Talking MMA and Poker With Terrence Chan and Martin Kampmann

In the iconic text “The Book of Five Rings,” legendary Japanese swordsman, ronin and philosopher Miyamoto Musashi lays down a particularly wisdom-infused quote: “If you know the way broadly, you will see it in all things.” In other words, built into the achievement of mastery—beyond just being really good at your discipline of choice—is the awareness of seeing how you got so good. You’re not just a master; you now know the process to becoming one.

Mixed martial arts is young. We have a general, nebulous idea of all its intricacies, but understanding relationships—why an elite-level mixed martial artist gravitates to another discipline or why someone who’s at a high level of that same discipline comes to MMA – adds another dimension to our overall understanding of this sport.

I have written about the connections between MMA and stand-up comedy, and of boxing and jazz music, but there also seems to be crossover between mixed martial arts and poker. So I used the collective experience and wisdom of two gentlemen to find out more: veteran pro poker player Terrence Chan (who has recently started fighting) and veteran UFC fighter (and rising amateur poker) player Martin Kampmann.

The Director of Player Operations for Ultimate Poker, Chan has mostly made his reputation in poker through cash-game success. His tournament resume isn’t too bad either though: He’s played the World Series of Poker every year since 2005 and made it to the final table four times. He has also won three major online tournaments. He has an amateur MMA record of 3-0 and a professional record of 1-0 at flyweight.

Martin Kampmann has been a staple of the UFC’s welterweight division for nearly eight years, with victories over top-level competition like Carlos Condit, Jake Ellenberger and Thiago Alves. With a 20-7 record, he’s best known for his crisp Thai boxing, but also possesses an underrated ground game. He’s hovered around title contention for much of his time in the UFC.

Fightland: What drove you to transition from poker to MMA?
Terrence Chan: Being a poker pro is a great lifestyle—especially in the mid-2000s, the height of the poker boom. This is when it was on ESPN all the time and everyone wanted to play poker. If you were good at poker in that period, it was really easy to make a lot of money. And obviously you get to choose your own hours, which enables you to live this pretty cool lifestyle. But I think after a while—three or four years later—it started to get a little monotonous.

So, my cousin had gotten into Brazilian jiu jitsu. I’ve always been into the martial arts, like striking one way or another. I watched my cousin roll around with my other cousin who’s much bigger and stronger than him. He arm-barred him. It was sort of my mini-Royce Gracie moment: my weakest, smallest cousin beat up my biggest, strongest cousin. That got me interested in BJJ. So, I started doing that.

It was fun, but I don’t think I took it too seriously. I was never really committed until I started doing it more and more and poker started to become less and less appealing. Even though I was still making really good money at poker, I realized what I wanted to do was more jiu jitsu and muay thai. That’s when you start realizing—I don’t want to say “you’re true calling,” that almost sounds trite—but what is your true self? What do you really want to do today? Well, clearly what I wanted to do was go in the gym and get beat up. Here I am making money but it’s not really what I want to be doing. I’m just doing it for my job.

So, I was doing Jiu Jitsu for two or three years. Then I decided I wanted to do an MMA fight. You watch the UFC and kind of wonder—not that I thought I could be at that level—but, how would I do? I can kickbox a little. I can grapple a little bit. How would I do putting these skills together? So I started training in MMA and I first fought in… 2011? It’s weird I can’t even remember that now. And I’ve kind of done that since. I did the whole ‘go to Thailand and train Muay Thai’ thing. I’ve really enjoyed it. It’s the best thing I’ve picked up since poker.

How is poker related to MMA?
Terrence Chan:
I think coming from a poker background gives me more of a strategic approach to MMA than most people. You have really intelligent people in MMA who come across as very smart—people like Kenny Florian, John Cholish—who have clearly thought deeply about their craft and the strategy behind MMA. But a lot of guys can get by because they’re super tough and athletic.

I think what I bring in without having these attributes of being super athletic or even particularly young—I’m 33—is that I take a strategic approach. I’m happy to sit there, watch fights and break down stances, just watching what guys should do. I’m still no expert but I enjoy very much that aspect of MMA, that it’s such a fluid and chaotic thing. But there are specific strategies you can implement to defeat your opponent. Each maneuver has a counter-move and all that kind of stuff. I think that’s the most obvious parallel for me.

It’s kind of interesting. Ten years ago, I don’t think anyone really trained in poker or thought that thoroughly about poker. It was like, “Ok, we’re going to sit down and play cards. If you’re good then you’re going to win. If you’re not good then you’re not going to win.” The Internet’s really advanced that. The poker boom of the 2000s really got a lot of young people and educated people into the game, who started really breaking this stuff down. They started going into peer groups where they played and talked about hands. It’s sort of like the equivalent of sparring in MMA.

They’ll just sit down and play a hand, and then talk about how they played the hand. How did it all go down? What was their decision on the flop? What was their decision on the turn and the river? How much did they bet here? People are hiring poker coaches now. You can find Poker coaches that charge $600 an hour, like elite-level guys. You can find coaches who charge $40 an hour too. It’s like MMA: you can be coached by the random BJJ black belt down the street or, you know, Rickson Gracie. So, that’s happening a lot more in poker now and it didn’t used to be that way.

MMA was kind of like that too. In the 90s it was like, “We’ll go and we’ll spar and then we’ll spar again, and you’ll learn from your sparring.” There wasn’t a Greg Jackson or a Firas Zahabi then or many guys who really said, “Let’s work on this today. Let’s work on that today. Let’s put together a game plan to transition your punches and takedowns and work in the clinch.” It was kind of meatheads hitting each other until… they stopped.

I think the main thing is to just be calm under pressure, like when playing at a final table: a final table is so rare and it’s such a big deal. You’ve worked so hard to get there. It’s very much like having a fight. You’ve done this six or eight week training cam. You get in and fight for fifteen minutes at best. Sometimes you fight for like one minute. And it’s really important not to make a mistake because, if you do make that mistake, you lose everything you’ve worked for.

To be honest, some people choke under pressure. If the money gets too big or if the stakes get too high – or if they’re in a cage and suddenly the bright lights turn on, they hear the roar of the crowd and the other guy hits them really hard for the first time and they weren’t expecting that—people kind of fold. You see it in MMA. There are guys who are really talented and should win all the time on paper. But they get hit and don’t react. They might blindly shoot a take down and fall into a guillotine or get countered with a knee to the face. I think making good decisions in a very stressful situation is the attribute of a successful poker player and a successful fighter.

Martin Kampmann: If you make one mistake it can cost you all your money, all your chips in a tournament. Same thing goes for a fight: if you make one mistake—you might be ahead, you might be doing good—but one mistake and you can get submitted.

I think I do best in fighting when I don’t think at all—when I just go on instinct and react. But in poker, I think sometimes I do better when I take the time to think about my decisions and not just go automatic. So, I think that’s definitely a difference there. In fighting, you don’t have time to contemplate your move. You just have to react off instinct. In poker, you have time and you should take your time to reflect [on your opponents actions]. If you have time to think, you should use it.

You can get a rush with playing poker—if you get a big hand or someone else has a big hand, stuff like that. But it doesn’t compare to fighting. Fighting in the Octagon is a whole different kind of adrenaline kick and a whole different pressure. When you go in the cage with another guy who wants to punch your head off compared to sitting in front of green felt—I think it’s a lot less stressful. Of course that depends on how much you have on the line. If you have your life savings on the line I’m sure that would be pretty stressful too but that’s not the way to play. I think you should never put more in front of you than you can afford to lose.


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