Dani Stern Talks High Stakes, Tom Dwan and More

In Part 2 of this three-part series of interviews with Dani Stern the high stakes poker player talks about what it takes to reach the highest level. Stern gives a unique insight into how tough it is to make it to the biggest stakes. Stern also talks about a famous video he made playing high stakes heads up against Tom Dwan back in 2007.

Back in November 2006 Stern was subject of “The Well” on TwoPlusTwo and he said one of his goals was to become the best player in the world. 

“I absolutely did not reach that level and I will almost certainly not ever reach that level. My goals are much more tempered now. I just try to be as good as I can at whatever game I’m playing. I’m playing mostly tournaments and PLO cash and I’m very focused at getting better at both. That quote was from seven years ago, I was a bright-eyed 19-year old with a limitless ambition. What I really meant to say is that I wanted to work hard at becoming the best and that struggle itself is something I wanted to go through,” Stern said.

“The things that happened in pursuit of that were well worth it. I’m not satisfied with how good I am at poker. I really want to continue to get better. This past summer during the WSOP I tried to play my best No Limit Hold’em tournament game every day, and now that I’m back in Toronto I focus on online cash games. I’m playing mostly $5/$10 and $10/$20 PLO and I’m focused on that. I’m trying to keep my short term goals as specific and realistic as possible, just getting better at the game I currently play is a good goal,” a very levelheaded Stern explained to us.

New and upcoming players are always looking for advice from the pros and we decided to ask Stern how to move up through the ranks.


“I wouldn’t say it’s impossible, but it’s definitely a lot more difficult compared to back in my day. There are a lot of reasons for that. I do a lot of coaching and sometimes as low as $0.25/$0.50 you find that they are playing against professional poker players on those stakes. It’s insane that even those games are mostly filled with people who play for a living. There are players that play 24 tables of $0.25/$0.50 6-max PLO for a living, and of course they are not great and often pretty bad, but so is anyone else coming up the ranks,” Stern started out with.

“The biggest advice I would give someone right now is, don’t get into poker. If you really, really want to, you will and that’s the type of person that should get into it.  If there is any hesitation, you should not do it because it’s going to be much harder than you could ever think is possible. If you are really determined to move up in stakes, I would say the best thing you can do is: play an enormous amount of hands, constantly work on your game, your math, watch videos, use training sites and try to get a poker coach that isn’t too expensive,” Stern said about how tough it is to make it in poker nowadays.

“Yes, I’ve always said you should be very conscious of bankroll management, but nowadays I think that you should be more aggressive if you want to make it to the highest stakes. This is because of how brutal the rake is at low stakes. Just getting to mid stakes, where rake isn’t as brutal, is very important. I can’t be too cocky about this though, as I have no math on this, but this is what it feels like to me. Just think about it, a $2/$4 game isn’t that much tougher than a $0.50/$1 game, so every minute you spend on those lower stakes is kind of a waste of time and money. If you could just get to the point, you don’t have to be in that much of a rush when you really start climbing to stakes where it gets tough.

This raises the question, would Dani Stern be able to move up through the ranks himself if he needed to?

“That is a nightmare scenario that I don’t really want to think about. I’d like to think that I could do it, but I’ve also been reading everything on 2+2 about the PLO rake. It basically comes down to that low stakes PLO is unbeatable because of the rake. That’s kind of scary, even though PokerStars is the only one I have good faith in, they might be doing something wrong. It seems intuitive that players should be able to move up and down stakes. The difference though between me starting at $0.25/$0.50 and someone else, is that I’ll be extremely prepared for against the low stakes competition. I think my win rate would be very high, but I’m certainly not interested in entertaining any sort of prop bet related to this though.

Stern moved up the ranks many years ago, and in 2007 he played high stakes heads up against Tom Dwan. On DeucesCracked Stern published a video on that session about a year later. Now he reflects on that video and how the game has evolved since then.

“That video shows really well how fast the game has involved, and how woefully behind I was on some aspects when I played Tom. Even stuff as simple as preflop ranges, how loose to play from the big blind and how loose you should be defending three-bets, I wasn’t even close to being right about. The response on that video was pretty good though, but I did only publish that video a year after we actually played,” Stern says critiquing his own game.

“Even then it was already out of date, and today even more so. In general, when you’re watching poker videos, you shouldn’t watch any that are more than a year old. The game is constantly changing and you want to be at the forefront of the evolution. So that particular video is interesting because I also talk about the difference in playing style and how the game has evolved. Heads up No Limit Hold’em was never my best game, but I’ve gotten a lot better at it since then. I was happy with my decisions at the time during that match, but I could’ve put in a lot more work into my heads up game if I wanted to.

Stern has been a fixture in the poker community since 2007 and we’re wondering if his job as a professional might become a little monotonous and less compelling.

“I’m still pretty hungry when it comes to playing poker in any form, I still have the drive to play a lot,” Stern says as he gets right to the point.

Back in 2010 Stern did an interview with PokerStatic, and when listening to that interview we couldn’t help but notice that he sounded a bit jaded.

“At that time I was taking my place in the poker world for granted and I wasn’t working very hard I think,” Stern reflects.

“That attitude negatively affected me, and I went through a long period where I wasn’t doing very well at poker. Right now this is a lot different because I’m playing two things that I think are really good, PLO cash and No Limit Hold’em tournaments. Those are the good places to make money nowadays. That interview with PokerStatic was about a year before Black Friday and during that whole time period I guess I got bored and lost my fire for the game,” Stern says looking back on this tough period in his career.

“I think I might be a little jaded with poker, but then again I still play a 12-hour session every Sunday and play cashgames throughout the week. On top of that I also travel a lot for live tournaments and I enjoy that as well,” Stern said, as it seemed like he wasn’t entirely sure if poker still brings him the fun it did in the early days.

Anyone who’s eight years down the road of a career, in whatever that may be, will go through stages of tapered motivation. We asked Stern if there was any specific thing that changed his outlook on poker.

“There was not a singular moment that changed my view on poker. My problem was partly a maturity issue. I wasn’t treating it like an adult at that point, I was sort of still acting like a 19-year old kid who just found a game and started doing really well. Nowadays I treat it much more like a job. A job I have to work really hard at in order to continue to do well. This year, in 2013, I’m doing really well so I’m happy with the improvements, but I would still like to work on getting better,” Stern said about maturing within poker.

As Stern got into poker from a very young age you can see that his road to becoming an adult was a lot different than that of most people. The huge gap between the regular 18-year high school senior and someone who plays poker is big, but it didn’t affect Stern’s friendships.

“Things are definitely different now that I’m 26, as I’ve pretty much been doing this for the past eight years. It’s definitely a different perspective compared to being a college kid who gambles for hundreds of thousands of dollars, and friends who argue over who owes who money for a pizza we ordered. Now my friends all have jobs, and some of them have really good jobs and make lots of money, so it’s a little more grounding now, being a poker player. I don’t think it’s as extravagant as it used to be, relative to whom I hang out with. Most of my friends that are not poker players tend to be some of my best friends, just by nature of staying in touch with them even though I don’t see them that often anymore,” Stern said.

Even though the gap has been closed for the most part, there is still a very clear difference between his life and that of people not putting a large portion of their earnings on the line.

“Sometimes it is easy to take for granted how much gambling I’m doing in my life. In any given year I could go from having a losing year to running extremely hot and making a million dollars. I don’t think about that very actively, or better I don’t think about that at all, but sometimes I do realize it when talking to people who have a real job. You definitely get reminded of how different the lifestyle is,” Stern said.

The difference is definitely obvious between lifestyles, but Stern never envied people with regular jobs.

“The only type of job that I think I would like is something where I would be involved with start up companies and creating my own thing. I definitely don’t envy anyone working in an office and having to deal with all sorts of office politics. I wouldn’t like work I don’t believe in or being ordered to do stuff that doesn’t fit my interests and believes. The idea of starting your own business is interesting, and that’s also something I think can be very fulfilling,” Stern said.

“Even in my lowest moments in poker, where I said to myself, “Man I hate poker”, which I think is something many poker players will say to themselves at some point, even in those moments if you would’ve asked me if I would’ve wanted to do something else, I would’ve said no,” Stern reaffirms.

The good thing about having a normal job though, is that you never have to worry about going broke. During an eight-year poker career, every player, no matter how solid, will endure serious swings. Besides the usual downswings, Stern, like many others, was negatively affected by Black Friday in a major way.

“I’ve definitely had some enormous downswings and that was very difficult to deal with. There is just a lot of variance that you didn’t expect there to be. First of all there was Black Friday, which was very devastating for a while. Not just because I wasn’t able to play poker for a while, but I had a fairly strong income source outside of just playing poker from my DoylesRoom sponsorship, making videos for DeucesCracked and my coaching business. Those things diminished dramatically, or went away completely in some cases, one hour after Black Friday happened. Even that was a strain, even though I never went broke-broke,” Stern said.

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.

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