Dani Stern Talks About The Poker Mindset, Black Friday and Cooking

This interview is the third and final part of a series on iGaming.org. Before reading Part 3 we suggest reading the previous ones.

Part 1
Part 2

In the final part of this in-depth interview with Dani Stern the poker professional talks about much more than his favorite game. Stern talks about the poker mindset, how Black Friday affected him and his second big passion.

“I think the following is true for a lot of poker players, you always think you are below your expectation. I don’t necessarily mean thinking that you’re running bad, but you always expect to have more than you do. If you have a million dollars you think, “Well I should have five million if I had done everything the right way and I wasn’t unlucky.” The same goes for if you have $100,000, in that case you think that you should have $500,000,” Stern said.

“It doesn’t matter where you are in poker. That goes for most of poker players that I know, but you always want a better financial situation. That has always been my mentality in poker, of never being satisfied of my financial situation. I had that feeling when I was at my highest and lowest points of my career. I always expected myself to have done better or to do better in the future,” Stern added in a serious tone of voice.

“Let’s say you go on a $500,000 heater and then you lose $200,000. At that point it’s hard to think of it as a $300,000 heater. You always think of that situation from the perspective of, “I just lost a ton of money and I need to get back to where I was at $500,000.” I think there’s this attitude of, whatever your peak was, that’s where you belong,” Stern continues on this mental aspect of the game.

“I think it is a strength to have that attitude, it’s a form of ambition. You just want everything to keep going better and better, and that’s why downswings are so hard. When you’re on a heater, you think that you are the greatest ever, and when you’re on a downswing, you think that you are very unlucky.  What I’m trying to say is that you shouldn’t be too emotional about it. It’s very good to have the attitude of being driven and ambitious to keep doing better at poker, but it’s bad if emotion blurs your vision. Those are things you need to sort out,” Stern reflects on the poker mindset and how a player’s attitude is extremely important when dealing with both good and bad stretches.

Black Friday was without a doubt the biggest mental challenge for poker players in the United States. Stern gives us the full story of how he heard the news and dealt with this huge loss, which changed his life.

“The Black Friday week was actually really crazy for me in general. Two days before Black Friday, I woke up one morning and I could barely stand up. The world was spinning around me. It wasn’t like normal dizziness; it was unlike anything I have ever experienced. I had no idea what was happening and it was scaring the shit out of me. I thought I might be having a heart attack or a stroke or something like that. So I called a friend that lived nearby to take me to the hospital,” Stern started out with.

“I end up in the hospital and the doctor basically said that I have vertigo, an inner ear problem. He said it would go away in a couple of days and that it wasn’t a big deal. He gave me a bunch of drugs and told me to stay in bed or sit on the couch all day. He told me to take it easy and to definitely not drink, not a single drink. So I listened to his advice and I started to feel better on the second day. I almost felt no dizziness anymore and on April 15th I woke up at my standard time, around 10 or 11 a.m. I took my dog for a walk in the park close to my old apartment, something I would do every morning. I lived in New York City at the time and I always went to Madison Square Park, sat down there and that was my daily routine. I sat there reading the newspaper when a friend of mine called. He’s not a professional poker player but he does know how to play,” Stern said as he was not expecting to hear the following.

“He was in and around the poker and said, “They shut it down. They shut online poker down!” Because he wasn’t a professional player I didn’t quite believe him and told him that he didn’t know what he was talking about. He then went on to say there was a banner from the FBI on both the PokerStars and FullTilt websites and that they seized the domain names. He said, “Go check it out yourself, it’s all over 2+2!” and I started freaking out a little, so I grabbed my dog and went home,” Stern said, and chaos ensued as soon as he came home.

“The next eight hours I spent calling friends, Skyping and talking on AiM in sheer panic. We had no idea what was going on and we were so confused at that time. There were always rumors about the government shutting online poker down, for many different reasons. There was also talk about a new legislation and people thought the UIGEA was going to shut down poker, but Black Friday came right out of the blue. At 9:00 p.m. some other poker players and myself found the dumpiest and most depressing dive bar in Manhattan and went and got really drunk, commiserating over what had happened. It was almost like we were at a wake, and the dead person was online poker. I wasn’t that big on Twitter at the time, but I sent out a message that if any online poker players wanted to come and drink to mourn to loss of online poker, they were more than welcome to. A bunch of people came down and it was quite miserable, but with a hint of humor. We were all laughing about it, about the absurdity of the situation,” Stern vividly recalls this strange night out.

Emil “WhiteLime” Patel, Jay “Krantz” Rosenkrantz and a bunch more DeucesCracked guys and other poker players showed up for that night of drinking,” Stern said as he reached a big conclusion about why Black Friday hurt him and other professional poker players so much.

“It wasn’t really about how much money was stuck online, it was more about losing the ability to make money,” Stern said.

Moving out of the country was the only way to keep playing online, and Stern’s decision was quickly made.

“The only thing I knew after Black Friday was that I was going to Las Vegas for the World Series. I was already planning on going there, but now I decided on going full time. So I tried to play every event there, since it was the only place where I could play poker. My plan was, during that summer, to figure out what I would do afterwards. My girlfriend was living in Toronto, so I had already been spending a lot of time there. That made my decision to move there pretty easy, because it was something that was already semi-happening. I moved to Canada after the summer in Vegas and partially I picked online poker back up. I also went to culinary school in Toronto for a year, as a side project. That was partially to have something outside of poker, but also to have a visa to go to Toronto without causing any problems,” Stern said.

Culinary school, and cooking for that matter, turned into one of Stern’s passions and he gives us an insight in how he spent a year trying to improve his kitchen skills.

“For a while I had been cooking a lot and I really enjoyed it a lot. It turned into something more than just a hobby; it was more like a passion. I didn’t have any purpose or direction to it, but I just really loved it and wanted to continue it possibly on a higher level. So I went to culinary school in Toronto thinking it might benefit me in the future if I wanted to go in that direction with my life, and otherwise I would just be a fun experience in my life,” Stern said.

Dani Stern in culinary school

“I think it was a good idea to go to culinary school, but it definitely took away a lot of my poker time during that year. The joke they always made at culinary school is that this degree is not going to get you anywhere; if you want to work at a restaurant you’re still going to find yourself cutting vegetables in some kitchen to start with. If I ever wanted to get into the food world, I would have to start my own restaurant or start all the way at the bottom. That’s one of the reasons I’m not too keen to go through with that,” Stern said about the unlikely scenario of him stepping away from poker to become a chef.

Stern also gets a little more into the type of cooking he really enjoys, something that sounds like sorcery to most people who have not gone to culinary school.

“I’m a fan of cooking sous-vide, which is a cooking method where you vacuum seal what you’re going to cook. Sometimes you’ll add seasoning and aromatics to it, but frequently you just add salt and pepper. Then you submerge it into a temperature controlled water bath for some period of time. There are a lot of scientific reasons why this is the greatest way to cook everything, because it allows you to do a lot of things that are not possible with traditional cooking,” Stern stars off with as he explains why this is the best way to prepare a steak.

“It also allows for complete and total precision. A medium-rare steak is 130 degree Fahrenheit in the center, so you can put a steak in a bag and put that in water of exactly 130 degrees. You can leave it in the water for several hours and it will never overcook. That’s just one of a million things you can do with this style of cooking, and you can also for instance slow cook things for 72 hours until it’s the most tender piece of meat ever. Very high-end restaurants all have a machine for this, but I just have the home version and make some pretty awesome stuff as well. I made beef cheeks that sat in the water for 48 hours, a 24-hour brisket that was the same texture wise, but a lot more moist, than a smoked brisket. Those are some of my favorite things,” Stern said about the science of food that is sous-vide. Being a chef and figuring out why certain flavors go well together is something that interests Stern a lot as he elaborates on the science of food.

“That’s definitely my favorite part of cooking, the science part. As a poker player I like to know why things taste good and what happens chemically at different temperatures. I think it’s an emerging trend in all aspects of life now; the statistics and science are more powerful than they ever were. I’m a huge sports fan, and I think it’s something similar to what’s happening in the sports world. Advanced statistics are becoming more and more prevalent in football, baseball, basketball and other sports,” Stern said as he intertwined the discussion about math in football and cooking.

“You don’t have to learn how to cook by watching your grandma make her favorite meatball recipe. Not that there’s anything wrong with that, because everyone loves grandma’s food, but you can also take the scientific approach now and try to figure out why things cook the way they do. In sports, for instance in the NFL, there are a lot of scientific decisions to make that can help you win a game. Going against conventional football wisdom is not something most coaches in the NFL are willing to do, which is just stupid. There are many examples and discussions, but for instance going for it on 4th and 1 is something that should be happening much more often. If you ask a football person, or the pundits on ESPN, they’ll say, “This game isn’t about math, this is football and it’s about men on the battlefield!” and other ridiculous shit like that,” Stern mockingly said about sports fans.

“That complete non-science is something I have to deal with in cooking as well. There’s this belief that when you cook a steak you should only flip it once. I would then say, “Why? Why can’t you keep flipping it?” and they respond with, “Why? Because that’s just how you cook steak.” Or when you’re braising a piece of meat you should sear it first to seal in the juices, and I would say, “How does that seal in the juices?” on which they respond, “It just does, that’s just how you braise!” That kind of stuff, from a poker player’s perspective where math is extremely important, is just hard to deal with,” Stern ended his rant to catch his breath.

Some people say that understanding math takes away from some of the fun of sports, but Stern disagrees.

“I’ve heard some people say that, and my roommate in Toronto, Dan Smith, has made that argument before. He doesn’t enjoy sports as much now, that he is a poker player who understands statistics. When you see someone hitting a buzzer beater in a basketball game, instead of being like, “Man that guy just had it! It was his shot!” you now say, “ Well you know, he hit a 60/40.” That is a little bit boring, if you say it that way. But it hasn’t really affected me in any way, nor does it get me less excited about any event,” Stern said.

“I still scream at the TV when Eli Manning throws an interception, because I can’t look at that situation like losing with a pair against an under pair. The nature of football is super high variance and with the regular season only being 16 games it even adds some extra variance. Basketball on the other hand is the lowest variance game ever where the better team will win such a high percentage of the time,” Stern said.

“So no, knowing the variance in sports doesn’t take away from the joy. It might even be the contrary, as not knowing what’s going to happen because of variance makes sports exciting. In poker, if the best player won every time it would get very dull. Or think of this, when you’re all in instead of running the board out, you get paid your equity from the pot. That would make poker boring and bad players would not like that at all,” Stern said about how variance is good for both sports and poker.

The variance for Stern will continue as he continues to be a professional poker player. Looking back on this interview we can say that Black Friday forced Stern to look into a different direction, and in the long run it might’ve helped him try new things and regain his focus on what’s important.

Frontpage photo credit: PokerNews.com

Remko Rinkema

Remko Rinkema has covered the biggest poker tournaments in the world since 2008, including many WSOP, EPT, Aussie Millions, APPT, MCOP and Unibet Open events. As an in-depth interview and story enthusiast he tries to do things a little differently. Besides the usual writings Rinkema grabs every chance to appear on podcasts, live streams and in the occasional video.

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