Howard Lederer's knowledge of poker made him The Professor. Having his own video game character made him a star.
It's safe to say that you"re good when you're asked to advise artificial intelligence, or perhaps when you are made into an animated character. Check and check in the case of Howard Lederer, the star of Crave Entertainment's newest poker video game, World Championship Poker: All-In. The game features Lederer and a host of other pros, including his sister Annie Duke, ready to take on Joe T. Wannabe.
As part of the game's design process, its producers (poker players themselves) brought Lederer in to play for an afternoon, standing over his shoulder taking notes the entire time. "I helped them get a few holes out," Lederer says modestly as he sits in a conference room at the Rio All-Suite Hotel and Casino in Las Vegas, home of the 2006 World Series of Poker. "For example, I would catch the A.I. bluffing in a situation it thought it should, but I explained to [the designers] why it shouldn't be bluffing with those cards."
If there's anyone in the poker world qualified to teach a computer how to work properly, it's probably Howard Lederer. Popularly known as "The Professor," it's no surprise that the game's creators approached him when they were looking for someone to give the game that extra little edge. Throughout his illustrious 20-year career, the analytical heavyweight has pocketed two World Series of Poker bracelets and two World Poker Tour titles, not to mention more than $2.7 million in live cash winnings. Not too shabby for a chess player.
Howard Lederer grew up in New Hampshire in a family of gamers. His father, a writer and linguist, taught Howard and his four siblings every card game in the book, including poker. But cards weren't where the ambitious young player found his calling. At age 18, he put off college and headed to New York City to pursue his passion for chess. Invited by a friend, as was required at the time for this particularly private gaming club, Lederer started playing chess at the legendary Mayfair Club in New York. The stories that have surfaced about the club since then have become a part of poker history.
"It was truly an amazing environment for learning," says Lederer. "It was populated by world championship bridge and backgammon players who were all methodical and brilliant at their games. Here were all these great game-playing minds congregating in the same place. And we decided to play poker."
At the time, poker was just hitting the scene and a handful of seasoned gamers decided to try their hand. Lederer was among them, turning his attention from chess to poker and beginning a journey that, unbeknownst to him, would lead to a whole new livelihood. It didn't take long for him to realize that chess and poker were almost nothing alike. "You need some type of analytical approach to both games," the master says in his signature straightforward and calm manner. "I don't think there are a lot of similarities in the two games, and there is very little crossover."
Ironically, he believes that had he elevated to a master's level in chess, it would have been more difficult for him to transition into poker. "Poker is a highly skilled game with a little bit of luck," he says. "I think it's hard for master chess players [to shift to poker] because of the luck. They can't accept that element."
Back at the Mayfair, alongside the likes of future poker greats Dan Harrington, Steve Zolotow, Jay Heimowitz, and Erik Seidel, the young Lederer was finding his new game a challenge he was thrilled to accept. For the next few years, Lederer's life played out like backroom pulp fiction. Daily games began at 4 p.m. and ran until around 2 a.m., after which the entire group would slink to their favorite local watering hole to analyze the game, talk strategy, and debate. "The main lesson I learned during that time was that it is about the ideas," Lederer says. "It's looking objectively and very hard at the plays you make and don't make, and then debating it heavily."
Before long, the gang decided to give The World of Series of Poker a try. Just like that, a handful of "the New York guys" headed to Vegas to bring the group's game to a larger arena. Nobody knew who they were, but what did they care? They were from New York. "We were the new kids on the block. At that time, there were the Texas guys and the California guys, so it took a while to gain respect," he remembers fondly. "We'd come back [to New York] the conquering heroes, it was a big deal. We weren't all great poker players at the start, but out of that one game we elevated as individuals as the group elevated. It was quite a little home game."
In 2002, The Professor decided it was time to leave his fellow poker philosophers and make his next trek to Vegas a permanent one. He played in high-stakes cash games in Sin City for the next 10 years, chiseling his skills and honing his game. When the World Poker Tour started monthly televised events, Lederer was all in. Needless to say, the competition has escalated enormously in both the World Series and WPT. With the fields becoming monstrous all around him, Lederer, ever the competitor, has taken it on himself to expand his portfolio, becoming one of the games go-to tutors. He is The Professor, after all. Besides his numerous how-to videos (Secrets of No Limit Hold 'em, More Secrets of No-Limit Hold 'em, and Howard Lederer "Tells" All), he also hosts an annual poker fantasy camp and does commentary for FSN.
Though he can still be found on the felt these days, he's strayed a bit from his previous dedication to the game. Part of that is due to his new role as president of Tiltware, the company that licenses software to FullTilt.com. Three years ago, poker pro and current Full Tilt teammate Chris Ferguson approached Lederer about working on the poker Web site. Lederer heard the words "new challenge" and jumped. It's made his life a very different type of grind. "I've been playing poker for 20-some-odd years, and now I have to read contracts and be on the telephone all day," he says with a deadpan grin. "But this was a challenge I wanted to take on. It's new and fun and exciting."
While he's flexing a whole new set of professorial muscles, Lederer says that his poker game has certainly suffered from his being away from the daily grind of play. "I can't point out the depletions, but it's about crimes of omission," he says. "I miss those little things and edges, it's frustrating, but it's fine for now."
But he's not sweating it. He's confident it won't take much to get that edge back. And with the release of the Crave game, Tiltware on track, and possibly another video on the horizon, Howard's chip count seems pretty high. Not that it matters for his reputation's sake. When you're the one being asked to teach a computer, amateur players, and practically the entire poker-playing world how to play, you don't need to answer to anyone, especially if you learned how to play in New York.