"As a mixed martial arts fighter, what kind of skills do you have that would be good for poker?" Team PokerStars Pro Felipe Ramos asked Tito Ortiz when the training began.
"I'm very disciplined," Ortiz said.
That's exactly what Ramos wanted to hear. Ramos has been coaching professional athletes in poker for years and knows what works. He taught Brazilian soccer phenom Neymar Jr. how to juggle cards on the felt. He used poker to teach Palmeiras, a Brazilian soccer team, about optimal strategy. They went on to win their first national championship in 22 years after that. Ortiz had come to the right person for advice.
Ramos says he tries to find what athletes already excel at, and use that as a bridge to poker. Ortiz, who overcame drug abuse and poverty to become the UFC Light Heavyweight Champion, knows that discipline is his biggest strength.
"If you don't have any kind of experience in the professional poker environment, you can bring your best personal qualities to the game," Ramos said.
Ramos taught Ortiz a simple strategy and told him to have the discipline to stick to it every single hand and not overextend himself. It seemed to have worked too. Ortiz went further than he ever has in a tournament this size. He nearly finished Day 1 with the chip lead and managed to fight his way into the money. Ortiz made it all the way to Day 4 and finally fell in 22nd.
"We started talking at the end of every day and during breaks," Ramos said. "He'd get really excited when he used what I taught him and realized it worked.
"I was really proud of him, he managed to do something I wasn't able to do."
The strategy that helped the fighter get so close to one of the largest poker titles of the year is a checkmark system that Ramos calls "SPC". It stands for stack size, position and cards. If you have position, that's a checkmark. If you have good cards, that's another checkmark. You get a third checkmark for a big stack.
Depending on your opponent you might need all three checkmarks or just one. Ramos says this strategy helps players slow down, analyze their opponents and get into the habit of thinking through key elements every hand.
"I watched people and adapted," Ortiz said. "I realized I could play with any of them. Felipe taught me some great stuff.
"When I first came into the game I understood the numbers, I understood what cards to play, but I didn't understand how to bet. Just that helped me throughout the entire tournament.
That sparked a fire in the fighter. Poker became more than just a game, it became another thing the champion could win, something he could be the best at. Ortiz's hands would get sweaty in a big pot, just like they used to before a fight. His heart would race and his drive to win would take over. He couldn't seal the deal this time, but he has his eye set on victory.
"The next one I win," Ortiz said. "I'm a winner, I like to win, I want to win."
That too, was something Ramos wanted to hear. Ramos laughed and high-fived his newest poker protege.
"I'm actually very blessed to work with people that turned out to be good players," Ramos said. "They turn out to be very focused on studying poker, so it's pretty much all them, not me.
"I don't teach a theory, it's basically just things I've learned the past 10 years. What works, what doesn't. I lead people to where they want to go.
"Maybe I'm a better coach than a player."
Ramos' students tend to do pretty well, but the Brazilian player has results that are tough to match. Ramos has more than $1.3 million in live tournament earnings and is now vying for another title in the $10,000 High Roller Event here in Panama.
For live updates from the $10K High Roller, visit PokerNews.
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Alexander Villegas is a freelance contributor to the PokerStars Blog.