Dan Smith found poker at the right time and the game has been very kind to him. Smith sits near the top of nearly every leader board, and he’s not looking to slow down any time soon. Whether he wants it or not, Smith is one of the biggest stars in today’s game and he was kind enough to grant us some of his time for an in-depth interview.
People tend to forget that New Jersey’s own Dan Smith is just 24-years old. A few exceptions aside, Smith is still one of the youngest regulars in the biggest tournaments in the world. Not too long ago it seemed normal for 18-21-year olds to join the biggest tournaments, but since Black Friday, poker is getting tougher and tougher. It’s not as common anymore to see new stars rise up through the ranks, but Smith is one of the ones who made it to the top and managed to secure his spot among the best.
Being a Professional
“There are some things I don’t like, but for the most part I can’t imagine myself doing anything else,” Smith said about the game that has brought him over six-million in career tournament earnings already.
Smith talks fast. He’s thinking on his feet, he’s good at it and while listening to him; you can tell he’s thinking a few steps ahead. Just like in poker.
“I love the opportunities it has given me and I’m very excited about my expectations for the next few years. Since I’m doing pretty well these days, I don’t have to play if I don’t want to. For instance, at the World Series, I used to feel obligated to play every $1,500 No Limit event. I would calculate my hourly rate and tell myself it’s a good investment, while I actually really hated those tournaments,” Smith said.
Passionately Smith started explaining an opinion that hasn’t been shared by many of his peers, at least not in public. “I feel like you have to deal with a lot of jerks in those fields and that’s frustrating. For instance, when you raise someone’s big blind three hands in a row they will start being mean to you instead of adjusting and playing better poker. I’m always like, ‘It’s poker, and there’s no reason to take it personally’ and after talking to some of the German pros I’ve decided to no longer play those events if I don’t feel like it.”
It’s known that the top German pros take a different approach, mainly focusing on the biggest buy ins. Over the years Germany, with the likes of Phillipp Gruissem, Igor Kurganov, Tobias Reinkemeier and Fabian Quoss, has put their mark on the Super High Roller events and their philosophy caught on with Smith.
“It’s silly to put future happiness ahead of current happiness’ the Germans told me, and since playing those tournaments isn’t making me happy, it’s fine for me to skip them for now. By skipping those tournaments I feel like I’m playing at a higher level in the bigger buy in events, where it really matters.”
Right off the bat Smith made sure to inform us of all that is wrong with live tournaments, as he continues hammering 10-handed live poker.
“I just won’t play them anymore,” Smith said, “I don’t know exactly why, but I’m just very unhappy when I play 10-handed. When you’re playing 10-handed there’s always someone taking up your leg space and it makes me feel uncomfortable. Also, in terms of nine or ten handed there’s a big difference in the speed of the game, and without antes you have to be even tighter and it’s absolutely not a mentally stimulating thing. When you’re playing against bad players, it’s also a fact that you’ll need to show down some winning hands, and I don’t like that, but it’s mostly about my personal space.”
Confident Without a Big Score
One of the things that help create more personal space is going very deep in live events. Smith is no stranger to that, as he managed to take down the WPT Five Diamond, the €50,000 EPT Barcelona Super High Roller and the $100,000 Challenge at the 2012 Aussie Millions. Unlike Mike McDonald, who won his first ever EPT, it took Smith quite a while to achieve the things he always knew he was capable of.
Smith during the 2010 WSOP $10,000 Pot Limit Hold'em tournament
“I’ve always felt very comfortable playing live poker and I was confident I was among the better players. That was the main reason that back in the day I was already playing £20,000 High Roller events, even though my live results didn’t suggest I was at that level yet. It didn’t help that my backer at the time was very financially irresponsible. He went from taking 40% in a $100,000 event to, just a few weeks later, only 50% in an $8,000 event. That inconsistency was quite frustrating,” Smith said.
“I always liked playing tournaments and before I had my big successes I kept calculating what my ROI would be. I looked what my hourly in those events should be, but of course there was also the aspect of glory and winning some trophies. When I was looking at the play in those event I said to myself, ‘I think I’m one of the best at these’ so why shouldn’t I play? The variance in those huge fields is pretty sick of course, but my skill level was never a question, even before everything started going well.”
A Magical 2012
Smith’s best year, and one of the best years any poker player ever had, was 2012. The following year however things did not go so well. Towards the end of the year Smith managed to turn things around in a huge way by winning the WPT Five Diamond for over a million dollars. We wondered if 2013 quickly washed away the joy of 2012 and how he dealt with coming down from having such a huge year.
“I like to think I’m not getting big headed over wins or depressed over losing. I know people who literally smash things up when they lose online, but I’m pretty mild mannered myself. Sore losses don’t affect me too much, but on some level losing day in and day out has to affect you.”
“I felt like maybe my mood was a little bit worse, towards the end of 2013, despite living a well-balanced lifestyle. I try to set up my life in a way that I have sources of happiness outside of poker, that way being happy isn’t tied to whether or not I’m winning or losing. A new record at the gym or a new hobby can also bring me lots of satisfaction, but in the end when you get into a big downswing it’s going to wear on you. Interestingly enough, I’ve been in a great mood since coming back from Vegas in December,” Smith jokingly said as he was fortunate enough to finish off 2013 with a huge result.
After a brief pause Smith continued and said, “I personally take more satisfaction out of winning, than the losing hurts me. Besides a few exceptions I’m usually happy with how I’ve played and that makes me happy. Winning is such an awesome thing because that’s where my two favorite things come together.”
Up until winning the WPT Five Diamond Smith’s two big scores came in Super High Roller events. The Five Diamond was extra special because of that, as Smith had a much better grasp of the magnitude of his victory.
Dan Smith after winning the Aussie Million $250,000 Challenge
Fathoming A Big Score
“When I’m playing a $250,000-buy-in tournament, it’s really hard to fathom what that money actually means, and I find myself being very numb to the actual amount at risk. When playing the $10,000 event at the Bellagio, I somehow realize it’s a real big sum of money and winning 100 buy ins at that is way easier to fathom than getting four times your money in a $250,000 event,” Smith said.
“We also didn’t end up making a chop as I had a 7:1 chip lead and confidence in my game, as I was going to play the format better than he was,” Smith added about his recent seven-figure score after beating Gary Benson heads up.
“I think I’m pretty good at just playing my game and not letting the stakes get to me, but when you play live they turn the final table into a giant show. At the WPT Bellagio final table, there was a million dollars in cash on the table and I had to get there early because they were putting on make up for instance, while I just want to focus and play poker. So that’s a little distracting, but I’m good at not letting it get to me,” Smith said.
“There were times where we made a deal. In Barcelona I was heads up with JC Alvarado and he’s a strong player and that was a spot where neither one of us wanted to put up a huge percentage of our bankroll to play for. We only played for €100,000 instead of €250,000, while in Australia it was a completely different story. Mikhail Smirnov did not care about the money and he told me he had lost more betting on the San Francisco 49ers against the New York Giants that day. We played for it all and in a five-hour match I tried to keep variance as low as possible. I limped most buttons and eventually grinded up the win,” Smith said as won the $400,000 heads up match to win more than a million dollars for his first big score in January of 2012.
The WPT Five Diamond was a televised event and Smith’s looking forward to seeing the footage. One of the great things that made this final table extra special is that he had a family member present.
“It was really great having my sister there to watch me as well. She’s enthusiastic about poker but not very knowledgeable, just like my mother. My dad actually liked poker a lot, but he passed away when I was 18. A few years ago I made the final table of the $5,000 shoot and I decided to fly my sister out because I was so excited. That time it did not go so well as I ended up going out in tenth place, so that was quite disappointing. My sister does know some of my friends like LuckyChewy and Steve Silverman from back when I lived with them six years ago. So I can say that’s she’s a little used to the oddities in poker, like our funny way of talking or $20,000 in cash laying on the kitchen table,” Smith said.
Staking and Gambling
As we mentioned before, the WPT victory was a savior of his sour year, but that was not only due to his own mediocre results. Smith staked a lot of players and bought shares of no less than 200 packages during the World Series of Poker. Smith however does not think all of his investments were based on poor judgment.
“Mostly I just ran terribly, because even if I was picking losers it would still be very hard to cash that infrequently. Perhaps I was going a little bit hard on the online guys, and I hate to say it but live and online tournaments are very different games. I view those World Series of Poker events as so soft, so I was just trying to get as many people as possible into those $1,500 events. The fields are huge so the variance is horrific but at the same time I felt like the edges were very large. Maybe nowadays I’m a little bit more convinced that the elite players are taking out such a large percent of the prize pool, but still I think it wasn’t that bad of an investment. I wasn’t paying a huge mark up for anyone, and it’s hard to imagine a good player winning in less than 20% of those $1,500 No Limit Hold’em events,” Smith said.
Nowadays Smith invests selectively, as he explains, “I try not to be too results oriented, but if it would’ve gone better I would’ve probably kept it up more. I’m still actively staking but I’m more convinced of the quality of the players I’m investing in. At that time I just went to the TwoPlusTwo market place and saw someone who had once made a good post in High Stakes MTT, and that was reason enough for me to buy 20% of their package,” Smith yelled, clearly unhappy with his previous judgment.
“It’s always tempting to gamble,” he continued, “At least I find that there’s always a good reason to fire big. ‘Oh it’s the World Series’ or ‘Oh it’s the GuangDang Millions’ and that’s how I come up with lots of reasons to fire,” Smith said as he explained the thought process behind his willingness to have sweats at all times.
“I like to think, that as a professional poker player, that if you’re confident in yourself you should be fairly aggressive with your bankroll. In the grand scheme of things I’m still pretty young, so I think that if I ever were to invest aggressively, this is the time in my life to try and run it up huge. In 10 years, or whatever the case may be, I don’t want to be having such huge swings on a regular basis,” Smith said.
Smith during the 2013 WSOP
The Road to Success
In 10 years Smith’s priorities might lay elsewhere, but in case he’s still playing at that point, it would be the 18th year of his career. Smith, despite being 24 right now, has been playing poker for over eight years and that means he started when he was not even legal to play. Smith’s the first one to admit he wasn’t always the great player he is today, but he learned quickly and made his way up the ranks after he broke up with his first love, chess.
“It took me a while before I got good at poker, but everyone else was so bad that even my very basic strategy was winning. I was super conservative with my hand selection and at the time that was enough, as people were just giving it away. It was weird, as a 16-year old, being a little financially independent and my parents definitely didn’t like the amount of hours I was dedicating to poker. I loved it though, especially since I was getting frustrated with chess, something I’d been playing since I was six years old,” Smith said as he recalled some of his chess-playing days.
“At a certain point, when money was tight, I had my eyes set on getting a chess scholarship at the University of Maryland. I knew I had to get to a specific ranking to accomplish my goal, but at the same time that was the moment where chess stopped being fun. I was doing it just to get higher up on the ranks and that’s why poker was so refreshing, as I had spent so many hours studying chess and the fun in that was completely gone. Poker was a new game, it was exciting and when you’re a beginner at something you pick up things so fast and that was a lot of fun,” Smith said.
Chess and Variance
Talking about poker and chess always brings up the comparison between the variance in poker and the pure skill in chess. The two games have lots of similarities but are fundamentally different from that aspect. While many might say that this is what makes poker hard for chess players to master, it’s something Smith loved when he first started playing poker.
“People always say that the variance in poker is what makes it so hard to switch for chess players, but I find it refreshing for some reason. You can be like, ‘I played my best today but didn’t manage to win, but that’s how the game works sometimes,’ and that’s fine. In chess you can play a six-hour match and have no one to blame beside yourself when you end up losing. Making a mistake in chess would sometimes really weigh on me, because there’s nobody else to blame for it,” Smith said, as he was kind enough to share with us his worst moments in chess.
“Chess tournaments are totally silent, to give a little background to this story. Even when you’re whispering there are people shushing. It’s a serious environment, and this match, the final round, had been going on for more than five hours, when the following happened. In competitive chess when you touch a piece you’re obligated to move it and I’m thinking, and in my mind I go like ‘I’m gonna do this, so he needs to do that and then I can do this’. It was a mandatory response for him in order to stay alive, but I ended up having a brain fart and I put my rook on the wrong square. I immediately realized I was going to lose the game, all my hard work was for nothing and in my frustration I yelled, ‘Ah shit!’ At that point, and this is in a big room where I’m playing in the roped-off section since I was in the Top 10 boards, everyone was looking at me. There was even some little prodigy on the board next to me and he starts laughing hysterically about my misfortune. I felt so stupid,” Smith said, as he probably felt a little of the pain he had to endure in that moment.
“In poker I find it relatively easy to consistently make the best decision, the equivalent I guess would be a miss click, but I haven’t had any instances like that in poker,” Smith added.
Make sure to tune back in for second and final part of this interview on Friday. In the second part Smith speaks about renting a beach house in New Jersey with LuckyChewy, Randal Flowers and Steven Silverman, but also taking big shots online, his lucky beer theory and the Year of Spice.
All pictures courtesty of PokerNews.com
Front page photo credit: Danny Maxwell, PokerNews.com