because you wanted to do more studying? Or was it to do with anything such as there being fewer high-stakes games these days and games getting tougher?

Well I'd actually been getting a ton of action playing heads up Triple Draw, and while I don't like to discuss numbers, [a lot of the results can be seen in our results section] it had been going really quite well. But I had taken on more and more responsibility in the lab and realized it was a place I wanted to end up. It's insanely hard to get into clinical psych PhD programs these days, particularly for someone with as little experience as I had.

Don't get me wrong, games are definitely getting tougher, but it's funny, the more success I had in poker the less motivated I was to continue working hard at it. Things were still going quite well, but I think I have a pretty realistic understanding of what it takes to succeed at the top level: and what it takes is working really hard.  The games are getting tougher, the top guys are all so sharp, and if you're not willing to work to improve at or above their rate, it's only a matter of time before you fall behind. I don't really want to put myself in that position.

When I left my job in finance a few years ago, my boss at the time gave me some of the best advice I've ever gotten. He told me: "Poker is a bubble. Hit it for all it's worth now." And it was true, I really feel that at the time, there was nowhere else you could earn as much with relatively little skill and little "effort". Not a lot of people had looked at poker in a game theoretic sort of way, so there was some low-hanging fruit. There isn't much low-hanging fruit anymore, and the marketplace is crowded by smart people. So while things were going pretty well for me, I suspect that it has a limited lifespan, and I think edge in the toughest games is probably getting smaller every day.

At a certain point, you have to question what you really want out of life. For me, it's not just to keep making money. But you have to be *really convinced* that the alternative to poker money is pretty darn good. I got lucky enough to find something else I feel passionate about and want to spend my time doing. By the time I applied to grad school, it wasn't a tough decision, it wasn't a choice, it was just the obvious next thing. I'm still young enough where I can build a real career as a researcher, and just *so* excited to be doing it. Don't get me wrong, I completely respect everyone who wants to play poker for their whole lives. There's a lot of flexibility, good money, and many of those people are able to make really valuable contributions to the world. Personally, it's just not the best lifestyle for me :).

Fair enough, some good advice there and good luck with it all.
What plans did you have for the future of your poker career then, and what plans do you have for it now?

Right. Well, when I started playing professionally, the dream was to make a bunch of money and find something I wanted to spend my life doing. It was a little overwhelming to figure out what that might be, since in four years of college I certainly had not figured that out. It was really a relief to find it. Some of my best friends are still in poker, so I'll always be tapped into this world, and I like the poetry of coming back to the WSOP again just the way I started: as an amateur. So I will be back, and I will play events, but I won't be as good as I am now and I will make decisions that reflect that. Poker is a honed skill, not an innate talent or ability, and I have no illusions that there is something special about me that will let me continue winning at high stakes once I've stopped developing that skill, or once that skill has rusted.

So my plans are to go grad school, hopefully become a professor somewhere, and maybe play a few WSOP events every year. I want to be wholly immersed in the academic lifestyle, and the amount of effort it would take to be able to win in games that would be worth playing would preclude that.

Right, so even after grad school, other than the WSOP, that's pretty much it for you and poker? Sounds sad! No part-time cash games just as a hobby or anything later in life?
And so would you say that you are now retired from poker?

Just the opposite: poker will again be how it started, fun. Fun, socializing with friends. I wouldn't want to play poker part time for income. Frankly, I've done well enough that I wouldn't really feel it worth my time to play mid-limits, and as I mentioned, I don't envision myself putting in the work required to do well at higher limits. But I will certainly play, I will certainly make trips to the WSOP, and I will of course remain close to my friends in poker, many of whom I imagine will still be crushing games well into the future. I have budgeted the next 7 years of grad school projecting no income other than from investments and the 17k a year I'll make for being a teaching assistant :). I think that makes me retired?

Heh yep sounds pretty retired to me. But wow, good to hear that you're all prepared then, and that we'll still see you at the WSOP.

Just don't make fun of me when I suck!

Haha of course not, I'm sure you at your worst will still be better than most people's best! So your retirement kind of went under the radar a bit, was that intentional?

Well, I haven't really been vocal or tried to be in the media very much throughout my career. Whenever it's happened I guess it's been more incidental. I've been talking to my friends about it for a while now, so I don't think anyone who was close to me was very surprised. But generally I'm more of a "keep your head down and grind" sort of person. This may be particularly true when it comes to poker.  I've always tried to advertise my losses but be silent about my wins because it's easier to get action that way.

Ah, clever. Could you tell us a bit about how you started in poker and progressed through the games and stakes?

Sure. I started playing a bit online towards the end of my junior year of college. That summer, a friend and I both worked in Washington DC. We found our housin say g online at the last minute - literally 24 hours before we moved down - and ended up in a neighborhood where we didn't want to leave the house after dark. I think in the first week there were 5 gang shootings. There was a bum who liked to hang out on our lawn. So we started playing online a bit.

Hah wow, what a great reason to play online instead.

The next year, I played a little through college and got a job at a finance firm founded by former poker players.  I won a main event seat after I got the job but before I started working. The owner of the company found out about it and invited my wife and I to fly to Vegas with him on his private jet. That jet is where I met Bill Chen, who worked (still works) for the same company.  We found out we had a lot of the same ideas about poker coming from slightly different points of view (his was more rigorous).  So we started collaborating, and I really learned how to think about poker from Bill and Jerrod Ankenman (who co-wrote The Mathematics of Poker), and I've been working with those guys ever since. So like everyone else who started at that time, we started with Sit N' Gos.  I remember one world series, Bill and I just started talking a little about limit hold 'em, and we started talking about concepts that you might take from some of these toy games (games that resemble poker but are smaller and easier to solve) and how they map onto the real game. So we played some hold 'em, did some work, played some hold em, etc.  I ran really well in the beginning, probably moving up from 10-20 to 300-600 in a little under a year.

Wow that's really fast, was that all by playing online?

Yeah, played all online. Actually that World Series was 05. I remember because I was still working for SIG (the financial firm) at the time, and a few days before the WSOP, the partners called me into a conference room and asked if I wanted to take the next 6 weeks off to go play the WSOP with Bill. We flew out the next morning!  So that first year, I shared a room at the Rio with Bill Chen, for 6 weeks. And I can tell you, for people who stereotype Bill with whatever stereotypes you ascribe to math geniuses, you are WRONG!

Haha. He likes to party then?

It's funny, because I'm not much of a partier at all, I hate strip clubs. Bill made me go with him once, and when I finished hiding in the bathroom, I came out to find him solving a theorem on the back of a cocktail napkin.

He claims he does his best thinking in such environments!

Ridiculous and amazing. Do you have an example of the toy games?

The simplest toy game would be the Ace-King-Queen game, where there are three cards in a deck, each player antes 0.5 unit, and there is one betting street where the first player is forced to check, the next player can bet 1 unit or check behind, and then the first player can call or fold.  This is obviously a very restricted game and you can solve more complex versions of it, but this game gives insight into what hands to bluff with (ie, never bluff a King because worse will fold and better will call), and teaches you that you need to balance your value bets with bluffs (if you only bet aces your opponent can just always fold kings).

You soon see that since you always value bet aces, the frequency with which you bluff depends upon the size of the pot. You can solve other versions where you manipulate the size of the pot, allow check-raising etc, but it's most directly applicable to the "nuts or nothing" situations we sometimes see in poker.

There are a whole bunch of different versions.  There's another game called the (0,1) game where each player antes a unit, then is dealt a random hand between 0 and 1 (i.e. you could be dealt 0.9, which would beat 0.85, etc. They represent the x-th percentile of your distribution), and you can map the results of this game onto figuring out how strong hands you should value bet, how weak you need to be to bluff.  So for example, if you solve a version of the game, you might find that when checked to, you should value-bet your top 20% of hands, and bluff the 10% of hands at the bottom of your distribution.  Game theory is largely about reading your own hand. If you know, given your actions, exactly where your precise hand lies in the distribution of hands you could have given your actions, you can then figure out how to play it.

So put concisely: the idea of game theory is to craft a strategy such that the very best your opponent can do, if he plays perfectly, is to break-even against you. You have perfect ratios of value-bets to bluffs, and are value-betting and bluffing with exactly the right hands in the right spots (e.g. the hands that stand to gain the most from bluffs are the very bottom of your distribution, which can win *only* by bluffing and never by showdown). If you do this, the hope is that your opponent doesn't play perfectly and sort of impales himself on his own mistakes.  In trying to play this way, I've found that opponents can vary their play wildly trying to adapt to it, and oftentimes they make things worse for themselves. Trying to craft such a distribution is an endless process, but one of the great things about it is that it's a systematic approach to poker, you always know how to answer questions and you always have a path to follow to make your strategy better. This is in contrast to read-based poker where players may have a whole bunch of different tactics that they employ in different situations. Game theoretic poker is more of a cohesive unit, where everything fits into a grander vision of the game, and all of the pieces move together.

Leading up to Black Friday, you had some epic 2-7 Triple Draw battles at $1500-3000 with "FishosaurusREX"/ “oogee”, when he was probably considered the best in the world for it online at that time. You seemed to advance very quickly, to the point where you were beating him. How did you manage to get so good in what seemed like just a couple of months, and what was it like to go through those $100-200k swings each day?

Well, I've played a lot of $1k/2k and some $2k/4k limit hold 'em, so I try to bankroll myself such that I'm not thinking of it in terms of dollars. I mean, yes, 100k or 200k is a lot of money, but when it's in the context of an appropriately-sized bankroll, it's just 50 or 100 bets.
A few things about triple draw: one, it is pretty accessible to game theory, and people had been saying this to me for a while. Eventually, I looked at the game with Bill and Jerrod and I think we figured out some pretty cool ways to think about it from a theoretical standpoint - just getting a sense of how aggressively to draw, etc. From a practical standpoint, at some point I sort of had a light-bulb moment about how triple draw maps onto hold 'em, and how there are a lot of plays you might make in hold 'em that have analogous plays in triple draw - different ways to balance bluffs and value bets. Triple Draw is in some ways a combination of hold 'em and stud. It's like hold em because you don't really know your opponent's hole cards and like stud in that there is some degree of asymmetric holdings (e.g. in stud your board might show a pair of kings and your opponent might only be able to be drawing to a flush or something), and that is represented by the number of cards you are drawing. In hold 'em, there are many situations in which you and your opponent may hold symmetrical distributions (eg, you are both equally likely to have AK or something), but in TD, you see that asymmetry where one guy is drawing 1 and the other is drawing 2, so you sort of have these automatic actions.

Some of those plays for example, like a raise on the turn/2nd draw in position as a river blocker?
Not even the play necessarily, as much as how some triple draw spots might map onto hold'em spots, appropriate ways to balance really strong draws with really marginal draws, ways to ensure that value-betting and bluffing ratios are consistent *throughout* the hand rather than at just one particular street. Sorry, I don't want to get any more specific about strategy than that but suffice to say, there was definitely a light bulb moment where we sort of figured out how the whole game could fit together the way hold'em does.

And so I guess summing up: I was pretty surprised how quickly I moved up too! I think we may have thought about triple draw slightly differently than other people did in the past, so I ended up doing some stuff that looks really weird/bad to a lot of the regulars who may have sharpened their games in a way different from us, but similar to each other. Some really good triple draw players may still be convinced that I'm the worst ever :)

The same thing happened when I first started playing heads up hold 'em by the way, everyone was convinced I was the worst ever because I played a little differently. Eventually I won enough and they stopped giving me action, then a lot of other people's games started to look more like mine. I don't know what would have happened with triple draw had I continued playing - maybe they would have been proven right that I am the worst ever, maybe they would have quit me.

Do you mind saying a rough amount that you have stuck on Full Tilt Poker?

A large amount that fortunately won't really affect my life, but I would still nonetheless very much like to get back.

You once described heads up limit hold 'em as "the ultimate skill game, and lots of fun", and it was your main game for a while, yet you didn't play it almost at all in the last couple of years. Why was that, and would you encourage others to get into playing it?

Well I got no action - literally fewer than 1k hands/month - for like 2 straight years. The only guy who played me in that time was Phil Ivey, and who really wants to play Ivey in ANYTHING? In that time, I learned other games, which were pretty interesting to me. At the same time of getting no action, I felt I was getting worse. I could only be declining, while other people were playing a bunch and improving. It seems like it would be hubris to just jump in with smart guys who are getting action, working hard, and getting sharper every day.

And you didn't want to drop down in stakes?

I doubt I could have gotten action and no, I've made enough where below a certain hourly rate just wasn't worth my time. Besides, I was doing pretty well in the big mixed games!

Frankly, a lot has been published about hold 'em, I wouldn't be surprised if there were poker bots out there now. In fact, I'd be surprised if there weren't. Whether or not these bots can play with the best players yet I don't know, but if they can't, they will be able to in the not too distant future. So I'd encourage others to play if they want, but be cautious. 3-handed is much safer!

Yeah I'm sure you know about the bots and "teams" of limit bots that there were a while ago, but I think a lot of work has gone in to try and ensure that they don't stay around online now.

I'm not optimistic about keeping bots out of heads up games. I believe the sites will work hard at it (and take this with a grain of salt because I'm not really a computer guy), but ultimately, I think there's too much money to be made and technology is progressing too rapidly to keep heads up games safe for a prolonged period of time. I hate to say that because I love, love, love heads up poker and think it's the best form of poker, and I hope I'm proven wrong.

I mean, I think some games are safer than others.  Games like 2-7, where you see a lot of cards and your actions depend on those cards (also makes it a very hard game to data mine), will be safer in the short-term, I think, whereas heads up limit hold 'em is definitely the easiest point of entry for a bot. But as the game tree gets bigger, it gets much harder for bots (hence 3+ handed being safe for a long time to come).

So you said how you approached 2-7 TD in a much more mathematical game-theory way than others, similar to hold 'em. You also seemed to get proficient at the other mixed games quite quickly. How did you improve in them so fast, and did you try and use a similar approach for them?

The way I fine tune all my games is actually pretty simple. The biggest concept that comes from game theory is the idea of reading your own hand. So many poker players are primarily concerned with figuring out what their opponent has and reacting to it. The problem with this, to paraphrase Cornelius Fudge when he was asked why you couldn't just use magic to stop the bad guys, is "The other side knows magic, too". In poker, this translates to a levelling war of "he thinks that I think that he thinks that I think" etc. Game theory rejects this. Whenever I have what feels like a tricky spot, I ask myself, "Where am I at in my own distribution?" (e.g. what is the whole range I could have of the actions I've taken this far). If I'm near the top, I value bet/raise. If I'm at the bottom, I bluff. If I'm in the middle and pondering a call or fold, the decision is probably close and doesn't matter too much EV-wise. If my distribution seems unbalanced, I can go back through the hand and figure out where I went wrong, or figure out where I might be going wrong with other hands that I could hold in that spot, so, oftentimes when I'm trying to figure out how to play one hand, the solution I come too is that I played this particular hand fine, but I should be playing other hands differently!

I saw you playing a SCOOP event when that was running, what else have you been doing poker-wise over the last 14 months until this year's WSOP?

Almost nothing. The only play I put in was at the inaugural Epic Poker League event, and a little bit of play online for the few weeks I spent in Canada around Christmas time.

During a WSOP event you tweeted:
"38.9k eod. Great feeling after having 9k all day and running a 3 barrel required by game theory where I was sure opp would call (he folded)."
That sounds like an interesting hand, could you elaborate what you meant by that?

A big thing you take from playing a game theory-based style is that for the most part, you should only try playing "exploitively" in the really close EV decisions. When I'm at the very bottom of my distribution, I always bluff. Playing this way, the first thing you find out is how often your reads are wrong! I've bluffed in so many situations that I thought were hopeless only to see my opponent snap fold. Generally speaking, if you think it's a close decision EV-wise, you don't need a very strong read to change your play. As the decision becomes more and more clear against an unknown opponent, you need much, much stronger reads to deviate from playing a well-balanced game. By all means, if you have a read where you are 100% sure you know what the other guy is going to do, that's strong enough to go with in any situation. However, you need to be as realistic as possible about how good your reads really are. To do this, you need to constantly seek out disconfirming evidence, because we are predisposed to remember the times our reads were right. I think the toughest players do a great job of noticing and remembering the situations where their reads were wrong.

One great way to learn this skill is to simply always, always, always bluff the bottom of your distribution. The idea that game theory is only for long-term situations, and that if you're never going to play with someone again you should do whatever you want, is a HUGE misconception that's held by a lot of players, including a good number of players who are much better than me. A situation is either plus-EV to bluff or not. If it's the highest EV play, you should make it. If it's minus-EV, you should NEVER do it. If you make decisions thinking, "well, we're never going to play together again, so I can do whatever I want and I don't need to bluff here," you are not only losing expectation that one time in that one spot, you are doing it in many spots like that again and again and again. And this means that you're not bluffing enough and you're losing money because of it. You're not bluffing just so the other player knows you bluff and will call more when you have good hands, you're bluffing because if he doesn't call enough, you win that too. Balancing plays aren't made just so you're scary, they're made because they let you win against all sorts of opponents: the ones who call too much, the ones who fold too much, etc.

Well put. And finally, what advice would you give to players in a similar situation as yours, where they might be trying to decide between taking up poker full-time or staying in/going back to school?

As far as school is concerned, I think I'm best suited to give advice to people who have done well with poker and are trying to figure out if they want something else. I've seen a few top players try to make unsuccessful transitions out, and I think I learned from that and tried to do things differently. The way I did it was that I made sure to do it slowly and methodically. I didn't just jump cold turkey from poker to a desk job. I considered a few different options, volunteered in a few capacities, and when I realized that clinical psychology was it, I slowly increased my psychology load and decreased my poker load. It's not a decision that I think anyone could make all at once. Playing poker, we might move up limits quickly and be used to making big decisions in short spans of time, but I don't think that should really be the case for life-path decisions.  If you are going to give up something great, you better be sure you've built something better to take its place.

Good advice. Well thanks again for taking the time to talk to me, and good luck with everything in the future!

Thanks for the interview, I enjoyed it.

As of November 20th, Matt is still enjoying his studies. Read more of our interviews with high stakes poker regulars in HighstakesDB's player interviews.


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