Alex Millar Interview – Beating The Online Poker World
Hey Alex, thanks for taking the time to answer these questions and being open to discussion. I have to mention that you are the first one who agreed to discuss even controversial topics and even encouraged to ask the tough questions. It shows a lot about your character and makes for a more interesting discussion, so I am very excited to get this going.
Alex Millar: No problem, looking forward to it!
You are known as one of the biggest cash game crushers ever, but you have managed to keep yourself under the radar for quite a long time. Can you share your story about when you started playing and how all that looked?
Alex Millar: Sure, I started playing for fun at university, just freerolls and $5 tournaments etc. After playing a fair bit over the last 2 years of uni, I had built up a few thousand dollar bankroll and took a year out after university to play before starting a job.
During that year, I moved up from 50NL and 100NL to playing 2000NL and maybe a bit of 5000NL so I decided to keep going with the poker rather than take the job!
I built my roll on party poker and was mostly playing there for quite some time, so I was less well known by the people who played stars and full tilt. After a while, I started to put some money on those sites and particularly started to play a lot of HU there, which went well. I guess that was when I became a bit more well known amongst people who follow online poker.
Why did you decide to start playing cash games instead of MTTs?
Alex Millar: I actually mostly played MTTs at university. I think I mostly moved to cash games because there were people playing mid-stakes at my uni and they seemed to be making loads of money so I thought I’d give it a go.
It also then seemed a bit more of a stable income if I was doing it full time for a year, rather than the huge variance you get with MTTs, with so much of your income depending on how good you run in terms of getting the really big scores.
After a year of moving up the stakes in cash games and it seeming like I could make a lot of money playing them, it didn’t seem worth serious consideration to move back to MTTs at that point.
When you decided to take poker more seriously, what was your biggest motivation to get better? What helped you improve at such a steady pace?
I’m pretty competitive in general, so not enjoying losing has always been a pretty big motivation to improve.
I will say that not wanting to look like a prat probably helped in that first year as well. You can imagine that after graduating university, most of my friends were going on to pretty decent jobs and the thought of getting asked “how’d the year playing poker go?” all the time and having to shuffle my feet, look down at the ground and mumble about it not going quite as well as hoped was a pretty decent motivation to try to make it work!
If you had to pick one as your favorite format, not considering the profitability or availability of the games, would it be 6-max or heads-up, and why?
Alex Millar: HU, I think. I always enjoyed the battle of HU and being able to focus on one opponent. It always bothered me a little bit playing 6max that I knew I could do better if only I had the time to do a more in-depth analysis of all my opponents.
Even though it’s the same for everyone and you can still beat the games very nicely with solid fundamental play and by doing more opponent analysis than other people, it still always felt like I was leaving some money on the table. HU I could play a session vs. someone and then spend 8 hours going over every detail to improve my strategy vs. them next time we played.
I think many poker players are very interested in the high-stakes world but do not have much knowledge about the details. Can you share what winrates you had while playing high stakes like $25/$50+, and what do you think best players have in today’s games?
My lifetime winrate at 25/50+ was around 4bb/100 over about 1.3-1.4m hands.
Bear in mind that I always played in the toughest games, playing a lot of hands HU with the best players in the world, and a lot of hands starting games with 2 or more of the best 6max players in the world so I’m sure there are many people who game selected harder with much higher win-rates.
I was also never the best in the world. I don’t think, so I’m sure that there are some people who also didn’t game select much who had higher winrates. Still, I’m pleased with how things went!
I imagine things are similar in today’s high stakes games. As time moves on, the skill that you need to get a certain winrate increases, but I’m sure there’s still a skill differential, even between high stakes players, that allows a small number of players to get a particularly high winrate.
How did you build a bankroll? Where you ever staked high-stakes or just gradually moved up yourself?
Alex Millar: Answered the first part earlier. I gradually moved up myself.
When I got to 25/50+, sometimes I would sell action if there was a good game at a stake that I couldn’t afford to play myself but while moving up through the stakes, I think it was beneficial to go through all the levels myself and move up when I had the bankroll. I was moving up fast enough already so it wasn’t really necessary to consider getting staked.
What were your toughest opponents back in the days, and who do you think is on top right now?
Alex Millar: My toughest HU opponents when I was at the peak of my HU career were Ike and sauce, although Isildur beat me for a lot before I got to my highest level so I’d have to include him too. In 6max OtB_RedBaron was the best player I played regularly against although Katya always did really well against me too. I believe LLinusLLove is widely considered the best these days but he was only starting to move up to 25/50 when I was holding the tables there so we didn’t play a ton with each other. He has improved a ton since that time.
I imagine high-stakes cash games could be quite swingy. How have you managed your bankroll over the years, and what was the biggest downswing you ever experienced, both in % of your bankroll and money-wise?
Alex Millar: Yeah, definitely plenty of big swings! I was always pretty good with not playing out of my roll and selling action even in games I thought were good if the game was too high for me. Still, though, there were some painful downswings anyway.
The biggest in terms of the percentage of my bankroll would be when Full Tilt went down. I had a downswing at the tables around that time anyway and then I had probably 60-75% somewhere of my net worth on full tilt. It was a long time ago so I’m estimating but I must have lost around 80% of my bankroll between full tilt going down and the downswing at the tables. Or at least that’s what it appeared would be the case.
Fortunately, I did get the full tilt money back in the end.
Also, the first time I moved up to 25/50, it was a bit too soon for me and I was probably outmatched. I had to move back down and then continued my downswing on 10/20. I probably lost around 60% of my bankroll in that downswing.
Obviously, when I have these downswings, I’m moving down in stakes when I don’t have the roll for what I was playing, so there was never any danger of going busto, it was just a case of grinding it back at the level below what I had been playing.
In $$ terms it looks like I had a $1.8m downswing at one point, but that would have been when I was playing 400/800 so just over a 20 buy-in downswing and I was selling quite a lot of action so not as bad as it sounds.
How do you keep your head straight when you lose more than a million in a couple of sessions? Have you ever had any tilting issues?
Alex Millar: I think everyone finds it hard not to tilt when they start playing but I did manage to keep it under pretty good control after a while. Zooming out and looking at long term graphs was always helpful to put things in perspective.
(Allex Millar's lifetime poker graph, not too bad, right?)
In the session, I would put pretty chilled music on while playing and sing along to it if I was feeling tilted haha. I’m sure there’s a scientific explanation with releasing endorphins and not sitting there quietly bottling up the anger, but whatever it was, it worked pretty well for me.
How such downswings affect your game, and do you do something differently at such times?
Alex Millar: It’s definitely one of the huge challenges of poker that you can basically show up for work every day with a positive mindset, having done all the work that you’re supposed to do, and then everything can just go awfully all day long.
Then you can put in some more work, get yourself in a positive mindset again for the next day and the same thing can happen again. Repeat the process over a period of months, with the odd false dawn and then boom, a day where all your gains are lost and you’re even further down than you were before the false dawn etc, and it’s definitely not easy to keep showing up for work every day with the right attitude.
I’m only human, so of course, it can affect me when this happens over an extended period of time, but I’d try to increase my study/play ratio at times like these.
You always feel more enthusiastic about playing if you have some new stuff to implement that you think is going to increase your winrate. You also feel more comfortable about the downswing if you have a good understanding of where your edge is coming from and you get this understanding from working on your game (although there’s still always some doubt and uncertainty).
It also just seems wise to spend less time playing in a period where your mindset is not going to be quite at its peak, and a good opportunity to find some motivation to improve.
How Black Friday changed your poker career? If I am not mistaken, you have mentioned that you got a healthy sum locked on full-tilt. Can you elaborate on that?
Alex Millar: I talked about this a bit earlier but yeah, it wasn’t great having so much money locked up on full tilt. I had just had a huge upswing on there playing some 100/200 HU and had been meaning to cashout a bunch and then one day I wake up to find a message from the US DoJ when I try to go to the FullTilt website.
Not ideal. I think at one point people were selling full tilt money for less than 20c on the dollar, maybe even less than 10c but I could be wrong on that, so it was not looking good for a while.
Anyway, I don’t remember the exact timeframe, I’d like to say it was the next day, but perhaps it took a few more than that, I’m not sure, but I thought to myself “well I can either just mope around and complain about it or I can get on with making my money back.”
So I decided I was going to earn back everything that was stuck on full tilt on other sites. I did that in less than a year, I believe and then got the full tilt money back too, so it all ended up just fine.
I feel most sorry for the people who had a much smaller bankroll and had pretty much all their money on full tilt. Or the Americans who had to choose between changing their career or leaving their country to keep playing, just because of some nonsense legislation attached to a shipping bill.
I imagine it could not be very easy to let all of this go. Do you have any hobbies that help you recover after playing poker and make you happier with life?
Alex Millar: To be honest, I actually haven’t found it very difficult to move on. I was starting to find other things were interesting me more than poker right at the end of my career, which was a good sign that it was probably time to move on.
I’ve then pretty much felt like there’s not enough hours in the day with everything else I’ve been doing since I stopped playing so it has been quite a smooth transition so far.
You reached impressive results and was signed by “PokerStars Team Online.” Being sponsored by a poker room looks like a dream to many players, can you share what kind of benefits you were getting and it is actually such a great deal as it looks?
Alex Millar: Yeah, it was a pretty great deal to be honest. I probably wasn’t paid as much as some people may imagine, because I’m less well known as an online player than someone who has played a lot of big live tournaments or other TV games.
Still, though, it was a significant payment and the work was mostly just pretty fun.
Going to the Caribbean once a year for the PCA and hanging out with people I like there. Going to a few Pokerstars events and meeting other people who really like poker, usually over some drinks, can’t complain at all about the work. I also liked the rest of the team a lot, as well as the people at PokerStars that I was in contact with, so it was all good.
(image from PokerNews.com)
I guess that when you decided to waive your contract and leave Pokerstars, your name became quite well known for the general public as well, not just for the pros. Can you share that story and the reasons behind it for those who missed it?
Alex Millar: Sure. When I signed for Stars, it was before Amaya had taken them over.
They had saved mine and other people’s skins by buying full tilt and paying all the players back, and they had a really good attitude to running the business IMO, trying to create the best environment possible and trusting that would lead to success. I was delighted to represent them.
Once they had been bought out, I was starting to find that some of their actions weren’t really following this ethos that I had previously liked so much. It seemed to me that the focus at the highest level had switched a little from being a great business for the customers (leading to lots of profits of course) to focusing on short-term profits a little more.
It’s their right as a business to run it how they see fit but I found their treatment of Supernova Elite players to be a step too far for me, and I decided I didn’t want to represent them anymore.
There’s probably no need to drag up that fiasco again in huge detail, but in short, they had a benefits program in which if you play a certain amount in one year, you get benefits for the rest of that year and also the next year.
After a load of people had played huge volume in a year, which they wouldn’t have done if they’d known what was about to happen, they decided to take away all the benefits for the next year. This isn’t a small deal for the people concerned, who were generally the most loyal customers of the site and who had planned their entire work for the year around the understanding that they wouldn’t get screwed like this.
Man, after all of this, you just went rogue, like Jason Bourne in his movies! Have you played any poker for a couple of last years, maybe in some live games, or just enjoyed your time doing other things?
Alex Millar: I continued to play for quite some time after I left the PokerStars sponsorship deal, both on stars and elsewhere but yeah, then I started to move into other things and eventually stopped playing altogether. I didn’t play a hand for quite a while and was focused on other things.
Why did you quit playing while being on top of the world? That could be beyond understanding for many players.
Alex Millar: I guess I’ve mostly answered this already in that I was starting to get interested in other things more than poker. I think that was always going to happen at some point as my life plan was always to play poker for a while (I planned to play for less time than I did) before moving to other things.
If I were to try to analyze my mindset at a deeper level to explain the timing, then there are probably some factors that contributed.
Firstly, it was getting hard to get a lot of volume in high stakes online. Lots of sitting around, when I was playing, it was mostly in shorthanded games with the best in the world, which can be fun but not necessarily hugely profitable. I was getting in a number of hands per year that I would previously have got in a few months.
I was also waiting on the development of a private solver to be finished before I was planning to do a load of work on my game to take it to the next level, but there had been many delays, so I felt like my game was a bit stale.
I had some good options with some online private games and I had some fun and made some money playing those, but they were somewhat sporadic, 1 or 2 tables at a time, often on awkward software. It wasn’t the same as when I used to be battling the best players at nosebleed stakes in terms of challenge or enjoyment, or even profitability.
I also could have traveled to play some of the big live games but I was pretty settled at home and that wasn’t a lifestyle change that I particularly wanted to make.
So all in all, my day to day experience was just not as enjoyable as it was in the past and because I wasn’t so keen on the most profitable options available, my earnings were not likely to be as strong as they were in the past, so I’m sure that contributed to my interest shifting to other things.
I had a downswing as well, which I guess didn’t help my enjoyment, but it was nothing serious in terms of buy-ins or the number of hands it lasted. A bit more annoying than previous downswings though in terms of my volume being lower so it was dragging on for longer than it normally would.
Playing professionally might not be as easy as it looks at the first place, what advice would you give to players looking to move in this direction?
Alex Millar: Like in anything where it’s possible to make a lot of money compared to the qualifications/effort required, the competition gets continually tougher over time so it’s very far from the easy option that it was 15 years ago, and even a lot tougher than it was 5-10 years ago.
That being said, there are still plenty of people making a good living from poker and I don’t imagine that’ll change just yet.
Just be aware that it’s not going to be an easy ride and even if you make it, it’s somewhat unlikely to be great forever. Make sure you have a backup option, formulate long term plans, and don’t screw yourself by putting yourself in a position where you’re in a bad way if it doesn’t work out.
Many very smart people have tried to become a professional poker player and it has turned out to not be for them. Finally, be careful about planning your expenses.
It kills your bankroll and career (as well as being hugely stressful) if you’re only just making enough to cashout for your living expenses and you can’t grow your bankroll and move up in stakes.
How have you studied poker 5 years ago, and how that changed up to this day?
Alex Millar: The last 5 years has been more incremental improvements than the 5 years before that. In the last 5 years, it has gone from being able to awkwardly run a small number of solver situations and trying to extrapolate as much knowledge as you can from it to being able to run many simulations and take information from a lot more data.
In the 5 years before that, it went from mostly thinking about the game, doing calcs on paper or making some spreadsheets in excel, to actually having solvers which can calculate GTO estimate strategies in all sorts of spots.
That was a huge change, probably the biggest since the introduction of HUDs and PokerTracker/Hold’em Manager that allowed people to actually look at long-term information on players rather than just relying on what they see and able to remember.
Do you agree that most improvement comes from the work away from the table? What kind of playing/learning balance you think is optimal in today’s games?
Alex Millar: Yes, definitely, when you’re at a higher level, at least. When starting, you probably want to focus more on learning some basics and then just playing quite a bit to build up general intuition of how the game is played, what sort of hands you can bet for value on the river in different situations, etc.
I think the playing/learning balance depends largely on your winrate.
If it’s very high, then you want to spend most of your time maximizing your earnings while you have a big edge. If you’re fairly breakeven, then you’re mostly wasting your time playing and you should be spending a lot of time trying to make the improvements that will start to see you make a continuous profit.
Do you used to have a routine for playing and learning, and how important is it to structure approach to poker for a professional player?
Alex Millar: I wasn’t super structured with it. Sometimes you’re just feeling in the mood to play and sometimes you’re in the mood to learn.
If you try to force yourself to do the thing you don’t want to do then your performance in it will probably be lower.
If you find that you are consistently playing too much and not learning enough then you may need to adjust things so that you’re learning whenever you can stomach the idea, rather than just when you really want to and so on.
So you want to get the balance right overall but I don’t think you want to set yourself “ok, let’s learn on Mondays and Tuesdays and play the rest of the week” type structure unless you have to. I think I said earlier but for me, it was often spending more time learning when things have not been going well, spend more time playing when things have been going well.
It is quite clear how professional players should approach the game, but what would you advise for guys who want to play poker as a hobby or to add up some additional income in their spare time. How should they choose what to play, how they should learn, etc.?
Alex Millar: It really depends on what your motivations are. If you just enjoy the gamble then go for it, play how you want, just be sure you’re playing with money that you don’t care about losing.
If you enjoy the game at a basic level but aren’t interested in learning high-level strategy then that’s totally fine again, I’d just put some effort into finding some games with like-minded players.
You may find that you don’t enjoy it so much if everyone else at the table is a shark who is there only to take your money. If you’re at a reasonable or higher level of competence and you really enjoy the challenge of getting as good as you can but you just don’t have a ton of time then buy my course!
Obviously not if you’re only playing really low stakes but while I’m not trying to make this interview a sales pitch, I have tried to condense hundreds or thousands of hours of research into 36 hours of videos so I genuinely think you’d learn a ton and would find it to be a good use of money if you can afford it.
The main advice that I’d give to people in all these categories, though is to play lower stakes than you first think you want to. Poker is a great game but it can be brutal if you go on a bad run.
The last thing you want to do is totally ruin your experience by losing the amount of money that you thought you were happy to lose and then be faced with the choice of either putting more money in that you didn’t want to lose, or moving right down and playing much lower stakes, which will feel really painful when you know it’d take you forever to make back what you have already lost.
Since we touched the learning part, I want to ask about your new training course, “Advanced cash game strategy.” I recently watched all of your videos and have to say that this is probably the best course for cash games there is. How have you managed to come up with all this material without even actively playing anymore?
Alex Millar: Thanks for the kind words. Before I started making the course, I did have a look at some of the content that was out there and while I definitely didn’t watch close to everything, it felt like there was room for me to make something that many people would find really helpful.
To answer your question, the private solver that I mentioned earlier in the interview that kept getting delayed while I was still playing, was now in a usable state.
So I spent the best part of a year working with it to do all the work that I was planning to do if I was still playing 25/50+ in the toughest games in the world.
I didn’t want to go back to playing full-time, but it seemed like a nice way to finish my career in poker, to get to use this solver that I had been waiting for, while also creating a video course that would hopefully help a lot of people to improve their game.