A few questions to Nelson Bernal Varela


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Thibault de Vassal    (2018-03-14)
A few questions to Nelson Bernal Varela

Nelson Bernal Varela is an early FICGS correspondence chess player, now rated 2277 but also rated 2359 at ICCF (Correspondence Chess Master - CCM).

Last but not least, and as all poker holdem players here probably noticed, he is also our ranked #1 for years, who just reached an outstanding poker rating of 2382, while number two is now rated "only" 2212. A good occasion to ask him a few questions, that he kindly accepted to answer.


- Hello Nelson! You are the 2nd most active player at FICGS for years now. Everyone here probably noticed your incredible results in poker tournaments. "Correspondence poker holdem" was probably a strange idea as it is very unusual and very different from "Internet poker". What's your opinion on this and on the presence of a card game (played without money) at FICGS?

NBV: There are more important things than money and one of those is HONOR; It is honorable to be a chess master, international master, grandmaster, world chess champion at ICCF and at FICGS and to be number one in the ranking. It is honorable to be a FICGS world champion at Go and to be first in the ranking, it is honorable to be poker world champion at FICGS poker and in my case, it is an honor to be number one at poker here at FICGS during the last years, understanding that our general level of play has improved remarkably. None of these activities produces money, but to achieve any of the mentioned titles, it is necessary to have extraordinary abilities.

When I was about 18 years old, I had the opportunity to meet a person with immense material wealth, we spent whole evenings playing chess and then I told him my perceptions about each movement of the game. He thanked me for my chess explanations and paid me with good money. That wealthy man in his turn told me about life and recommended that I should always be proud of the gifts I had, since he knew, with all the money he had and being able to hire the best grandmasters in the world, that it could hardly come at the level of chess master. That person told me that the intellect can be turned into money whenever you want.

Now, by playing poker without money at FICGS, I understood that it was my extraordinary and wonderful opportunity to study-learn-perfect and test my poker theories without costing me a single dollar. In FICGS there is no money, but thanks to the knowledge I gained playing poker in FICGS, today I can go after the money in online poker rooms and probably in OTB poker tournaments. I am studying the possibility of becoming a professional poker player.

- The understanding of your opponent's behaviour is usually quite important at Poker. Do you manage to establish some profiles while playing so many simultaneous hands & games? Did you build any method?

NBV: Today I am sure that the most important thing to raise, and keep raising my level in poker, has been to build a psychological profile of mine, to get to know Nelson Bernal Varela in depth and above all to understand me, accept me, love me and be work every day eliminating my technical errors, strategic, psychological that make me play badly. I am aware that in poker I can play perfectly and still lose, what I can not forgive me is playing badly, which is why I work hard correcting my wrong decisions.

Of course, there is a space in my brain where I have built a psychological profile of each contender, that profile I have been able to elaborate with all the information that is provided to me in each hand we play. The way each of us plays, gives reliable information about our personality.

About my method I can write the following: A few years ago, I created a table in excel, where I had all the games with each contender, I identified them with the FICGS numeration and each movement in each hand (preflop, flop, turn, river ) it I was writing and studying; I started to add technical-psychological variables that seemed important to me, resulting in 20 variables that I had to qualify in each movement. With the passage of time and my effort, I no longer needed the excel table and I did not use it again (it was exhausting and time consuming) because I was assimilating things faster and with greater depth. Today I can say that I evaluate these 20 variables in a natural way, as if I was breathing and that when I am at a poker table, online or real, after a few minutes I get the psychological profile of the table and each of my opponents. In the pocket of my shirt I keep a small paper with the list of variables, periodically reread it and I wonder if I should modify, remove or add something.

- You won 1007 poker games, and lost only 380, with a ratio usually going from 57% to 80% according to your best opponents. Undoubtly you know the mathematics hidden behind poker but that may not explain everything. How did you learn to play?

NBV: Mathematics is an ingredient in poker, in the same way that my psychological aspects and of my opponents (I recommend reading-studying about four times the book “The Poker mindset” of Ian Taylor and Matthew Hilger), it is vital to understand the Law of Large Numbers. Next I make a list of topics that I consider important to raise the level of poker; compete with EV+ cards, you have to know the small ball theory of Negreanu (but not apply it, hahaha) you have to always look at the texture of the board, you have to evaluate your reality and your future, also that of your opponents (act and power), the position to talk is important, the stack, the personality of the table, know who has the panic button on. All these and other variables must be evaluated in the few seconds they have to make a move and the only important thing is to make the right decision according to the circumstances. There is a good list of poker books to read... it is mandatory to have read about 15 poker books.

- As for me, I may be wrong but I can't imagine that you reached such a rating without special techniques & maybe by optimizing it in some ways... Of course, "rating management" is not a problem, and it is only one thing with a limited impact, but maybe you have some other secrets? What about this "+1" technique that I noticed in many of our games, if this is not a secret? :)

NBV: In these years I have used different techniques that I had to read, study, learn, repeat, modify, invent and sometimes eliminate. Poker is a sport that seems easy, with time one manages to understand that it has an amazing complexity, today I consider poker to be as complex as chess and I study them in a "similar" way. As an example, I have tried to create "openings in poker"; based only on probabilities I invented something that I called mirror theory and another "opening" that I called opposite outs. I am fascinated by mathematics and from the mathematical perspective they are perfect "theories-openings", but I have lost tournaments and a lot of money for applying such theories in mistaken emotional moments. In poker it is important to never lose sight of the Law of Large Numbers and be aware that this LAW likes to make fun of each one of us... I am working on giving an emotional nuance to my theories "mirror" and "opposite outs". There are moments when perfect mathematics becomes an unforgivable psychological error...

For the last few months I have modified my way of playing and my results have improved; Today it must be much more difficult to win a game me, thanks to small and imperceptible adjustments that of course only I know, because I have followed my mistakes-successes-evolution in the game over several years.

- Isn't it too frustrating for you to play heads up only (here at least) ? Of course it is a way to improve this important technical case but we know that many complexities come with 3 to 8 players on the table, which is the most common case in professional poker tournaments.

NBV: Currently I spend little time every day playing heads-up in FICGS, thanks to the fact that I have the profile of each contender. The 4-5 hours that I study poker daily, include practice in micro limits in cash tables of 6 players and tournaments in tables of 8-9 players. I think I'm covering the whole range of possibilities, experiencing game situations between 1 and 8 contenders.

- What do you think about computer analysis in poker? Do you think it could make a difference here just like the way we play advanced chess?

NBV: I think the algorithms are ready to be written in machine language and the question is where are those algorithms? Well, in the brains of the best players in the world and in their games compiled in huge databases. But programming language can be accelerated with artificial intelligence brains, making A.I. studying databases of the best professionals, playing with itself millions of games and building an invincible TACTIC-STRATEGIC SYSTEM, similar to chess software and GO... I think preflop and flop play would be very similar between humans and artificial intelligence, but on the turn and on the river artificial intelligence would take considerable advantage, but in the short time the level of human poker would rise because artificial intelligence would teach us to play poker, this event that would diminish the profits of the professionals. It will always be said in favor of poker that because it is an incomplete game of information, to make computer algorithms are quite complicated, but despite that, I am sure that artificial intelligence will far surpass the best human poker player. It is possible that an artificial intelligence that plays a perfect poker already exists, but unlike GO and chess, poker does produce a lot of money. Due to the money factor, in today's world, it is very difficult that there is a Prometheus willing to steal fire from the gods and give it to mankind...

- How would you describe your relation to games in general?

NBV: I can summarize it in one of the first chess books I had the fortune to read, by the great Danish master Bent Larsen, "I play to win"

- When did you start to play chess & poker? Do you play other games?

NBV: My first contact with chess was at the age of nine, it was love at first sight and until death separates us; I must confess that for some years we have been separated, due to my stupidity and my erroneous decisions. I have always been self-taught in any subject, my method is to buy about 10 to 15 books of the subject that interests me and I read them thoroughly, sometimes 3 or 4 times; already with that information in my head and thanks to the constant practice, I build MY SYSTEM (Nimzowitch) according to my personality, my dreams, my desires, my anguish, my fears... I was youth champion of Bogotá, for 4 years , my OTB level was strong, but I had to abandon chess because I had to work and survive; Being an athlete in Colombia is an absolutely difficult thing, but being a chess player is extremely complicated since there is no support or respect from society and you can not live by chess, because it does not produce money.

I met poker in 2009 in FICGS, at that time I was in a terrible emotional situation, trying to get away from a relationship with a woman that I should never approach and where I wasted valuable time and energy. In that context, looking for my thoughts to be occupied, I ended up playing the FICGS C-24 poker tournament and tied the first place with three more players; I kept playing, without understanding what was happening with the cards and obviously, losing, until in 2010 I won the FICGS D-21 tournament with perfect score, 6 out of 6. I had already bought-read my first beginner book: Poker for Dummies of Harroch and Krieger, but my poker was coarse, wild, street, intuitive, amateur, without dedication or study. In the background of this paragraph, the affection and gratitude that I have for FICGS is condensed, a place where I have been able to build-practice-study-test MY SYSTEM in poker.

I play Backgammon, I do not care that it may sound pretentious-petulant, but I have a very strong level and I have not read my first book yet. Hahaha. Any year I register as a participant in the world championship and I will cause disgust to more than one professional. Hahaha. Unlike chess and poker, backgammon does not cause me stress, on the contrary, I feel a lot of joy and pleasure when I play backgammon. I feel something similar with math, reading and music. It's true and I'm proud, I've always been a NERD.

- We all know how difficult it is to reach a number 1 rank but it is even more difficult to keep it during a long time. What is your motivation? Do you have more goals to achieve (chess & other games included) ?

NBV: My motivation in any activity I undertake in my life is to do it with absolute passion (passion is everything you would do to get a breath of air, in the second before dying by drowning or suffocation).

I have several goals to accomplish before December 2021; In the ICCF correspondence chess I must reach the 2400 elo and get the titles of International Master, SIM and Grand Master, also perform outstanding performances in world championships. In FICGS Chess I must complete my Master and International Master titles and overcome the 2450 elo, also snatch the title from our eternal champion Eros Riccio. You're warned Eros, hahaha. On the LSS site where I also play, www.chess-server.net I want to be a world champion.

In POKER I find myself playing micro limits bets in several online sites; in June 2018 I hope I have built some bankroll. In July of 2018 I must be evaluating my poker to know if my immediate goal is to become a professional poker player, that would completely change my chess goals and I would have to dedicate myself to OTB poker. At the moment I study and practice poker every day, about 4-5 hours a day. At this moment my poker is full of errors that I am eliminating one by one. MY SYSTEM needs to win and raise money in the micro limits, so that it can succeed in professional poker.
In chess OTB I should become a great master, but that topic should be left as a goal for after 2021. I could achieve the record of being the oldest human in getting the title of Grand Master OTB. Hahaha.

In backgammon I would like to play some important tournaments in USA and Europe and maybe to be OTB world champion, but at the moment I do not have clarity on how to do it. I must mature that idea.
I hope they invent immortality before I die and that I have enough money to buy it, because time is what I need to realize all these and other dreams...

- Finally, playing so many games on several websites (obviously with serious ambitions in each game & place) may look quite inhuman and exhausting, does your body or brain say "stop" sometimes? Do you train by melting sports and brain games just like Kasparov did in the past?

NBV: It's true, it takes willpower and a lot of resistance to sustain the pace that I carry. To take care of my body, I am doing daily exercise for 60 to 90 minutes, including routines of strength, elasticity, speed and endurance. I also practice table tennis to preserve the agility of my body. I'm also divorced and I do not have a girlfriend... Hahaha

- By curiosity, do you consider playing Go in the future, even after... 2021? (which would surely be an enormous charge more, but the game is really interesting)

I have a kind of commitment with the best Colombian GO player, exchange of classes, he makes me a competitive player of GO and I turn him into a competitive player of backgammon. But the truth is that I do not have time... it could be after 2021...

- Do you confirm that you are not (entirely or partly) AlphaZero or any kind of A.I. (yet) ? :-)

NBV: Hahaha, of course I would like to be a real centaur, human with machine power, I do not care what physical form I should adopt. I offer myself publicly as a guinea pig in projects of technological singularity. Hahaha

- Many thanks for your detailed and instructive (impressive as well) answers! My best wishes of luck in all your games and future tournaments.

Thibault de Vassal    (2018-03-15 02:25:51)
A few questions to Nelson Bernal Varela

Note that I did not ask true technical questions about poker... by the way a friend of mine just suggested that it could be interesting to know what limits such a player is used to, his winrate in bb/100 or ptbb if he plays cash games, also if he studied gto applied to chess...

So many possible questions and so few time :)

Ilmars Cirulis    (2018-03-15 17:53:50)
A few questions to Nelson Bernal Varela

Offtopic question about poker (on FICGS):

Is it possible to make some faster time control, for example, +1 day after completed hand instead of single move?
Like in chess - Standard and Rapid.

Thibault de Vassal    (2018-03-15 19:22:45)
A few questions to Nelson Bernal Varela

Of course it is possible but I don't think it would be efficient enough (but I understand the idea to reduce the total time) while creating other problems. I hope more players will try bullet games in the future.