Making a Name

Doug Polk Works on Building His Poker Brand

Last year, during the NBC “National Heads Up Championship,” Huck Seed and would-be 2014 WSOP bracelet winner Doug Polk shook hands inside the Caesars Palace poker room.

Seed appeared somewhat surprised that Polk, an elite heads up No Limit Hold’em grinder at the time, was not invited to the tournament.

Doug PolkAt the time, Polk may not have been a household name or even a familiar face with serious poker fans, but many of the top online players around the globe revered WCGRider, Polk’s screen name.

Seed was knocked out in the second round of the made-for-television spectacle that Mike Matusow went on to win, for which he collected $750,000.

Away from the cameras and the spotlight, in front of a computer monitor, Polk steadily continued to carve out his path to the top of the heads up no limit hold’em ranks.

In 2013, he won a single cash game pot of $490,096, which might have been worth more than the top prize in the NBC event, considering Matusow was rumored to have cut a deal with Phil Hellmuth, who finished second. In a heads up challenge on Full Tilt in October, Polk beat Ben “Sauce1234” Sulsky out of $740,000, along with collecting $100,000 in a side bet.

Polk’s online tally for 2013 reached more than $1.1 million on PokerStars and Full Tilt Poker.

The encounter at Caesars with Seed may not have been the impetus for Polk to build his name as a brand in poker, but there comes a time in the life of a high stakes grinder, at least for those who reach the apex, that the competition simply dries up.

“Sitting on a computer and waiting around gets really boring,” Polk said. “I need to expand to other things in order to get games and make money.”

Now 25, Polk is working to become a recognized figure throughout the poker industry.

He took a big step toward achieving that goal when he captured his first WSOP bracelet in the 2014 $1,000 entry Turbo No Limit Hold’em event for $251,969.

“I don’t think it’s like, ‘I won a bracelet, now things are different,’” he said after the win. “I just think it gives me a more solid foundation to build up my future in the industry.”

And in order to expand his poker mind in the meantime, he’s studying mixed games while waiting for the heads up table to beep.

Not that he’s invited to many mixed games, either.

“I don’t like the politics of poker,” he told BLUFF on a recent podcast. “You know what I like? I like to show up and I like to play. And I want to win, and I work hard to win, and if I lose, try to get better.”

He’s entering — and going deep — in some of the world’s wealthiest tournaments.

He has amassed $1,081,496 in live tournament earnings. Most of that comes from three events in 2014: a fourth-place finish in the 2014 Aussie Millions $100,000 Challenge for $770,285; a third-place finish in April’s $25,000 buy-in Bellagio High Roller for $118,200; and a second-place finish in February’s $25,000 buy-in Bellagio High Roller for $112,044.

This summer, Polk has plans to play at least 20 WSOP events, more than he ever has before. That includes the million-dollar buy-in Big One For One Drop.

“My goal is to be in poker for a long time,” Polk said. “I don’t have a lot of other things to fall back on. I love the game of poker. I love the strategy. I love working hard, being successful, and getting the opportunity to be successful with my friends. So I want to try to use that and build toward something that’s going to be longstanding.”

Polk’s closest friends include the decidedly more brash Jason “klink10k” Mo and Ryan “Fees” Fee, who collectively call themselves the Evil Empire of Poker.

They’re not out to make pals at the tables, and they aren’t shy about talking themselves up.

Asked during a recent WSOP tournament break if he thinks the group comprises the best players on the planet, Mo flashed what was perhaps a rare moment of humility (or sarcasm) and said, “I think we’re up there.”

Polk, Mo and Fee undoubtedly consider themselves the smartest and hardest working players in the game.

“It’s really both things,” Polk said. “We have really good core analysis, but we also work much harder than the field does. Playing is something that showcases your edge.”

Mo finished second to Vanessa Selbst in the 2014 No Limit Hold’em Mixed-Max event, not long after he had ridiculed her on Twitter.

Fee promptly tweeted: “Evil Empire will be back, see you douchebags in the one drop.”

(Apparently, he didn’t anticipate Polk beating a field of 1,473 in the Turbo, as Fee and Mo gave Polk 5-to-1 odds on winning jewelry this summer.)

As a crew that plays the highest stakes online against the toughest opponents, the nosebleed buy-in event is an obvious next step.

But don’t expect them to soon reveal any of their poker secrets publicly in an effort to gain further notoriety.

The best players, Polk said, “have a lot more ability to be on top because of your options. You can do what you want, you can be picky. You can spend your time effectively working, and you know what you need to work on. … There will always be people trying to rise up, but in the past few years, there really has been way less people because it has become too hard to overcome the skill gap and the information disparity from the top players to the middle class.”

Mo believes the top players refrain from providing coaching, while Polk suggests a select group who offer coaching might find themselves exploited.

By whom?

Ola “Odd Oddsen” Amundsgaard, a featured pro on Phil Galfond’s site Run It Once, for example.

Polk said he played a session against Amundsgaard and lost about $170,000.

So he purchased a subscription to the site, watched all of Amundsgaard’s videos and played him again. During the subsequent match, Polk recognized a spot similar to one on the training videos where Amundsgaard was likely bluffing, so Polk called him down.

“He shows me no pair, and I ship all the money,” Polk said. “And I would have folded that before the video. In that one decision, I made like $7,000 for my $100 subscription.”

Fee, who tagged the group with the Evil Empire moniker, says of Polk: “He came out of nowhere and f—d everyone up … He devastated Sauce. Anyone who doesn’t think Doug is the best heads up player is a f—ing retard.”

Fee believes very few people work as hard as Polk does at his game, spending hour upon hour determining optimal lines in nearly every spot in heads up no limit hold’em and breaking down his opponents’ tendencies.

The Rage Against the Machine “Evil Empire” album cover sits on Polk’s TwoPlusTwo profile page.

Polk is perhaps the most mild-mannered of the bunch, but he still enjoys the occasional online provocation, “for the lawls,” he said.

In fact, his friendship with Fee was somewhat founded upon a lie that Polk told.

In 2008, Polk posted a story in the Poker Brags, Beats and Variance section of the TwoPlusTwo forums.

Polk wrote that he had lost a bunch of money in consecutive coin flips while on campus at University of North Carolina at Wilmington.

Because they had a common interest in Warcraft 3 and had known each other through online forums for a couple years, Fee sympathized and sent Polk some money and offered a little poker coaching.

Later, in 2009, the two met in person in Las Vegas, before either turned 21. Polk confessed to Fee that he invented the tale about the coin flips.

“I was just flabbergasted,” Fee said.

They both laugh about it now.

“I was just trolling on the Internet,” he said. “The Internet is not very serious business.”

Doug Polk

Even though he amassed a fortune online?

“Poker is serious, not forums.”

Polk’s interest in cards started in 2007, when a fellow video gamer told him: “You’re way too good at video games to be playing video games” and suggested poker. He made a few small deposits on PokerStars and started out grinding .01/.02 No Limit Hold’em.

“The dream,” he said.

The next year, he quit college to pursue poker full time and moved to Las Vegas, where he had family.

“I had $4,000 and a dream,” he said. “I think it was $4,000 when I left, but by the time I got to Vegas it was $3,000.”

He moved in with his grandmother. “Ballin.”

His family continually asked when he would return to studies, but he found success in the game and focused on improving.

“It’s not like I feel like I was destined for poker,” he said. “I feel like I was destined to do well with anything I was going to do. Poker was a way for me to work hard to achieve what I wanted to achieve.”

Fast forward to 2013, the year that Polk’s game started to draw the most attention.

His computer was hacked after he let a friend of a friend stay at his house in Las Vegas. He provided details online, and said he was able to get the money refunded.

By early 2014, Polk found himself in one of the world’s biggest live cash games at the Aussie Millions, which he called “fantastic.”

He did not shy away from the action, and unsuccessfully tried to pull off a bluff against Patrik Antonius in a pot that left him down $315,000, according to reports on the action.

Amid the high stakes battles and trash talking, however, the Evil Empire of Poker also has a soft side:  a fondness for Hello Kitty, the adorable bobtail character with a pink bow.

“Who doesn’t like Hello Kitty?” Polk asked.

The running joke stems from a Japanese girl Polk once dated who called the brand “so cute and fashionable.” And it lets people know that maybe they don’t really take themselves too seriously.

“We’re not very good at poker, but people just like us because we’re nice to everyone,” Polk said jokingly.

Floating around the Internet is an image of Mo seated at a WSOP table, with Polk standing in the background, holding a Hello Kitty banner.

They also have collected Hello Kitty champagne bottles, a Hello Kitty lunchbox, and a squeaky doll. Hello Kitty is Polk’s avatar on the TwoPlusTwo forums, with the tagline “so cute and fashionable” listed as his location.

Somewhere, Polk picked up Hello Kitty pasties that he plans to unveil at this year’s Electric Daisy Carnival in Las Vegas.

“We’re cute and despicable,” Polk said. “I don’t think we’re limiting ourselves to one term. We’re just in it for the lawls and whatever that brings.”

These days, Polk’s home base is in Vegas, while he travels abroad to play online seek out “lots of little adventures.”

After Black Friday, he admits that his attention briefly shifted away from poker. He partied a bit too much with friends. “My overall success was declining, and I wasn’t very focused,” he said.

With bills to pay, he found himself $30,000 in makeup and headed to Canada to grind.

In a short time, he pulled himself into profit and focused on the game that has since provided him with so much success.

“It took being pretty close to some bad situations for myself to get the fire and work really hard because I don’t want to put myself in a spot like that again,” he said.

Polk isn’t sure where he’ll be in five years, except that he plans to continue to pursue the biggest games in the world, and he would one day like to be a sponsored pro.

“If you’re trying to have a future in the poker world, you don’t want to be known by your online screen name,” he said. “You need to have a name beyond a screen name and an avatar.”

Mo, on the other hand, said his only priority in poker is making money. He’s less concerned with the fame or the glory.

“And to have a good time,” Polk interjected. “For the fun of it.”

“Most of the time at other people’s expenses,” Mo said.

Polk has visions of one day being a household name and maybe getting the invites he believes he deserves.

“But it’s not like that’s a massive thing,” he said. “It really comes down to dolla dolla bills, y’all.”

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July 2014