A Friendship Born in Battle

Brandon Shack-Harris and George Danzer bond in the tightly contested 2014 race for WSOP Player of the Year

A year ago, if Brandon Shack-Harris and George Danzer crossed paths in the hallway of the Rio, they probably wouldn’t even have made eye contact.

In 2014, they would stop and hug and chat about life and the game that envelopes them.

Brandon Shack-Harris and George DanzerDespite being entangled at the top of the battle for one of the most coveted accolades in poker — this year’s World Series of Poker Player of the Year — they genuinely enjoy each other’s company.

“If one of us wins, we’ll be happy for ourselves and kind of bummed for the other guy,” Shack-Harris said, as the Series started to wind down.

By the time the Main Event began, less than seven points separated the top two contenders, with Shack-Harris holding the lead. Yet he could feel the German pro at his heels.

“He pushes and pushes and pushes,” Shack-Harris said of Danzer.

Throughout the summer, the two clawed at the leaderboard, often finding themselves in the same events.

But Shack-Harris and Danzer also sometimes used tournament breaks to shoot hoops together or toss a ball around in an effort to relieve the tension from the long hours they spent trying to make perfect in-game decisions.

“It’s not really a battle,” Danzer said of the race for Player of the Year. “It’s more like shadow boxing.”

In that intensive stretch between the end of May and the beginning of July, Danzer earned $782,240, with seven cashes, three final tables and two bracelets, while Shack-Harris pulled in $1,416,110, with six cashes, four final tables and a bracelet.

Danzer and Shack-Harris realized that they’re not the only two with sights on finishing in the top spot, as they have names like John Hennigan, Daniel Negreanu, Dan Colman, Justin Bonomo behind them. The Main Event alone awards 500 Player of the Year points to the winner.

Though neither cashed in this year’s feature tournament, which could alter the competition, Danzer and Shack-Harris both plan to attend October’s WSOP Asia-Pacific in Melbourne, Australia, which features 10 bracelet events.

‘I’m really glad we met’

They didn’t make formal introductions until the 2014 Player of the Year race started to heat up, but Shack-Harris knew Danzer and said they had played a few tournaments together.

“I didn’t introduce myself until this year,” Shack-Harris said. “But I’m really glad we met.”

Together in Vegas on a day off during the Main Event, they spoke of plans in Australia and side trips they might take. Neither has previously visited that corner of the globe.

Before he found himself in the running for Player of the Year, Danzer expected to go to Portugal during the Australian event. He wanted to attend Aussie Millions next year.

Shack-Harris said he wanted to make a trip to New Zealand, as well. And Danzer chimed in with a fun fact about the number of sheep on the island.

The banter between them is certainly jovial — both have made a lot of money this year — but make no mistake, they’re not easing up on the gas.

“I’m trying really hard to beat him,” Danzer said with a smile. “I have to fight for the player of the year. We’ll try our best, and then we will see.”

George Danzer

An eye on the prize

Like with most players at the start of the Series, any Player of the Year crown is a distant goal.

Before this year, Shack-Harris never dreamed he would be leading the WSOP POY standings.

“I never thought about it once, ever,” he said. “I understand how much it takes, so I didn’t really think about it. It just seemed like a byproduct of having a really good year.”

Meanwhile, Danzer arrived in Las Vegas with a fixed schedule, like he does every year, and sold some of the action to reduce variance.

“And then I just play tournament for tournament,” he said. “I always have an eye on the leaderboard if I have a chance to do something. And this year, I had an eye on it really early because I made fifth place in the ($10,000 buy-in) Limit Deuce to Seven (Triple Draw Lowball event). It was the first tournament I played when I arrived.”

In 2013, Shack-Harris encounter one of his toughest years in poker. After a trio of deep runs in the 2012 WSOP, he bricked the next year’s Series.

Feeling less than confident with his game, he even turned down Brian Hastings who wanted to draft him for the $25,000 buy-in World Series of Poker fantasy league.

But he stepped into Las Vegas in 2014 with an entirely new attitude, confident enough to post in a  TwoPlusTwo that he expected to win a bracelet.

“I just wanted to get on some people’s fantasy drafts,” Shack-Harris said. “Hey guys, ‘I just wanted to let you know, if you’re looking for a sleeper or whatever, I don’t normally do this, but I’m going to put my hat in the ring. I think I’m going to do pretty alright.”

But he didn’t get picked.

So he thought, “I’m going to punish these motherfuckers.”

Mixed game artists

Ask either of them about their best game and neither even mention No Limit Hold’em.

These days, becoming expert in mixed games is a huge part of what it takes to compete for Player of the Year.

Shack-Harris counts Razz, Seven Card Stud Eight or Better and draw games among his most refined.

“But now that George beat me in Razz, maybe I’ll have to pick another one,” he said.

Originally born in Wisconsin, Shack-Harris now makes his home in Chicago, and he plays 40-80 mixed games at the Horseshoe Casino in Hammond, Indiana, just about every Wednesday and Friday. Along with the occasional smaller game, he also plays with a regular crew in a “Fancy Shmancy” private game about once a week.

Danzer, a German Team PokerStars Pro who plays online at the highest stakes, lists both No Limit and Limit Deuce-to-Seven as his top games, along with Omaha Eight or Better.

Concentrating on the mixed games may keep them out of the loop when it comes to the most popular form, Shack-Harris said, but they’re still poker sharp.

“If you understand all these games, you inherently understand theory in general,” he said. “You see how your ranges interact with other peoples’ ranges in all these different games, and you can apply that to No Limit fairly easily.”

Danzer suggested the two bounce strategy ideas off each other.

“I could learn a lot from you in Razz and Stud Eight, and then maybe I can teach some Deuce-to-Seven,” he said.

Shack-Harris jumped at the idea, and said he respects Danzer’s game and considers him, “extremely poker smart.”

He wanted to know more about how Danzer approached the game.

“And I want to keep learning.”

Brandon Shack-Harris

Maintaining a style

As they climbed the leaderboards this summer, Danzer and Shack-Harris also drew attention for having  two of the most recognizable styles in tournament poker.

Along with one of various scarves, Danzer wears a power Mohawk that makes him stand out in a sea of green felt and fat headphones.

He picked up his first scarf after he realized he had a tell that he would swallow when he bluffed. Soon, he found himself at three final tables at the Aviation Club de France.

“And yeah, I kept it,” he said.

Shack-Harris dons a black beanie and black hoodie — nearly always up — that almost never come off while he’s in action.

Sometimes he even falls asleep wearing the beanie. When asked whether he had a full head of hair, Shack-Harris replied: “I don’t know. It’s been a while. Sometimes I shave my head, sometimes not.”

He didn’t take the thing off.

“It’s definitely like a security blanket,” he said. “It’s become a gimmick. It’s just like a part of me, I guess.”

Behind those fierce table images, however, sit perhaps two of the most charismatic personalities in the game.

Both exude a passion for poker so deep that when you find them away from the tables the conversation invariably turns to strategy.

When they met up during a BLUFF photo shoot, it took less than 20 minutes before Danzer opened up to Shack-Harris about three-betting on later streets in Seven Card Stud Eight or Better, and explained a few concepts for deeper stages of tournaments.

“I see them sweat,” he said.

Shack-Harris was eager to jump in.

“You take people out of their comfort zone,” he replied.

“And then they berate me for even three-betting,” Danzer said, laughing. “But yeah, I put them in difficult spots.”

On his left forearm, Shack-Harris has a red tattoo of musical notes from Frederic Chopin’s “Raindrop Prelude.”

Is there a metaphor for poker in there? “Definitely not.”

Music is much more complicated, said Danzer, who took a shot at the question.

“I think it’s very interesting that you would say that, because you don’t play poker in a simple way,” Shack-Harris said.

“I try to do as much as I can to challenge myself creatively,” Danzer said, “to find plays that are not the standard ways making a move, to make it more interesting, because I get bored really fast.”

Poker worlds collide

Being constantly mindful of their situations on the felt and their fervent drive to continually improve are part of what’s kept them in the game for years, and yet another reason their worlds collided inside the Rio.

Until recently, their worlds were in different galaxies.

Danzer, a German pro who was born in Brazil and raised in Portugal until age 12, makes his home amid the mountains of Salzburg, Germany, where he enjoys yoga, running and exploring new hobbies, when he’s not traveling the world for poker.

He found the game — or sport, as he calls it (his Facebook profile lists him as “athlete”) — through chess.

Danzer started playing card games like Magic: The Gathering after chess matches in his teens. And then he heard about No Limit Hold’em.

“The first time we played, I lost a hundred bucks,” Danzer said. “And I was really mad. I thought, ‘This is not possible. This game is so easy. I should be winning against the donkeys.’”

He bought a couple of poker books, studied the game, got his hundred back and much, much more.

The 33-year-old Shack-Harris — a self-proclaimed “poker dinosaur” — didn’t find poker in a typical fashion.

At first, he wasn’t particularly fascinated with the game, so much as he was interested in creating a relationship with members of one of his favorite bands.

About 10 years ago, the lead singer of the group Muse had asked Shack-Harris to play with them while touring for their album “Absolution.” He plays guitar, piano and bass, while dabbling in everything from the violin to toy instruments, and thought he had something to add to their sound.

The other band members were reluctant to bring in another musician. But he knew they liked to play poker, so he had the band leader teach him the game.

“I figured learning poker would be a good way to bond with those guys because that was their thing,” Shack-Harris said. “I just continued to play because I was making more money from that than I was work.”

Soon enough, poker became his full-time job, and music turned into something he played on the side. In fact, at some points, he even found himself falling too far from the music for his own liking.

He started playing poker for a living under the theory that “it would allow me the flexibility to afford time to just play music and not go to work.

“I wanted to leave my mark on the world, put myself in a position where I had a voice to a larger group, and be able to express my opinions on what we should be doing as far as our prioritizations. But I didn’t do that.”

He got into boxing and kickboxing after he found himself out of shape because he played online poker nonstop, but that hasn’t proved satisfying enough.

The swings of the game, along with outside forces like NETELLER being kicked out of the United States because of the Unlawful Internet Gambling Act of 2006 and Black Friday, put Shack-Harris in difficult spots.

Admittedly “disappointed” with his own progression in life, now he’s channeling those goals again and setting some new ones.

He said he wants to” live in a way that’s conducive to preserving our past and ensuring our future, instead of focusing on economical things and getting ahead in ways that are very self-serving.”

He decided this year that he wanted to get back on the musical track, composing new songs and eventually touring his own tunes.

“It’s a huge void in my life,” he said. “I haven’t lived up to my potential as a human. And that’s very disappointing for me.”

He said he believes music is cathartic, and it exacerbates whatever mood he’s in.

“The emotions you can manipulate out of people with your music is something I would like to create, and I would like to offer,” he said.

But he still sees himself playing poker for the rest of his life.

“It would be weird not to,” he said.

By May of this year, Shack-Harris set a goal of winning a WSOP bracelet, and he documented his path in the poker forums.

It didn’t take long. He won the third event of the Series, the $1,000 buy-in Pot Limit Omaha tournament and collected $205,634.

He had barely time to compose himself after the victory, before he jumped in the $10,000 buy-in Seven Card Razz event, which Danzer won.

And he kept accruing more and more points for the Player of the Year.

He picked up third place in the $1,500 buy-in Limit Hold’em event and second place in the $50,000 buy-in Players Championship, before tacking onto his total with two more cashes.

He’s not superstitious, but this is working

Danzer’s run — and even perhaps his persona — really started to gain momentum last year, when he made one instrumental off-the-felt decision. He cut his hair.

On his PokerStars blog, he wrote that he wanted to enter the 2013 WSOP with a “more dynamic image.”

A year earlier, he had second- and third-place finishes at the WSOP, and wanted to do everything he could to improve on those results.

He would keep wearing his trademark scarves, of course. The thick, towering hairstyle just added a little intimidation factor, he thought. Plus, it was cheaper than going out and buying a whole new wardrobe.

He even had his PokerStars avatar changed to reflect the image, and ended up taking down a 4-max No Limit Hold’em tournament.

“Even though I’m not a superstitious person, it really brought me good luck,” he wrote. “As long as I keep running like this, the Mohawk is here to stay!”

A few months later, he took fifth in the 2013 $50,000 buy-in WSOP Poker Players Championship for $388,523, his biggest live tournament score.

And so, as promised, he kept his head groomed that way.

“I believe in the Mohawk,” he said this summer, still maintaining that he’s not superstitious. “If I keep running like that, I’m probably never going to change it.”

From cooking to music and computer programming to brewing beer and stomping grapes to make wine, Danzer said he’s always curious to learn about “how stuff works.”

In Portugal, he and his girlfriend once tried stomping grapes and making their own wine. Friends thought it was great.

He compared wine tasting to poker.

“You come in prepared,” Danzer said, “but sometimes it takes a lot of luck to win.”

Danzer, too, knows the feeling of running through his bankroll during the World Series. From 2007 through 2009, he played several events, but didn’t cash once.

“While I earn a living from poker, I don’t just play to win money,” Danzer would later write in April 2013. “I love the competition. I love gathering points and climbing leader boards. I love winning trophies, and the WSOP bracelet is the ultimate trophy in poker.”

Danzer, who has more than $1.8 million in live tournament earnings with 25 career cashes, picked up two WSOP bracelets in Las Vegas this year.

He won the $10,000 buy-in Seven Card Razz event for $294,792 on June 6, outlasting a field of 112 in order to collect his first piece of WSOP jewelry and 220 POY points.

Shack-Harris collected $182,155, along with 154 POY points, and the race was on.

After the first win, Danzer delayed his bracelet ceremony so his girlfriend Nicole could attend.

Danzer joked that he would have to win another for her since she had come all the way to Las Vegas from Germany.

She made it in enough time to rail his final table in the $10,000 buy-in Seven Card Stud Eight or Better event. The whole time, she said, she was so excited she could barely keep still.

And two weeks after winning his first bracelet, Danzer became the first double-bracelet winner of the year, topping a field of 134 players.

‘Happy for every cash’

Danzer said he never enters the World Series with lofty expectations.

“I’m expecting to brick the 30 tournaments I play, and then I’m happy for every cash,” he said. “But I had to learn that the hard way.”

Shack-Harris has a different approach: “I expect to fucking slaughter everything, because I’m going to be hard on myself no matter what. And I want to be hard on myself.”

Last year, after he failed to cash in the WSOP, his pal Scott Seiver told him not to beat himself up about it, all the pros go long stretches without making money in tournaments. It’s part of the game.

“But I don’t know if I believe that 100 percent,” Shack-Harris said.

Danzer said that after he won his first bracelet, his knees were shaking, “and I was really pumped up and the adrenaline lasted for a week.”

Of his win, Shack-Harris said, “I felt relief. I didn’t have to think anymore. I was just glad the whole thing was over. … I definitely want to feel the way George felt when he won the bracelet.”

Capturing Player of the Year might evoke the same “cathartic” feeling he felt after collecting the bracelet, he said.

“We’ve invested so much of our mental energy,” Shack-Harris said. “We’re exhausted.”

Shack-Harris and Vanessa Selbst studied together before the series, and won bracelets on the same day.

Shack-Harris counts some of the most highly respected tournament pros as friends: Vanessa Selbst, Scott Seiver, Brian Hastings, and now Danzer.

“Just having another person who thinks on your wavelength, but might cover different grounds than you would cover, I think is really important,” Shack-Harris said. “You only hurt yourself by not learning from people you respect. And he thinks in a way that is very interesting to me. And I think we can continue to destroy World Series of Pokers.”

Danzer said he has different approaches to every game, every level of a tournament, and every series, and he’s always thinking one step ahead.

“Let’s see what happens in 2015.”

August 2014