When most of us play online, we’re staring at four walls and our computer monitor. Hernan Salazar has that, but with the beauty of the snow-topped Andes from his view in Santiago, Chile. Stu Ungar had gin rummy, and Gus Hansen started as an expert backgammon player. Chess was Hernan’s passion growing up, becoming an International Master in 1986 and Chilean Champion in 1990. Now he’s mastering limit hold-em for a living.
CC: How has chess prepared you for poker?
Hernan: I started playing chess when I was 4 years old. I became Junior Champion of Chile at 17, International Master in 1986 and Chilean Champion in 1990. My last tournament was the Moscow Olympiad in 1994. Poker is similar to chess in several aspects. In chess we learn how to make decisions quickly, under extreme psychological pressure we have to rely on memory, to concentrate 100% for several hours, learn how to vary the play according to the opponent and to be competitive in general.
CC: Tell me about how you started playing poker, as well as how long you've been playing.
Hernan: I learned hold-em two and a half years ago after having a successful career as a black jack player. I bought several books and it was easy for me because I liked poker from the first day I played.
CC: How did you progress through different levels of the game?
Hernan: I starting playing $4-$8 limit at the Bellagio. I played for three days in a row. I jumped to $8-$16 then $15-$30. After one month I was playing $30-$60 and winning. I made about $30,000 playing $30-$60 during my first month, so I decide to try $80-$160. I lost all of my winnings there and $25,000 of my money. I played with the best players limit holdem players in the world and I really learned a lot. Slowly I started catching up. It took me a year and a half to be a winning player at this limit. Some people recommended that I go back to $30-$60 but I really wanted to learn the game at a higher level, so I stayed at the $80 game. I still play $80-$160 at the Bellagio and I also play on line; $20-$40 and $30-$60, several tables at once. Besides playing in Las Vegas, I sometimes play at Commerce casino, in LA, they have great games.
CC: Do you play fulltime currently? If so, what did you do prior to playing fulltime?
Hernan: I play almost every day, but I have a day job as well. I work with antiques, I have a web site www.viennaantiques.com, and I sell on Ebay as well. I like to study antiques and I enjoy my work as much as poker. I think in my case it helps me to have a different activity and makes me a better poker player.
CC: What criteria would you recommend that someone should use before playing poker for a living?
Hernan: It’s very important to be honest with yourself and to be certain that you are a winning player. You have to be prepared psychologically to have long periods of bad runs. If you are not emotionally strong enough, it’s not a good idea to depend on income only from poker.
CC: It sounds very glamorous to actually play poker professionally. What does it really mean to you?
Hernan: For me it’s different than blackjack, BJ was boring to me. Poker, like chess, is much more creative, I enjoy playing it very much, and making extra money is great.
CC: What do you see as the difference between live play vs. online?
Hernan: Normally, I’m playing one month live and two online. The difference is psychological; I can play a better game online. Live you bluff less, you can be friendlier, and this can affect your play. Live you have more information about the players or can read tells. Online you play poker more mathematically correct and tighter.
CC: Is there such a thing as a typical day for you?
Hernan: Not really, I like to travel a lot. I got often to Argentina and Brazil and my life changes dramatically when I’m there.
CC: Are you alone in your pursuit of poker, or do you have a network of people that you work with?
Hernan: I am alone but I have a couple of friends I’m teaching right now, they ask me a lot of questions and this makes me think more about the game.
CC: What have been you greatest learning's during your time playing fulltime?
Hernan: As I mentioned, my best period of learning was playing $80-$160 at the Bellagio. I watched the best players and I was always very alert as to the way they play, although expensive at the beginning I learned a lot from playing with them. The most difficult thing for a poker player is to play well when you are losing. I worked a lot on this aspect and I’m much better now.
CC: Do you play tourneys?
Hernan: No, I never played a tournament. I don’t like that the factor of luck is so big in tournaments. Often, I play with players who made a lot of money in tournaments, but they are very weak with a poor understanding of the game. The best players are the ones who can win regularly in cash games.
CC: How do you work on improving your game?
Hernan: I read every new good book that is published, I read chats and articles. I examine my game with poker tracker, and I’m always thinking about the game.
CC: What does the future hold for you?
Hernan: I hope I can continue making progress and be able to play in the big games. I would like to learn other games beside hold-em.