High Roller

Dan Smith
By all rights, Dan Smith should have won the 2012 BLUFF Player of the Year award. After kicking off the year by winning over $1 million and the title in the $100,000 Challenge at the Aussie Millions, Smith pulled off an astonishing feat by taking down three €5,000 No Limit Hold’em events in succession in less than a week at the EPT Grand Final.

Smith followed that up with a third-place finish in a $5,000 event at the 2012 World Series of Poker, a second $1 million victory in the EPT Barcelona Super High Roller and one other side event win to wrap up the year at EPT Prague. It was during that tournament, however, that Marvin Rettenmaier’s High Roller victory allowed the German to snatch the title from Smith in the race’s final moments.

Put against any other individual year of tournament results, Smith’s 2012 campaign stands as one of the most impressive in the history of the game — and after winning the WPT Doyle Brunson Five Diamond World Poker Classic to close out 2013 he’s at it again in 2014 with 14 cashes, seven final tables and three tournament wins.

Among those results lies a $2 million win in a $100,000 Bellagio Super High Roller — the largest of his career — and a painful close call in the 2014 WSOP Main Event, where Smith went out 20th after losing a massive coin flip against eventual third-place finisher Jorryt van Hoof.

The Super High Roller scene appears to be where Smith’s focus lies these days, and with the results he’s put together, it should come as little surprise. After a short hiatus from the tournament circuit, Smith joined a number of big names who made the trip to Macau for the Asia Championship of Poker series — which featured two High Rollers and a sizable Main Event.

“They had a $65K with two add-ons that I decided to fly out for,” said Smith. “I played the Main Event [too]. There have been some good cash games, but I haven’t got into any of them.”

Smith’s focus was squarely on the tournaments in Macau, and that’s by both design and necessity after making the trip last minute.

“I hadn’t arranged money out here and you have to be there when the game starts and yada yada,” said Smith. “I’ve just been focusing on the tournaments. There have been some big games though.”

After playing and busting out of the Super High Roller to open the series and then the Main Event and second High Roller, Smith was leaning toward taking advantage of the fact that he was already halfway around the world — another perk of traveling to these faraway tournament stops.

“I’m probably going to spend three days in Hong Kong, because I haven’t ever explored that city, and then I’ll fly back to Toronto.”

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Despite striking out in Macau, Smith has had a ton of success on the High Roller circuit. With more and more series adopting High Rollers every year, the opportunities to play for big sums are becoming more and more frequent. In the case of this event, there’s one conglomerate in particular that helps facilitate these massive buy-ins.

“There’s this group, the MBP,” said Smith. “I think it’s the Millionaire or the Macau Billionaire’s Club … something along those lines. But they run the tournament. They ran GuangDong and they said that they had a bunch of guys who were looking to play.”

Macau Billionaire Poker did indeed organize the 2013 GuangDong Asia Millions — the first truly gigantic tournament series in the region and successfully attracted a bunch of the biggest names in poker despite overlapping with the start of the WSOP that year. They promised another big turnout for the three big tournaments at ACOP too.

“It sounded like this was going to be like an all-time great tournament and it was only just a good tournament,” said Smith. “Honestly, though, any time you get 50 people to pony up $100,000 per tournament, I’m happy to show up.”

These nosebleed tournaments serve a dual purpose for players of Smith’s pedigree. Not only are there massive prizes to be won in a short period of time, but these events pit Smith against other players who rank as the very best tournament poker players in the world.

“When you’re playing big stakes, if you’re winning, you’re just making a lot more money,” said Smith. “Playing high stakes is just a lot more fun than playing smaller stakes. Every decision is important, and everyone’s bringing their A-game. It’s fun to compete against the top players.”

With so many High Rollers on the calendar in a given year, the same players end up running into each other on a regular basis. The competitive fire that fuels each one of them would seemingly make it difficult to get along away from the table, but certain groups of these top players came up from the very bottom together.

In fact, with the stresses of travel and ultra-high stakes in these tournaments, the other professional players are some of the few people who can relate to the lives of their toughest competitors.

“It’s pretty communal,” said Smith of the relationship between those who play a lot of High Rollers. “Of the regulars, I’m sure I’ve had dinner with almost all of them. There are people who you’re closer with, and there are some cliques, but for the most part people are friendly.”

Things were a little less friendly during Day 7 of the 2014 WSOP Main Event. Smith was the most accomplished player to make the final day of Main Event action for the summer, and even for someone with as much high pressure experience as he has, the stakes were unbelievably high.

“Well, the stakes I was playing during the Main Event, pretty much were the highest stakes I’ve ever gotten to play,” said Smith. “I would imagine that my stack when I busted was probably worth like low seven figures. I haven’t actually ran the numbers, but I’m guessing it’s around $1.2 million or something.”

With a $10,000 buy-in rather than $100,000 or even $1 million, Smith had a far larger piece of his own action — and he put himself in position to produce a tremendous ROI.

“When I play One Drop, I don’t have close to all of myself,” said Smith. “But in the Main Event I had, obviously, the lion’s share — so the stakes are just so much higher. That was a real, once in a lifetime opportunity to get all of the money from poker. You can make a lot of money from poker, but it’s kind of capped; the Main Event — for this one tournament — there was no ceiling. $10 million is unheard of.”

And it all came down to one hand. Van Hoof ultimately decided to five-bet all in with [4s] [4h] and Smith called for his tournament life with [As] [Ks]. His hand didn’t touch any part of the board — no draws, no pairs — and suddenly, what might be the best shot he’ll ever have at making the November Nine was suddenly extinguished with a 20th-place finish.

“Yeah, I’m fine with it,” said Smith. “I think I played my A-plus game throughout the entire tournament. I think if I had played in a way that I was unhappy with, it would have been really hard to sit with the mistakes. When I play a hand poorly, I’m hard on myself.”

“But I really think I brought the A-plus game for the seven days, so I put myself in a good position to win,” said Smith. “The nature of tournaments is even when it’s going really well, even with 20 left in the Main Event, it’s a great situation but you’re overwhelmingly likely going to get disappointed.”

While Smith always strives for victory, even making the final table would’ve been a life-changing experience.

“It’s a little bit different with the Main, because just making the final table is an accomplishment,” said Smith, “Normally, getting eighth place isn’t exciting. But it was fun.”

Even in light of getting so close to poker’s greatest stage, Smith has stayed overwhelmingly positive. It’s a testament to the tireless work he puts into his game, and how much he strives to be the best player he can possibly be.

His drive circles back around to being able to play at the highest stakes a tournament player can find — but it goes far deeper than that. Smith fully dedicates himself in all aspects of life, as he was determined to crush throughout the 2014 WSOP.

“I find really big tournaments as a good motivator,” said Smith. “Even WCOOP, I skipped a lot of events just because when I decided I was going to play the One Drop — which I decided in March — I changed my entire routine. I gave up drinking, I was working out, I was eating really clean and I was studying poker a few hours every day.”

“I really wanted to put myself in a good position to win. It didn’t work out for One Drop specifically, but I had a bunch of strong results in the interim and I just think I got way better at No Limit Hold’em as a result.”

Going headfirst into the summer paid its dividends, but it also took a serious toll on Smith. After heading to EPT Barcelona — where he won a small side event — it was time for a break to recharge.

“I was a bit burned out,” said Smith. “I was kind of disappointed after playing the One Drop and going deep in the Main, I just couldn’t get excited for $300 dollar WCOOP tournaments. The stakes were tiny.

“I decided to take my first full month off from poker in a really long time,” said Smith. “I ended up going to Austin, Texas. It was nice to just escape the poker world for a little bit.”

Players like Smith thrive because of all the hours they put into poker — and by surrounding themselves with like-minded individuals. Even the most enthusiastic and dedicated student of the game needs to take some time away every once in a while.

“In Toronto, for the most part, all my friends play poker,” said Smith. “Even when we go out to dinner, it’s the main thing that they want to talk about. I love poker, but I was happy to go to a place where I was away from the poker world for a month.”

A little time away from the game was just what Smith needed to get his head right. It seems as if he’s always able to sense the best path toward making himself the strongest player he can be.

“I think I’ve gotten to be really good at No Limit Hold’em and I think there’s a lot of things that go into that,” said Smith. “Live tournaments, I think I prepare well for them. I’ve really been studying a lot this year and I think I have good fundamentals. I’ve played a ton of live [poker], so I think in that aspect, I’m strong — and [I’ve been] on the right side of variance.”

Few players have ever been able to put it together like Smith has over the last few years, and the combination of playing at his absolute peak and landing on the good side of variance more often than not has made for something truly special. It’s something that almost no one else in the world will ever get to experience — and it has inspired absolute awe in some of Smith’s foes at the table.

“I mean, being great at something really is a special feeling,” said Smith. “You know, it’s a great motivating force to keep playing tournaments and during the Main Event here [in Macau], three or four days in a row, people at the table are just talking about how great I was at No Limit Hold’em.”

While some would take such a run for granted, and allow their ego to blind their judgment, Smith has a true appreciation for the results he’s put together.

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“It was a great experience and also, when I just think about how many people in the world play poker, it’s an unbelievably common game,” said Smith, “And I’m one of a handful of people considered among the best tournament players in the world. I’m at least in the discussion. It’s a pretty massive accomplishment — sometimes it’s easy to forget that. It’s been my reality for the last couple of years, but to be objective and look at it, it’s wild to have gotten here.”

The run Smith’s put together has few comparable counterparts — with one very notable exception. Dan Colman has blown away the competition over the last eight months, and Smith is not only in the unique position of being able to comprehend and understand it — he’s also able to provide some insight into where Colman’s head was at before things started snowballing out of control.

“I had only played with him for the first time at PCA this year and he kept going on about how lucky I was,” said Smith. “He said, ‘God, I just want to win a tournament.’ He was really going off, like, ‘Man, you play good, but not enough to warrant your results.’ To a point where it’s just like, ‘Come on dude.’”

Colman clearly felt like he was due for a big run once variance swung his way, but neither he nor anyone else could have possibly imagined just how ridiculous a year was yet to come.

“Then he put together, what is very clearly [one of] the best runs ever in tournaments,” said Smith. “I hadn’t really played with him in the interim, but I played with him a little bit this tournament in Macau. Even though it wasn’t that long, it’s enough to tell that he’s the real deal. The live aspect is just like a very real thing in tournaments — I think some people just overlook it — and he was really strong in that regard and he was playing good. He had a good presence. Dude is no doubt the real deal.”

Smith and Colman are likely to run into each other quite a bit if they stay on the same path, because the biggest tournament action is the root of what drives Smith’s passion toward the game of poker.

“I think my plan going forward is mostly when there’s Super High Rollers, those will be the tournaments that I travel for,” said Smith. “Without those tournaments, expenses and travel time really add up and cut into your bottom line. But in the next few months, there are A LOT of good Super High Rollers.”