Andrew Chen – No Fame, Just Freedom

Photo credit front page: Neil Stoddart for during the 2012 EPT Berlin final table.

There are only 13 people in Canada that have earned more than Andrew Chen in live poker tournaments. Many of those top pros rely heavily on one big score but Chen has managed, as one of seven in Canada, to notch up a six figure score in each of the last five years. Those pros are Daniel Negreanu, Gavin Smith, Mike Watson, Shawn Buchanan, Sorel Mizzi and one of his best friends Mike McDonald. The 25-year old professional is a special talent, but you will never hear him say that about himself. Down to earth, realistic and very polite is the best way to describe this young man from Mississauga, Ontario. Chen is not looking for fame and spotlights; he wants to enjoy the freedom that poker gives him. To date Chen has three top five finishes in EPT Main Events and one runner-up finish in a WSOP event back in 2009. On top of all of this he has won over $1.6 million in online tournaments under his handle ‘achen’. His biggest victory to date came in the 2011 NAPT Bounty Shootout during the PCA for $263,100.

Last year you finished second in EPT Berlin event and you seemed extremely happy with that result. After making the deal and playing for the title and an additional €80,000 Was there no reason to be unhappy when you lost?
Some people would look at it as, you’re heads up and you’ve already locked up a certain amount of money. Now anything that has happened up until now is irrelevant as that no longer matters and therefore I should feel terrible – I’ve made no extra money after the deal and I busted the tournament. I don’t think that’s a good way to look at it. I’ve run so good and done so well in poker and in every way imaginable that I think it’s tasteless and not very tactful to complain if you’re ever in my position.

Doesn’t it hurt more because you’ve been close before?
Basically not, but say I was closer to breaking even or not up quite as much as I am, then it might get annoying. So no, it’s awesome how I’ve ran and that’s about it.

Do titles in tournaments mean nothing to you?
Well, not quite nothing. For most people I think it would be cool to get some recognition from winning a poker tournament, but the bottom line is that it’s about the money. It’s kind of weird, I’m nitty with my money but in a way I would say I value having money more than people who spend it a lot. What I mean by that is that I value the freedom to do nothing. It sounds bad but that’s who I am.

So for you it’s more about having the time to do whatever you want as opposed to buying expensive things?
Yes, the time to let’s say play computer games and watch TV. In my eyes I’ve been incredibly lucky and a lot of people in similar positions have been lucky. I really don’t like complaining. When I do complain, it’s in jest. What else is Twitter for when you’re a poker player? (Laughing) Although I guess some people like to read about hands and how you busted out. It still sucks to get bad-beated in a tournament but in the grand scheme of things, if anyone asks me are you disappointed at all when you come that close? I would never say that I’m disappointed because I don’t think that’s very tasteful.

As a poker player you go through a lot of swings but is there ever a moment where you’re disappointed in yourself or in your results?
With me it’s more that I’m afraid that I’m not as good as my results might indicate. This is basically true since I’ve ran super hot. I like to think that I’m a good player and I won’t be disappointed results wise when I go six months without winning something big. It will be more like, I haven’t done that much work off the table, I’ve played Sundays and not invested a lot of time in my game. Therefore people are probably passing me by. Results wise in tournaments I realize that it’s almost impossible to determine anything in that department.  

You already said that you’ve been luckier than other players while a lot of players will emphasize how good they are to others. How do you see that and does it take an even smarter person to realize such things?
I hope it takes a smarter person to see those kinds of things. A: because that means I’m a smarter person (laughing), and B: that would mean that poker is more profitable. It’s basically true, almost everyone and especially in tournaments, overestimates their edge. For me personally, it’s really hard to have these results and be confident that they’re close to my average ROI. There’s no way that it would be close to average. That’s why I throw out the word lucky because that’s the simplest way to describe it. 

So would you say you’re a part of, let’s say, 100 top MTT professionals and you ran better than them?
Pretty much I guess. (Laughing)

Could you compare yourself to a player that you’re close with that has ran worse than you, but you consider them a better player?
Ran worse and play better than me? That has to be anywhere between 50 and 100 players. Live maybe Mickey Petersen even though he has won an EPT, but there are so many of those that haven’t gotten the big scores.

Let’s take Mickey as an example, do you feel like you need to study the game more after talking strategy with him?
Mickey and I are similar, we’re both pretty TAG-ish, and we do talk strategy a decent amount. Maybe more so when I play with people like SirWatts, Mike Watson. It’s clear that he’s better than me and in a way it’s especially disconcerting given that he’s also a fairly tight player. What I mean is, I could look at someone like Philipp Gruissem and think, yes he’s better than me, but I can’t just hit the books and be like, “Alright, this is how Philbort plays.” It’s more so that I look at guys like Watson and other solid players that play a better TAG-ish game than I and are better at incorporating game theory style play when playing against better players. The first time that I felt meh in this sense was after the EPT London High Roller. On my first bullet I was on a tough table and I felt like I made some bad plays.

Do you get nervous when you play against guys you think are better than you?
Not nervous but maybe a little tentative. I’ll probably second-guess myself a bit more and err towards playing a little too tight. That’s not terrible at most tables and I’m sure I still have a tiny edge or be at least breakeven even at the toughest tables when I play that way.

I assume you can play off your own dime for a while but you’ve chosen to sell action on 2+2 a lot. What are the reasons for your action selling? Is it to reduce variance or do you play better when it’s not your own money that’s at stake?
It’s to reduce variance. It helps a lot as I’m not quite at a point in my life where I can just drop everything and never work a day in my life again. Given that that’s something I would like to do, and given how close I am to it, it’s not nice to be able to go on a $300,000 downswing. That goes back to me valuing financial freedom. Selling action is sweet, especially when you have mark up. Let’s say I have a 50% ROI in a Main Event and by selling at 1.35 I give up a little bit of expectation in the long run but let’s put it this way. I sell 50% of a $10,000 tournament for $6,750 and that way I’m putting up $3,250, assuming you have a 50% ROI, for $7,500 in equity. That would be the equivalent of playing a $3,250 event with a 131% ROI. If you would run simulations your expectation in the long run would be lower but your swings would be incredibly smaller. That’s basically it; it’s worth it for me.

Andrew Chen during the EPT Prague final table in 2008, Photo:

Is it an ego thing or some sort of arrogance that most players think they can overcome that kind of variance without selling action?
I think it’d be way too presumptuous to make any sort of sweeping statements about other players’ financial situations, but if I had to answer in a word, then yes. Especially because you never really know how much people have of themselves in High Rollers and such. I guess I don’t really have anything against it – I suppose it could be annoying to tell people you only had 10% of yourself in a very big tournament.

What is the smallest percentage you’ve ever had of yourself when you had a big score or do you make sure you always have at least an X amount of your own action?
The smallest I’ve had of a decently big score was somewhere in the high twenties during the PCA $10,000 Turbo. A $10,000 Turbo is a ridiculously stupid tournament and it might not even be a good idea to play it for a lot of players. During the first couple of big scores I had I’ve had 50% because I was backed. More recently I’ve had between 50% and 70% of myself.

Can you recall why and when you started playing poker?
Ah, the classic poker story! During lunch in High School we started playing $5 Sit and Gos, etc.. I always mix up the years but there was some point in time that the Waterloo guys were doing well in online tournaments. Ch0ppy won the Sunday Million, I want to say that was back in 2007, and some of my friends from high school were becoming friends with those guys during first year of university.  After that I did the standard thing and deposited $50 to play the smallest stakes. I ended up playing full ring cash, started posting on 2+2 and ran it up from there. I didn’t really have anyone to talk strategy with in that first period. Another person that has influenced me to start playing poker is a roommate of a friend of mine called Eric. Nobody will have any idea who he is but he deserves a shout out because he’s a good friend of mine and also helped me getting into poker. He was playing $5/$10 and above at the time and making a lot of money. We shot some messages back and forth but for the most part I was on my own. I don’t really remember how I got into playing tournaments but I started playing some $11 and $24 stuff and that’s when WCOOP 2008 rolled around.

You started a thread on 2+2 about three years ago right after your big score in Monte Carlo. It was about how big the percentage a player should get in case they were backed. You were bringing this up because you were thinking about playing on your own and withdrawing from a backing deal. What kind of deal did you have at the time and what were you aiming for?
I had a 55-45 deal in which I could play basically anything. There were no expenses included but I could keep VPPs. It was with evanski, Evan Roberts, who is a High Stakes cash game player but most people probably don’t know him. Even before that score I was considering playing on my own because I had enough money to do so. I remember that Mickey (Petersen) was a big proponent of me not being backed anymore. I was trying to figure out if there was a way to play backed with a better deal.

Evan was hit by Black Friday but at the time he was still very much financially comfortable. So I figured with my expectation in poker tournaments there had to be a deal possible which would be favorable for me and still slightly favorable for him as well. He can handle the variance and I was thinking of giving him around 20% of my expectation, that’s what I was going for. I just wanted to see what people’s opinions were but I realized that it’s almost impossible to structure something like that. Deals in staking are all over the place if I talk to players who do so.

What is the craziest deal you’ve ever heard about?
I don’t know if I’ve heard anything super crazy but I sort of feel like there were people in the past that had 60-40 in their favor with expenses covered. That seems slim for the backer. What I meant with ‘all over the place’ is that while some people have done well, most people don’t even talk about it, and you hear about a lot of staking failures and hardships. Another example that backing might not be too great is Mike McDonald. He was backing a few people a couple of years ago and he stopped completely. He’s smart, young, has a lot of money, earning potential and it’s not like he has to sit on his millions. Why did he stop backing people? Obviously I’m being a bit presumptuous here but it’s just something to think about.

Would you be up for all poker players opening the books on the money that they have won?
If had to answer right now I definitely have to say no. It’s an invasion of privacy and I don’t really see the benefits of it. It’s like having Sharkscope or OPR for live tournaments in the sense that fish can see how much they are down. That would be bad for the economy. I don’t think it’s a big deal that people are secretive about it but I will admit that every once in a while I think that it’s kind of cool that I have a lot of money while some of these people with a lot more fame don’t. That’s more something that I keep to myself because I’ve been very fortunate.

You said that you’re not a big spender at all but there must be something you’ve bought with you poker winnings?
One of the only things that I really bought with my money as a direct result of poker has to be my car. I wouldn’t have bought that if it weren’t for poker. It’s nothing crazy; it’s a 2002 M3, which I bought in the States for $18,000 after my WSOP score. I’m looking to buy a house sometime in the near future but for now I’m renting a place in downtown Toronto. I parked a decent amount of money in index funds but for the most part it’s boring. I buy some action here and there but for the most part it’s standard.

Andrew during the 2011 EPT London Main event

Did you need that staking deal with Evan in order to become a poker professional or could you’ve made it even without him?
I was playing cash games at the time and I played some WCOOP tournaments in September and I had no idea what I was doing. I was browsing the staking forum, which at the time was one giant forum, and read an anonymous post by Evan who was looking to stake MTT players. I thought it was a cool idea and sent him an e-mail and surprisingly enough he responded. During that WCOOP I had some good results but I basically didn’t play any tournaments before that. The last tournament that I had my own action in was the LAPT final table and two months later I had that big score in Prague. In a way it could’ve been terrible for me, as I could’ve gone on a massive downswing. There would not have been any financial risk but it still would’ve been really bad and I could’ve been in a very similar situation like many other MTT players right now.

In Prague you were five handed with four very bad players and everyone was saying that it was your tournament to win. Was it very frustrating when you didn’t?  Were you that good back then already after being a tournament player for not even that long or were they really that bad?

I think most people would say that compared to now everyone was terrible back then including me. I was a very decent amount less terrible than they were but I was still clicking buttons. As far as frustration goes, if I win that Kings versus ace-something hand I would’ve probably won the tournament. At the time it was a lot of money to me and it still is now but the differences in pay jumps compared to the increase of my net worth was so huge. That’s still the biggest pot I’ve ever lost money equity wise.

You’ve been on the tournament circuit for quite some time and there has been a big shift towards using iPads, phones and reading books at the table. Do you think players are giving up a lot by doing so?
Compared to the average they’re not giving up a lot because it’s a lot of work to focus on all hands, even when you’re not in the hand. Hypothetically if say you were the healthiest person in the world in the best possible shape and you get 10 hours of sleep every night and you would be able to focus on every single hand, than yes you are giving up a lot.

But what if you compare it to 2003 when there were no iPads and hardly any phones with Internet?
Even without iPads you look around the room, zone out, see how much time is on the clock; check up on how your friends are doing. You could even be sitting there staring at nothing, especially on Day 1 which I guess isn’t that bad since the stakes are smaller. It also goes both ways, the edges are smaller but the tables are softer and people make bigger mistakes. Let’s say you have a table full of good players playing without tells at a hypothetical table. At a table like that there will be some players with a single digit percentage edge over other players while others will be slightly losing players. The relative difference, not that it would happen very often, in a mistake as far as timing or physical tells is such a huge deal. It probably won’t happen very often but it’s worth data mining in case you pick something up because the edges between good players are so small. Picking up the slightest thing could be very useful.

Do you think that players that spend all day on their iPad during high-roller events with small, highly skilled fields make a significant mistake?
I would say that people that fold their hand and look straight back to their iPad make a significant mistake. On the other hand many players don’t do that on Day 2 or Day 3 of a High Roller event. If there are such players they are making a big mistake. I’m also not the best at focusing all the time either; I spent a fair amount browsing Twitter. I don’t want to be hypocritical or anything and a lot of the time you’re playing nine-handed with deep stacks and everyone is playing fairly tight.

It seems that you’ve never really looked to become famous through gimmicks, blogs or being an outspoken person in the community up until this point. Do you prefer operating in the background or do you seek to become a sponsored player in the future?
I’d admit that I would be happy to be, say a PokerStars Team Pro but I’ve never really actively pursued it. I think it also has to do with my lack of ego; It’s not something that I would really go after. I post some things on Twitter and I think it’s cool that I have several 100 followers. The chances of me getting a sponsor deal are slim and the effort I have to put in to change my persona in the poker world is not even worth it for me.

Could you be a talkative player like Daniel Negreanu and still play your A-game?
I think Daniel knows when to buckle down and when he can talk a lot.  I prefer to be a bit quieter and I think that goes for most professional players. It’s not anything personal, also with a lot of poker players that come off unfriendly or stern they prefer to play like that. I don’t think I’m one of those people but those other players need that in order to focus. As long as you’re polite you can do whatever you want at the table.

Let’s look at something different, what do you think about a certain playing style, Mike McDonald’s for instance. His stare down, tanking and use of the crane does tilt some people, what’s your opinion on that?
(Laughing) Yeah, I watched EPT live a couple of times when he was on and people actually hate how he does that. It’s crazy to me that it bothers people. I haven’t played against Mike myself since he started doing that so maybe I haven’t been a witness to how annoying it could be. This might be mean but obviously most of the people that e-mail EPT Live are not professionals. There are a lot of things that they might find annoying. If you would poll a bunch of poker professionals I’m sure the percentage of people finding it annoying would be very small. I’m very liberal when it comes to the way people play in live tournaments and to be honest, I’m not the fastest player myself. As long as you don’t waste any unnecessary time it’s fine by me.

You grew up in Mississauga, Ontario. What was the setting and what did you want to become when you grew up? I’m sure you weren’t dreaming about being a professional gambler.
I did all the usual science stuff, biology, and chemistry etcetera. I had decent grades in my final year of High School and the first year of University was a common year. You don’t pick your major so it was just science. In the second year I picked biochemistry while I had no idea what I wanted to do. I’m sure unfortunately a lot of people in my position at that time had a similar feeling.

Is the system wrong in that sense that you are forced to make big life decisions while you are still very young?
Given how out of touch with the real world I am I’d hate to have any strong opinions about it. If I’d really have to say something I would say that it’s not great the way it’s structured. Who’s to say what would’ve happened if I didn’t win at poker.

Do you ever think about that?
Sometimes, as far as thinking that I’m really lucky to be in the position that I’m in. For someone in my position it’s really easy to say, “Oh man that was so dumb to go to school because I made all this money playing poker.” I wouldn’t really want to have such a strong opinion on it but people that age don’t know anything. It’s crazy that you have to make decisions that affect your life in such a big way. That said, I’m so out of touch with the real world that it’s impossible for me to say how they could change or improve it.

Can you give an example of how out of touch you are with the real world?
It’s not that I’m out of touch with the news but my opinions are so skewed. I just don’t want to have strong opinions and I’d like to show some tact because I’m not very well educated on certain things. I’ll read the news and Reddit but that’s about it. I don’t have experience with some issues and it seems weird for someone in my position to complain about certain things. For example, something like CISPA seems bad but I don’t really know too much about it. It also doesn’t really affect the quality of my life that much and even though I feel a little guilty about it.

Do you still have friends outside of poker and do you find it hard to talk to them sometimes because you’re living in a different kind of world?
Yes, from high school I still have some friends I keep in touch with. I won’t feel bad that I’m out of touch with certain things but most of my friends are pretty similar. We’re all – and this is going to sound very generalizing – a bit nerdy, play games and did well in school probably because we’re Asian (Laughing). The point is, all my friends have similar worldviews; we’re open-minded and logical. I’d say I’m fortunate to be in that situation because I’m sure there are many poker players that did not have such friends before they got into poker, and therefore now they can’t relate at all.

From listening to you it sounds like you’re more in touch with the world than the majority of the world. Isn’t it all about the perspective and who you compare yourself to?
If you compare me to the world average than yes, I’m in touch with the world. I feel slightly guilty for never buckling down and thinking about issues. I read them and think, “that sucks,” and move on.

Do you live in a cocoon in that sense?
Maybe a little bit and the fact that I feel slightly guilty is probably why I don’t really have an ego and act reserved. I’m happy living in the cocoon with my girlfriend. I’m happy as long as we don’t negatively affect any people and positively affect those we do interact with.

Andrew Chen during the 2011 NAPT Bounty Shoot Out at the PCA he ultimately managed to win.

On Twitter you posted a bunch of funny Tweets about Scott Seiver about two years ago, what sparked that?
Yeah those Tweets were kind of funny and part of a, in retrospect, silly bet. During one of the breaks at the WSOP we discussed something about compliments on Twitter and agreed that if one of us, Mike McDonald and Ben Wilinofsky were also involved, would have to write compliments about the other player once a day for a month when someone would have a $200,000 or bigger score. Scott placed seventh in the $50,000 Championship and of course because he played that event the odds of him having a $200,000 score were much higher than ours.

Where’s your blog, are you planning on writing one since those Tweets showed that you could quite possibly write some funny stuff?
It’s funny that you bring that up because for the longest time I thought about starting a blog. All the time I have thoughts about poker, or something that happens in the world, but most of the times I forget about them later on. A different part of me tells me that it’s too much of an ego thing to start a blog and I don’t want to come across as an attention seeker. The majority of it is being lazy, and then I tell myself don’t be a narcissist.

Does that mean you maybe think too much about what other people think?
That might be the case a little bit. I like to think that I want to be as far from an attention whore as possible but I also know that that’s not the case. Because why would I have Twitter in that case? There is a line somewhere and for me having Twitter is fine. Things like starting up a blog or a website can possibly be more pretentious. The way that I’ve been saying it makes it sounds like I think that doing that makes you a bad person but that’s not the case. It’s a personal preference. If even a handful of people read my blog, look at my results and incorrectly think, “Oh he thinks he’s hot shit,” that would make me feel terrible even though I know that any reasonably smart person and all my friends wouldn’t think that.

The most important question of all, what’s up with your hat? You always seem to wear it, is there a story behind it?
This is probably the most boring answer to question ratio. It’s my brother’s hat, which I stole off him in high school. I like to wear it and I’m too lazy to style my hair. I think it’s a little bit indicative of my personality, the fact that I don’t put in an effort to look good. A lot of times I don’t cut my hair for a very long time so than it’s easy to throw on the hat. It’s been the same hat I’ve been wearing for ten years now. When it gets too beat up I’ll buy a new one, exactly the same one (Laughing).

Remko Rinkema

Remko Rinkema has covered the biggest poker tournaments in the world since 2008, including many WSOP, EPT, Aussie Millions, APPT, MCOP and Unibet Open events. As an in-depth interview and story enthusiast he tries to do things a little differently. Besides the usual writings Rinkema grabs every chance to appear on podcasts, live streams and in the occasional video.

Recent Posts

Jason Somerville – Reinventing Live Poker with Run it UP Live

In the fourth and final part of this series Jason Somerville speaks passionately about how he views the landscape of…

7 years ago

Jason Somerville – Big Swings and Shots on the High Stakes

This is the third of four parts in which Jason Somerville tells us his life story. In the previous parts…

7 years ago

Jason Somerville – Battling Illness, Teaching Karate and Discovering Poker

Front page photo: Jason with one of his best friends in poker, Vivek Rajkumar. More about him later in Part…

7 years ago

Jason Somerville – Brings Back the Fun in Poker

Having a conversation with Jason Somerville is about as far removed from what most people consider ‘normal’. Words come flying…

7 years ago

Pratyush Buddiga: Spelling Bee Champ Rips US Education System

In the first part of the interview with Pratyush Buddiga you were able to read about his impressive testing scores…

7 years ago

Pratyush Buddiga: Spelling Bee Champ with a Brilliant Poker Mind

Cover photo: With President George W. Bush after winning the Scripps National Spelling Bee   There are smart people that…

7 years ago