Call Me Lou

A good guy is gone

The first time I met Lou Krieger, I called him “Mr. Krieger.”

“What’s this mister shit? Call me Lou.”

Lou KriegerSummer of 2005. I was a rube reporter on my third day of work covering the World Series of Poker during its first incarnation at the Rio Casino. My friend Amy Calistri introduced me to Lou during a break of an Omaha 8 event. Smoking was still permitted in the Convention Center, and during breaks the hallways fogged up as hundreds of players got their nicotine fix. Somewhere amidst the layer of second-hand smoke, I embarrassed myself in front of one of the poker writers I admired the most.

I read Lou Krieger’s books for several years before I even got into the poker biz. When there used to be a World Trade Center, I frequented a Borders located in the lobby of the North Tower. I was too broke to buy books, but spent countless hours squatting in an aisle by the sports and games section, where I voraciously read strategy books. A decade ago, I played poker in an underground room a few blocks away from where I used to tend bar on the Upper West Side. Yeah, I was that donk buying into the game with all single dollar bills (tips after a bartending shift). Before work began, I killed time in the neighborhood Barnes and Noble consuming poker books like “Hold’em Excellence” by Lou Krieger.

What made Lou an excellent writer was his uncanny ability to explain difficult concepts in layman’s terms. Even though Lou had become a well-respected figure in the poker industry as an author and pro, he never felt the urge to alienate his audience by using the vernacular of the hoi polloi. Rather, Lou kept it simple. As much as I admire someone like Bill Chen, I got completely lost after reading four pages of his tome “The Mathematics of Poker.” Chen wrote about poker in some sort of alien language, yet on the other hand, Lou was an excellent communicator because he wrote a book that everyone from all walks of life could understand … from graduate students to truck drivers.

During the poker boom right after “Moneymaker” became a household name, Lou’s books became an important teaching tool for my friends who wanted learn poker. Whenever newbies asked me for a head start, I’d point out Lou’s “Hold’em Excellence” or the follow-up “More Hold’em Excellence.” As I slowly moved up the food chain in the poker world, I began to play more and more inside casinos at Foxwoods and Atlantic City. That’s where I got introduced to Lou’s magazine articles, which were always a fun and educational read.

Lou once wrote something that always stuck with me when I was trying to take a shot at playing full time: “Limit poker is like a job. As long as you’re a winning player, the more hours you put in, the more money you’ll win.”

Lou taught me how to maximize my win rate and when I migrated from brick-and-mortar to online poker, I took Lou’s advice to heart and multi-tabled low-limit hold’em tables. Relying on my experiences as a member of the video game generation, I melded those multi-tasking skills with Lou’s philosophy. Grinding “ABC poker” is not sexy, but it paid the bills.

When I finally came face-to-face with Lou at the 2005 WSOP, I never thought I’d be able to thank the man who put me on the right track toward padding my bankroll. When we finally met, I embarrassed myself like a silly fanboy by calling him “Mister.”

Amy Calistri told Lou to check out my blog Tao of Poker, and he said he would although I initially thought he was just humoring me. Little did I know that he read every word and encouraged his friends to read it. I ran into Lou a week after our original meeting, and he had nothing but nice things to say about my unique style WSOP coverage. I confided that I didn’t know what I was doing and making it up as I went along.

“Well whatever you’re doing, it works!” Lou said.

At the end of the 2005 WSOP, Lou called me up and asked if I wanted to join the writing staff of a new poker magazine. At that time, new websites and magazines were popping up every other day. In the years before the UIGEA, online poker rooms spent millions of dollars propping up media outlets (both old and new). I happened to wander into the poker industry during a perfect storm. There were tons of money to go around and new media projects being launched every day. I didn’t have too many inside connections, but thankfully Lou stepped in and added me to his roster when he got tapped to be the editor-in-chief. He hired me to write tournament reports as I followed the circuit on the WPT and EPT.

Lou was ahead of his time. When most of his generation had eschewed technology and blogs, Lou embraced the innovation and saw it as an integral part of the reporting future. He could have felt threatened by a young punk like myself, but instead befriended me. Lou quickly became a mentor or more so a “jungle guide” to keep me from getting slaughtered by feral creatures in the poker world.

Lou eventually created his own blog and shared his thoughts on many things outside of poker. Lou’s love for writing shined through whether it was a trip report about an Alaskan cruise with his wife, or almost getting run down when a vehicle struck during a cycling adventure. I still have vivid memories of the photos he published from the wondrous beauty of the Alaska frontier to the bent frame of his bicycle post-accident.

We originally clicked because just like Lou, I was a New Yorker living on the West Coast and making sense of the weirdness of Las Vegas. We both held a shared love for NYC basketball and over the last few years the majority of our discussions had little to do with poker and everything to do with basketball. Lou had impeccable knowledge of the college hoops point shaving scandals in the 1950s and could tell you everything about playground legends like Lew Alcindor and Connie Hawkins. One of my favorite memories of Lou was the time he invited me on his radio show, “Keep Flopping Aces,” to discuss the March Madness tournament. We could have talked all night about basketball and if the show didn’t have to adhere to a tight schedule, we probably would have.

Whenever things got too crazy in poker, I always took time off. Sometimes it was just an afternoon off, other times it was an extended hiatus. Sage-like advice from Lou gave me the courage to walk away. In one of his poker articles, Lou suggested that beleaguered players take a break if you’re in the middle of a horrendous losing streak. Lou said to “go see a movie” and go outside in the real world to get away from the trappings of a card room. Whenever I ran bad at the virtual tables, I adhered to Lou’s mantra and took the rest of the day off. Whenever I had deeper and more complex problems, I applied Lou’s philosophy and took a much-need holiday away from the insanity.

As much as Lou championed the game of poker, he was not oblivious to the dark side of the gambling world. I had camped out on the fringes of the poker community, which in turn inspired some of my best writing. Whereas many organizations wanted me to write more fluff pieces and get closer to the players to wax poetically about “the genius of poker pros,” Lou encouraged me to write about the grittiness of the poker world from my half-baked perspective. He felt that aspect needed to be recorded to keep an accurate balance on how the poker universe really worked.

Poker years are similar to dog years. You trade off seven years of sanity for a single year following the poker circus from casino to casino and gambling town to gambling town. It’s easy to burn out. The road wears you down. The selfishness of the industry tests your Zen-like patience. Vegas suckers you into shedding moral responsibility. Whenever I needed time away to recharge my batteries, Lou always welcomed me back with open arms after a mini-holiday.

In the spring of 2012, Lou revealed his diagnosis with esophageal cancer. The outlook was grim. Cancer is a brutal disease, but Lou wasn’t going to go down without a fight. That’s the Brooklyn tough guy in him … he was never going to give up even though the deck was stacked against him. In one of the last email exchanges we had, Lou said he was tired from the chemo but couldn’t wait for college basketball season to begin. I told him about the latest recruits at UCLA and to keep fighting because in few months when he got better, that we’d record a radio show to discuss our March Madness picks. Lou wrote back how he couldn’t wait to chat about hoops.

Lou passed away two weeks after our last correspondence. Words can never describe my sadness, but the best I can do is to tell as many Lou Krieger stories as possible. Lou had been my jungle guide in the murky habitat of poker, and whenever I got lost or strayed too far away from the path, he always helped steer me away from the perils of the deviant industry. RIP Lou.

February 2013