As I type this, I’m sitting in my office in my condo in Birmingham, Alabama. I bought this place in late March 2011 here in the city in which I grew up. The online poker fallout known as ‘Black Friday’ happened three weeks later on April 15, 2011. For those that don’t know, the three major online poker sites were seized by the Department of Justice on that day and online poker was essentially banned in the United States. I was a little unlucky with the timing of things, as I clearly wouldn’t purchase a home in a place where I can’t get any work done. Although I still call it home, I don’t get to spend much time here. When I do, I absolutely love it. My whole family is here, I’m comfortable, and it’s great for relaxing and having time away from the always-stressful career that is tournament poker.
I’ve been home for five days or so after spending 53 consecutive days in the city of Las Vegas. In my seven years in this business I’ve naturally spent a lot of time in Vegas. Truth be told, I don’t like the city. I feel like it’s very hard to find genuine people. Everyone seems driven only by his or her own financial success. There are amazing dining options, but aside from that there isn’t much to do besides go clubbing and gamble—neither of which I’m interested in doing too often. Still, I cherish the opportunity to be able to go work hard out there each summer. I had the benefit of living with five great friends and very talented poker players in Michael Katz, Adam Geyer, Jesse Yaginuma, James St. Hilaire and Jesse Chinni. They all also happen to be amazing, well rounded, positive minded men, which makes the experience that much better.
I arrived in Las Vegas this summer in great spirits despite being amidst the biggest downswing of my professional career. I'd never entered a summer in Vegas in better shape physically, and I'd never been happier altogether about life. Something outsiders should know about playing strictly live tournaments for income (as I have been doing for 17 months) is the volatility of the endeavor. Given that only 10-15% of the field gets paid in each tournament, just cashing in a tournament is quite difficult. Add to that most of the money is loaded to the top one or two percent of finishers and you’ll see the necessity for making deep runs often in order to support oneself. Something else that people may or may not know about me is that since the beginning of my career, I have played tournaments entirely on my own dime. The reality is the vast majority of guys you see in the tournament arena are financially backed by other individuals. I told myself from the beginning that I would never be interested in being backed, and I was extremely fortunate early in my career to be in a position where I never had to be. There is something I love about going out there each day and putting my own money on the line. Not many people are saying it, but the truth is tournament poker is getting much more difficult. I can say that without question I’ve become a much tougher individual as a result of all of the heartbreak that is inevitable in this profession that I've chosen.
The first five weeks of this summer started out as had my last three summers at the World Series of Poker: miserably. I make a habit of spending tons of hours playing tournaments each summer, so no matter how hard I try, my overall state of mind is influenced by how the tournaments are going. If there’s one thing I’ve learned from my time playing these live tournaments, you just have to stay positive and keep the variance in perspective if you want to stay sane. It is essential to check your ego at the door and play each hand independently of the one prior. I can't count how many times I've seen guys bust tournaments as a result of losing focus due to another person at the table getting the best of them.
After scratching just 1 small cash in my first 20 events this summer, I had a shot in the $2500 mixed hold ‘em. It wasn’t to be as I finished 16th late in the night on day 2 in front of a rail of people that was around to see my tablemate Phil Ivey. A few events later, I made a push in the $3000 no limit hold ‘em event. Again, I came up short of the significant money as I finished in 30th place after busting on the first hand of day 3. From here, I bricked 7 consecutive tournaments before cashing for the minimum in a $1000 no limit hold ‘em tournament that uncharacteristically reached the money on day 1. It was at this point that I realized that I had two tournaments left to get my summer (and career) back on track.
I entered the $10,000 six-handed no limit hold ‘em event as focused as ever. This is an extremely prestigious event, so I knew I would have to be playing my very best to have a chance. In the first 25 minutes of the tournament, I was fortunate enough to double up versus a gentleman with a straight flush against his king-high flush on a board of Ac2cJc4c9d and started to think this could be the one. I struggled to get anything else going on that day and ended somewhat short. Early on day 2, I got lucky against one of the class acts in the tournament poker world, Dan Kelly, when my eights flopped a set against his jacks after we had committed my entire stack preflop. We eventually reached the money, but I slipped late in the night and entered day 3 in 19th of the 27 remaining players all undoubtedly losing sleep thinking about the $1.15 million first prize.
Things worked out on day 3, and I climbed to chipleader with around 15 players left. I will say this about that day: I have never felt more pressure to make a deep run. If I came up short it would have taken a long, long time to recover from another missed opportunity. I was feeling the magnitude of the moment. I took special care to be deliberate in my decisions, turned my phone off, and isolated myself on breaks from the tournament in order to keep my focus at the highest level. One of the crazy things about tournament poker is just how much real money equity is at stake late in the tournament. I won’t bore you guys with details from the rest of the tournament, but I ended up finishing 3rd for $455,000. It hurt to not get my first bracelet after coming so close, but I gave this tournament everything I had. It just wasn’t quite enough. The eventual winner was Greg Merson who is a hell of a nice guy and a truly elite player. He happened to make the final table of the World Series of Poker Main Event later in the summer and will play for a staggering $8.5 million when the final table plays out in October. I’ll add that everyone at this final table was extremely classy and professional. It makes the experience that much more enjoyable when you can just get lost in the grind of the tournament and not have to deal with annoying personalities and ego overdoses that, sadly, you so often see in our world.
The next week, I participated in the WSOP Main Event. I was happy with my play in this the pinnacle of all poker tournaments, but I came up short of the money by busting in the middle of day 3 around 1200th of the 6600 entrants with 666 getting paid. I was really exhausted after this tournament but as an afterthought decided to play a $5000 tournament at Venetian that would begin the next day as opposed to flying home. I just felt like my focus was at an all-time high, and I thought it would be a poor business decision to sit it out. I plugged along in this well-run, deepstacked tournament and ended up finishing 4th of the 398 entrants on day 4 for $126,000. It was a nice sweetener to end the summer, and I left Las Vegas the next day with a new energy and passion for poker.
Where do I go from here? I don’t know. I have a lot of thoughts about poker and the role I want it to play in my life, but I’d like to articulate these thoughts in a blog entry at another time. I’m considering going abroad and setting up short-term residency in order to make my return to online poker to play the World Championship of Online Poker in September, but I can’t say for certain. I’m also keeping an eye on the World Series of Poker Europe in Cannes, France in late September. Until then at least, it’s unlikely I’ll play a hand of poker. I have interests and projects I’m going to pursue from Birmingham over the next few weeks. Additionally, my older sister Heather is expecting a baby girl in early September! It’s an exciting time for me personally, and I look forward to what the future will bring. I’m realizing more and more just how fortunate we are to live this life, and I intend on embracing and living every minute of it.
I’d also like to add that I really appreciate the support you guys have given me throughout the summer (and my career). When I got in to this business as a 20 year old I could have only dreamed for it to materialize as it has. The words that some of you have said are so kind and so touching. Thanks for reading.