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Poker News | People in Poker | Poker Superstars

Where Are They Now – Robert Varkonyi

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Where are They Now is a series of an in depth look at all poker players - not just the pros - as they travel through one long game. Some of the players profiled are deceased but not forgotten.

This current time period in poker is responsible for a lot of ends of eras, and at the same time the start of others.  The new millennium started with a World Series of Poker Main Event win by Chris “Jesus” Ferguson, the last wildly known player to win the event.  The 2001 event was won by Juan Carlos Mortensen, the last full-time professional to do so.  Then, in 2003 the landscape of poker would change forever as Chris Moneymaker ushered in the “internet boom” by winning the Main Event.  Often lost in the middle of all the comings and goings of the poker world is the 2002 win by Robert Varkonyi.  While his name is often overlooked in the history books, his win is just as impressive as all of the other Main Event champions in history.

Varkonyi’s interesting history begins five years before he was even born.  In 1956 his parents fled their native Hungary after a communist regime was installed.  His parents thought it would be better to split up when they fled so that at least separately, each one doubled their chances of making their escape a successful one.  They agreed to meet in America, New York City to be exact.  Because Robert is here, you know their story has a happy ending.

Born in 1961, Varkonyi didn’t show much interest in poker or gambling as a youngster.  Instead, like a lot of the more recent successful players, he excelled academically.  Varkonyi’s success in high school netted him a scholarship to the prestigious Massachusetts Institute of Technology.  His time spent there earned him two degrees, one in computer science and the other in management.  It was also here that Varkonyi first took up an interest in poker, and other forms of game theory.  However, his poker playing was little more than a passing interest at the time, as he was only playing penny stakes.  One of Varkonyi’s professors at MIT was J.P. Massar, the founder of the original MIT blackjack team.

Varkonyi graduated from MIT and took a job on Wall Street as an investment banker, a job he kept for 15 years.  He began playing poker a little more seriously in the mid 1990’s and taking trips to Las Vegas regularly.  After his trips started to become more and more successful, he began to entertain the thought of taking a break from his investment job.  Because of his matched success in his office, he was able to take what he calls a “sabbatical,” from his job in the year 2000 – a sabbatical that continues today.

The first couple years of his journey into full-time poker didn’t treat him kindly.  Varkonyi, being smart with money, thought the best way to enter into some of the major tournaments was to satellite through them, a thought slightly ahead of its time.  Although today’s satellites run like running water all over casino cities and websites, they weren’t that popular during the early part of this decade.  Not finding much success in these tournaments, but wanting to still participate in the World Series of Poker, he paid the full-buy in for the $3000 No-Limit Hold’em Event in 2001.  The result would be disastrous, being eliminated in the first couple of hours in the event.
What we have so far in Varkonyi’s experience is two somewhat failed years of pursuing a goal.  While Varkonyi was a successful man, and invested his money wisely, it must have been hard for a man with his background to continue pursuing something that up until this point hadn’t paid any dividends at all.  As time has already told us, Varkonyi’s plan to stick with it was more than a wise one.

The next year Robert Varkonyi again forked over some money to participate in a few WSOP events, including the main event.  A story that has become more popular than the actual act of Varkonyi winning the championship is the one that came out of him knocking out Phil Hellmuth.  Hellmuth, angry as usual at being knocked out of a tournament and especially against a Q-10, started his usual berating of the competition.  Hellmuth said that if Varkonyi went on to win the Main Event he would shave his hair.  By the time Varkonyi reached the final table he held a commanding lead, and by the time he was heads up against Julian Gardner he held more than a 5 to 1 chip advantage.  Ironically enough, Varkonyi would knock out Gardner with a Q-10, earning himself two million dollars.  He also got to shave part of Hellmuth’s hair, very satisfying.

After his win, Varkonyi only played a selected amount of tournaments.  He still participates in the WSOP Main Event yearly, but that’s about it.  Since his Main Event victory in 2002 he has only placed in six other tournaments, winning $80,000 combined, not even half of his biggest victory.

Varkonyi capitalized on his new found fame shortly after winning the event by making a poker strategy DVD that featured some of the cast of the hit show “The Sopranos.”  He also joined the speaking circuit, often traveling around the country telling of his World Series victory, and his success at investment banking.

A few times throughout the history of poker we have seen Main Event champions that also seemed to fall off the face of the poker map shortly after their victory.  Each player has his own reasons, but for Varkonyi it seems that poker gave him a means to do other things he wanted to do.  As chronicled, Varkonyi was never a huge fan of poker; he wasn’t enthralled with it like the Brunsons and Prestons of the world, and this has sparked some criticism from poker fans who think that past champions should be ambassadors of the game.  Others say it’s just like any other job.  Most people who earn enough money at their job or hobby would also retire given the chance.

Varkonyi is both the end of an era and the beginning of an era, despite being more than a footnote in the eyes of poker historians.  As mentioned he was the first of the amateurs to win the Main Event, a trend that is still going strong today.  It was also the beginning of the bloated fields and prize pools.  Rightfully so, Varkonyi has his own place in poker history that is impossible to ignore.

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