Of all the thrills gamblers can experience, winning a poker tournament might just be the most exhilarating.
Just watching this old clip from the 1989 World Series of Poker (WSOP) Main Event still gives me goosebumps every time.
Pay attention to the 2:58 mark, right as the pivotal 6 of spades on the river cinches poker’s World Championship for a baby-faced Phil Hellmuth.
As soon as the “Poker Brat” sees that he’s dodged the deck — fading 13 outs to dethrone two-time defending champ Johnny Chan — he thrusts his arms skyward in pure exultation.
Granted, winning the biggest poker tournament of them all at 24 years young tends to have that effect, but that first-place feeling is still a thrill no matter what stakes you play.
Unlike other casino staples like blackjack and roulette that offer a singular return — betting, sweating, and seeing the result happens within the span of a minute — winning a poker tournament takes a ton of time and effort.
Whether you’re grinding a nightly No Limit Texas Hold’em event at your local casino, a three-day bracelet tournament at the WSOP, or even just a quick 10-handed Sit and Go online, you’ll need to decipher hundreds or even thousands of decisions.
Which cards to play before the flop. How much to wager with your opening raise. What to do if an opponent plays back with a three-bet in position. When you should keep chasing that flush or draw, or just fold to live and fight another day.
These are all the decision inflection points a tournament poker player encounters while sorting through just a single hand. Add up a few hours or several days of grueling play against opponents who want nothing more than to bust you and add your chips to their stack, and the poker term “grinding” becomes entirely appropriate.
That’s why navigating the minefield posed by 100+, 1,000+, or even 10,000+ player fields and actually laying claim to every last chip in play is such a surreal feeling. Everybody began the journey with the same buy-in and the same starting chip stack, but somehow, you emerged from the pack to defeat all comers and take home the lion’s share of the prize pool.
Oh yeah, I haven’t even mentioned the money, either.
When Hellmuth took down Chan to win the 1989 WSOP — then the biggest tournament on the planet in terms of prize money — the eventual 15-time gold bracelet winner earned $755,000 for his efforts.
Some 30 years later, Hellmuth has parlayed “cashes” in live tournament play into $22,861,742 in career earnings, with his best score a fourth-place run for $2.64 million in a tournament that cost $1 million just to play.
And for all that dough, Hellmuth is “only” 19th on the Hendon Mob database’s all-time tournament earnings list, with leader Justin Bonomo doubling up at $45 million and counting.
Suffice it to say, capturing the crown in a poker tournament — any poker tournament — is an accomplishment coveted by players of every caliber.
Just ask these four professional poker players who tried their best to encapsulate what tournament victory really feels like — even for elite talents who do it all the time.
After bursting onto the poker scene during the “boom” days of 2003 through 2006, Mike “The Mouth” Matusow fell on hard times. A drug arrest and subsequent incarceration took him off the tournament circuit for an extended spell, but he returned with a vengeance in 2013 at the 2013 NBC National Heads-Up Poker Championship.
That year, after carving through a stacked bracket featuring one-on-one duels, Matusow squared off against none other than his “frenemy” Hellmuth. With $750,000 on the line, not to mention bragging rights between the pals and occasional nemeses, Matusow wound up in the winner’s circle.
You can watch the entire Finals matchup, but here’s the undeniable money shot.
With Hellmuth already having raised all-in, Matusow held only 8-6 of diamonds for a flush draw on the turn. Hellmuth had the top pair, but Matusow decided to go for the kill, telling his crazed supporters on the rail, “I’m going for the win!” as he committed the calling chips with authority.
You’ll have to watch to see exactly how the river card comes down, but let’s allow “The Mouth” to do what he does best by telling you how his big win really felt:
“I hadn’t won one since 2008. I have only played about 40 since then, and these guys play about 40 a week.
I’m on top of the world right now. There is nothing that feels better than winning a tournament. Nothing.”
In a more recent example, high-stakes cash game pro Nick Schulman — who is no slouch on the tournament felt either — took home the title at the 2019 U.S. Poker Open’s $25,000 8-Game Mix Championship.
After defeating 19 of the most proficient poker players in the game today, adding $270,000 to his bankroll in the process, Schulman told PokerNews how sweet tournament victory tastes.
“It feels damn good.
There’s nothing like winning a tournament, regardless of the field size. It feels great, and getting a clear first is exciting.”
Tournament wins don’t have to come in the flesh to feel crazy good, either.
Veteran pro and Team PokerStars rep Lex Veldhuis took down $55,000 for winning the $1,000 buy-in Thursday Thrill last year. And even after winning countless tournaments both online and live, Veldhuis told the PokerStars Blog that having a Twitch live streaming audience on hand to offer support made the win especially gratifying.
“Winning a tournament is a crazy feeling.
Winning a tournament on Twitch feels like becoming Olympic champion. There is so much support along the way, and people really sweat it hard.
Whenever there is a bad situation, they support you after. Whenever there is a lot of tension, people say they actually can’t watch.”
Finally, even after winning not one but two gold bracelets at the 2006 WSOP, pro, Jeff Madsen still felt just as passionate about tournaments more than a decade later.
Speaking to CardPlayer Magazine about his intention to never retire, Madsen alluded to the ever-present urge to win tournaments as his prime motivation:
“Tournaments are always exciting, because it’s an all-or-nothing situation.
You can win a life-changing amount of money, or lose it all on the first hand. And, there’s also just something great about winning a tournament.
You can win big in a cash game, and then you lose it all back the next day, and it’s like it never happened. But if you win a tournament, even if you eventually lose all of that money, they can’t take the title or the trophy away from you.”
It might seem natural to assume that poker’s elite talents have no difficulty playing their way to a first-place finish. After all, these are the game’s most skilled practitioners, professionals who put food on the table through their success in tournament play.
But as it turns out, actually winning a tournament outright — not settling for a runner-up finish or a prize money “chop” at the end — is incredibly difficult. The reality of tournament poker, and all gambling games for that matter is that statistical variance can wreak havoc on short-term results.
Over the course of a year or even a decade, no amount of volume is enough to balance out the effect of random variance.
That holds true for the most highly skilled players, too, although to a lesser degree.
Until the “Super High Roller” trend starting to tilt the all-time money list towards those players in the last few years, Negreanu was the reigning leader for a decade running. Even today, his nearly $42 million in tourney earnings makes “Kid Poker” #2 on the all-time leaderboard behind Bonomo.
As one would suspect from such gaudy numbers, Negreanu is no stranger to winning tournaments.
Or shall I say, he was no stranger?
Between the years of 1997 and 2013, Negreanu took first-place honors in an astounding 45 events. That list includes everything from $120 buy-in nightlies at the Commerce Casino to his six titles at the WSOP.
But because variance is inevitable for all of us, Negreanu hasn’t experienced the thrill of tournament victory whatsoever in almost six years. That’s right; his last win came way back in 2013 at the WSOP-Europe €25,600 buy-in No Limit Hold’em (High Roller) event.
Naturally, Negreanu does have ten runner-up finishes to his credit during the drought, but as he would be the first to tell you, nothing short of victory is acceptable.
In an interview with PokerCentral — conducted shortly after Negreanu came agonizingly close to his seventh gold bracelet at the 2017 WSOP with a second-place finish — Negreanu discussed his seemingly inexplicable winless streak of late:
“It’s been kind of crazy that I haven’t won one in Vegas in a very long time.
I was hoping by now to have probably nine or ten bracelets, but at this point in my career, I only have six.”
The recent spate of second-place runs suggests Negreanu should get off the proverbial schneid at some point very soon, but at nearly six years now, his winless streak is proof positive that variance is the only sure thing in tournament poker.
Despite all of his success on the WSOP stage — where he leads the all-time race by a mile with 15 gold bracelets — Hellmuth is experiencing similar drought in terms of World Poker Tour (WPT) titles.
Here’s how the “Poker Brat” has performed on the WPT circuit, widely considered the most prestigious of the year-long global tours.
Phil Hellmuth’s WPT Stats
You read that correctly. The poker world’s most decorated figure in terms of WSOP gold and glory is 0’fer on the WPT.
That career-long drought may be due to Hellmuth’s singular focus on the bracelet chase, but he’d undoubtedly tell you that five final tables are more than enough opportunities to get over the hump.
After coming torturously close to ending the drought in 2017 when Hellmuth was the runner-up at the WPT Legends of Poker Main Event, he returned last year to make two consecutive deep runs.
The 7th and 15th finishes in $10,000 buy-in WPT Main Events must have fueled his passion to finally scratch a Tour title off his bucket list, because for his 2019 poker goals, Hellmuth listed a pair of victories.
Another successful pro who knows the sting of extended winless streaks is East Coast legend Will “The Thrill” Failla. With over $5.6 million in live tournament earnings, including 18 wins out of 244 in the money finishes, Failla is no stranger to success on the felt.
But he certainly felt like one back in 2016 when suffering through his second straight disaster of a WSOP summer. In 2015, after cashing only once while playing a full 50-event schedule, Failla found himself with just a lone cash 60 events through the 2016 WSOP campaign.
But after notching a badly needed final table run and fifth-place finish in the $ 1,500 No Limit Hold’em Bounty tournament, good for $71,049, Failla was on cloud nine. That’s what he told CardPlayer Magazine in an interview entitled “The Curse Has Been Lifted” that ran right after the final table run:
“You see, that’s one thing so crazy about tournament poker. You can go ice cold for two years.
I know some guys who went 2.5 years without winning anything, despite grinding their asses off.
Then boom, you win a tournament, and you forget all about it. You knew it was there, but you forgot all about it thanks to one tournament.”
Asked about how he finds a way to push through the invariable losing streaks every poker player must cope with, Failla told CardPlayer that the dream of winning a title provides all the motivation he’ll ever need:
“I run right thru it, about three or four miles a day. And every day during that jog I say to myself, ‘This could be the bracelet event. This could be the bracelet event.’
I hope and try, and hope and pray, and hope and try, and listen, I know one thing: It’s going to happen. I just don’t know when. Hopefully, it’s going to be soon.
I keep grinding and churning, and I’m in it.”
With dedication like that, it’s no wonder Failla found himself back at another WSOP final table nearly one year later to the day.
And although that opportunity in the $1,500 No Limit Hold’em Monster Stack event — which awarded more than $1 million to the eventual champion — produced “only” a ninth-place finish, Failla is still out there grinding in pursuit of his poker dreams to this day.
On a final note, whether you’re a star pro or an aspiring grinder, the sheer mathematics of poker tournament play makes outright victory a necessity.
In a brutally honest article entitled “Why You’ll Never Make A Living Playing Live Poker Tournaments” published in 2014 by Deadspin, poker player and writer Darrell Plant explains in exacting detail just how difficult sustained success in tournaments really is.
Plant begins by using an outlier example by introducing Chris Moorman, the reigning king of online poker tournament earnings.
As Plant tells the tale, Moorman’s online tourney tracking data showed a seven-year span consisting of more than 14,000 entries recorded. And over that timeframe, Moorman made the money between 11-17% of the time, while generating a return on investment (ROI) percentage of 26.5%.
Plant goes on to posit that even if you were as good as Moorman — which, sorry to say, none of us are — you’d still need to put in nearly a quarter of a million dollars’ worth of annual entries just to make a decent living.
“To make $60K with a 25% ROI, you need to play tournaments with a combined buy-in of $240,000. Nearly a quarter of a million dollars of buy-ins each year in order to make what is a little above average income in the US.
If that sounds like a lot of money, it is. It’s also a lot of poker playing.
$240,000 of tournament entries per year is $20,000 of tournament entries each month, or about $5,000 per week for 48 weeks of the year (with four weeks off for good behavior). $1,000 per day, five days a week, if you want a weekend.”
Plant goes on to sort through the all-time tournament earning database before crunching the numbers to reveal that only a scant 0.5% cross the precious profitability threshold over their career.
The upshot of all these numbers is plain as day, with Plant providing the final commentary on just how important those top-heavy first-place payouts really are.
“Of the slightly less than a third of the best players who make a profit, five out of six are only profitable because of a single, large cash.”
Knowing these stone-cold facts, those iconic shots of Hellmuth — and every other major tournament winner — thrusting the arms up and jumping for joy start to make much more sense.
One big win can make the difference between a winning and losing year, a single peak serving to sustain players through the long valleys to come.
Ask any athlete who excels at tennis or golf about their most memorable moments in life, and you’ll likely hear the phrase “when I won the tournament” thrown in along the way.
The tournament format, whether in the athletic arena or at the poker table, distills competition down to its purist form. It’s every player for themselves, and he or she who can outwit their opponents and survive every brush with elimination rightfully deserves to be crowned champion.
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