Ever wondered how the masters of poker made it to the top? Whether it was destiny or just dogged hard work that brought them success?
In many cases, a combination of studying, determination and above all patience has seen many a Negreanu and Grospellier top the boards and grace the industry’s hall of fame, but it still begs the question: what separates these players from the rest of the hopefuls tirelessly striving to make it as the next biggest thing in poker?
To find out, we delved into the careers of remarkable players both past and present to see what exactly gave them the edge over their peers and get so far ahead in the careers stakes.
“If you need to know strategy, this guy’s the one to go to,” says PokerNews presenter Sarah Herring of 29-year old Andrew Seidman; indeed the word “strategy” is key to unlocking the secret of this former Dartmouth College freshman's success, who famously sprang onto the scene for his lavish lifestyle paid for by real-time online poker playing. The way his story was spun, it seemed like he’d transitioned from some part-timer at a pizza parlor to international playboy overnight, but nothing could be further from the truth.
He explains: “in 2005 I read about some Ivy League students making boatloads playing online poker and who were practicing at a website called Two Plus Two Publishing. I visited the website and became immersed in learning the game.” The learning curve took years of playing online, and even when he did start winning in excess of $40,000 a month, he kept a cool head, focusing again on the strategy which he has since broken down for beginners in his book Easy Game.
“As I moved up in stakes I became numb to the fact that the money was significant. It was nothing other than a way to keep score of the game.”
A refusal to play up to the jetsetter image and continually getting down to work is what Seidman calls, “a huge part of breaking through as a poker player.”
The legendary author, publisher and owner of Two Plus Two Publishing, Malmuth has written for over 30 years on poker theory, rules and strategy. He worked as a probability theory expert and when posted “out west” in 1980, he got interested in playing poker.
His outstanding knowledge of the game led him to become a prized authority on the subject, solidified by successful sales of his first self-published book Hold ‘Em Poker and the founding of his publishing company in 1987 that, as already seen in Seidman’s case, is responsible for producing today’s powerhouses of poker (as can be gleaned from the story of Vanessa Selbst and Jason Stresser). But Malmuth doesn’t believe that it was just being good at numbers that gave him his legendary poker savvy.
“My statistical background was unique because I was working finite sampling statistics, not infinite sampling," he reveals, "so I felt there were things about gambling that I knew that no one else did.” As finite sampling acknowledges patterns of variance that are comparable to those in poker, Malmuth shrewdly created transferable skills that saw his day job nurturing what would become an authoritative knowledge of game theory.
The flamboyantly dressed 25-year old from northern Italy made waves for winning the $215 Sunday Supersonic. He boasts over $6 million in live tournament winnings.
His uber-confident strategy on the felt has been known to seriously faze his opponents, mostly recently in Dublin for the EPT 12 with Kanit’s masterful bluff against Swede Anton Bertilsson with over $500k up for grabs. What was his path to developing such a unbeatable style?
His story began with several colleagues playing Richard Garfield’s trading card game Magic: The Gathering, eventually transferring the strategic game play he learned into poker. He dedicated several years to studying the game and his own performance, which, despite the admiration he gleans from fellow players, he continues to be aggressively modest about.
“I’m not the best. I’m convinced that once you believe you are the best in what you do, you suddenly stop learning because you no longer compare what you do with what others are doing,” he explains candidly.
29-year old Somerville is something of an online sensation. With over 160,000 followers on Twitch, the world's leading video platform for gamers, the Team PokerStars Pro is riding on a fame wave that doesn’t look set to break anytime soon.
In February this year he made headlines for being the most watched player during the World Championship of Online Poker and his wildly popular YouTube series Run It UP has become an empire unto itself complete with regional poker festivals and eye-catching swag. And yet, like many of the stories here, Somerville did not have prior connections in the industry or come from any kind of poker royalty: he built from the ground up, watching the WPT on television, researching his newfound passion online and playing casually with friends.
Before committing to play with money, Somerville focused on online free-roll tournaments - and famously managed to land himself a six-figure bankroll. But he in fact credits his success down to talking about hands with fellow poker aficionados on online poker forums. “When I was starting to learn, I posted online about poker and interacted with the community,” he explains.
“And actually that sub-forum gave birth to a pretty strong bunch of poker talent including Leo Wolpart, Steve O’Dwyer and Vivek [Rajkumar].”
Vanessa Selbst is the go-to player when there’s a need to demonstrate the powerful presence of women today in poker: with over $11.6 in winnings (including $10 million in tourney gains), 3 WSOP bracelets and the only woman to be ranked #1 in the Global Poker Index, Selbst is an inspiration to many. But had she followed the path laid out for her, poker would have never been an option.
“Even though I had everything mapped out for my, the degree, the job, poker was always pulling at me - and I didn’t know how to break away from all the expectations,” she says. Indeed, Selbst spent time out pursuing a degree in mathematics from MIT (she dropped out), a degree in political science from Yale and a Fulbright scholarship to study in Madrid - but ended up spending most of her time playing poker.
“I then got a consulting job in the U.S. but quit to play poker full-time.” Looking at the incredible position Selbst is in now, how does she attribute her sharp climb to success? “My style is really aggressive, obviously: in tournaments where I amass a stack I’ll typically go onto win, and in the ones that I don’t, I bust out early on.”
40-year old Christopher Bryan Moneymaker (which incidentally, is his real name) made history back in the 2003 by being the first WSOP winner to have entered the championships from an online poker website, leading to the so-called "Moneymaker Effect" discussed at length in Doug Tirola’s documentary "All In: The Poker Movie".
Although he claims he was “not experienced” when he entered the World Series, he had a backlog of years playing blackjack, Texas Hold ‘Em and working as a certified accountant. “I kept losing money,” he remembers. “I liked going to casinos but hated losing my money all the time, so I started playing poker." His online debut came in 2001, where initial loses gave way to an increasing number of wins as the World Series approached."
So what changed? Moneymaker plays conservatively, relying on good timing and a dogged self-reliance. “I've pretty much learned it all on my own,” he explains. “I always go back and look at my hand history and everybody else's and how they played. I continuously try to do that. You just learn more as you go, whether it's pot odds, situations, position. You just learn more."
Turning tilt from losses into resolve to learn is indeed the mantra of all great players. No matter how good a player looks on paper, most have endured spectacular losing streaks, even if they are not open to talking about them (which interestingly, most great players are).
Persistence in playing is probably not enough: aside from passion for poker, the best of the best are the kind of individuals who are adamant on improving every aspect of their game as well as continually pushing themselves out of their comfort zone. Making success look easy may just be the ultimate of bluffs.