David Williams interview: “Coming second in the WSOP ME was the best and worst day of my life”

Not many poker players know just how it feels to finish second in the WSOP Main Event. On one hand there must be the pure joy of becoming a millionaire and outlasting thousands of competitors. On the other, the utter deflation at falling just short of becoming a world champion.

For many recent runners-up it’s only been downhill from there. That second place is going to be their greatest ever achievement in the game. But that wasn’t the case with David Williams.

Since the American pro finished second to Greg Raymer in the 2004 WSOP Main Event he’s collected almost $5,000,000 in live tournament earnings, won a WSOP bracelet and the WPT Championship title and signed a sponsorship deal with PokerStars. We spoke to the 33-year-old about his last year, married life, winning a major and whether he believes he can do it again…

PokerPlayer: Hey David, how’s things? How was your 2013?
David Williams: I had one of the worst summers from a poker point of view, but one of the best from a life point of view! I played 37 events at last year’s WSOP and I had one cash. I don’t know what happened! I was focused and trying my hardest but it’s hard to be 100% when you’re losing. I’m sure I was 100% at the beginning but a few weeks in when you can’t win a hand it starts to mentally affect you.

I had tracked everything, I went three or four weeks where, when I put my tournament at risk, I never won. Even if I’m behind in all of those – which I wasn’t – you’re meant to win 20/30% of the time. I was 0/20-something.

Why were you tracking your results?
I had this vision at the start of the summer that I was going to win the WSOP Player of the Year. That I was going to win three bracelets and I would write a book about it. I was going to track every hand I played at the World Series – kind of like Gus Hansen’s book. My plan was each chapter was going to be a different event. Chapter one: Event #1 $1500NLH and so on. It was going to be every hand I was dealt, what I was thinking and why. The book would be called “WSOP Player of the Year”.

I had this app where any hand I played, or an interesting fold I would make, I’d chart it and take notes. It was cool. There were two benefits, I thought it would be an awesome book if it worked out but I also thought it would give me accountability and responsibility, because I can’t really play bad! If I’m writing down every hand and being honest but busting out playing super shit, I can’t really put that in the book. So it made me play well… but it didn’t work.

Three weeks in I got so discouraged writing all the bad beats because I actually had evidence. I was running bad and I told my friend: “I haven’t won an all-in all series.” He said, as you would: “bullshit you probably didn’t think about it.” And I was like “you wanna bet?!” And we went through all of my hands. I told another friend: “I haven’t flopped a set in ANY tournament, do you realise how hard that is.”

Sounds like it would be worth a read! Aside from the bad beats, you said you had a great summer from a ‘life’ point of view?
When the WSOP ended, me and my baby’s mother – my fiancé – got married at this extravagant wedding. It was incredible, with 88 guests including a lot of poker players, a lot of my friends from Magic [The Gathering] and all our family. It was just a really extravagant, amazing time and I got to marry my best friend.

So it was a weird summer because part of me looks back at it and thinks ‘wow this was the worst World Series I’ve had in ten,’ but part of me looks back and thinks ‘wow I got married.’ I don’t have any regrets, hopefully I’ll learn from last summer and maybe that book will work out after all.

Obviously it will be hard to top your second place in the 2004 WSOP Main Event. Do you ever think you can go one better and win it?
I do. I think it would be foolish of me not to because why else am I playing this game? You’ve got to have confidence. I know that you have to be fortunate to get to the November Nine, but you can’t worry about things that are out of your control and that’s something that I think most poker players are guilty of.

All you can do is show up and bring your best. Do the best that you can do. Bring 100%, or whatever you have. If you don’t have 100 and only have 80 then bring that 80. Do everything in your power to play your best and make good decisions. Then, whatever is supposed to happen will happen. If you run bad and you’re comfortable with your play then that’s all you can do.

Is it likely that I do better? Not from a math point of view, no. There’s just so many people and it doesn’t matter how good you are, the best player in the world doesn’t always get there. But I’m going to play probably every year for the rest of my life and I’m going to try and play my best every year for the rest of my life. I’m confident that good fortune will happen to me.

Would you do things any differently if you got back there again?
I don’t think I gave it my best or maybe my best wasn’t good enough in 2004. I had never really played heads-up and I didn’t particularly know what I was doing. I wasn’t thinking about how enormous a situation it was. If I ever get back there I have the experience and I know how important it is – the gravity of the situation. You are heads-up for the World Championship! It’s life changing, take your time. I’ll be able to give 100% when my time comes again, although it might be in another huge event.

I don’t have any regrets though. It’s unfortunate that people don’t call me the world champion and when people look back they think of Greg Raymer but I’ve won other stuff, I have other accomplishments. And I’m with Team PokerStars.

One of those achievements is winning the 2010 $25,000 WPT Championship. You’re certainly not a ‘one hit wonder’…
People ask me what felt better, the WPT first place or the WSOP second. And it’s funny because people who don’t think about it are like well, it’s got to be the WSOP. It started it all, I won $3.5 million and I had all of myself so it was a huge windfall. It was life changing and I’m very appreciative but that day used to be the best and worst day of my life! I always have said it was the same day [until  the WPT Championship] and people wouldn’t get it. It was the best day because I got second place but it was the worst day… because I got second place.

I didn’t win and I’m such a competitor that when I got back home I laid in bed and cried. My girlfriend at the time said: “why are you crying you’re rich now!” But I wanted to win and I didn’t know if I’d ever have that chance again, I was devastated. But a few weeks later when I went to cash the cheque at the bank I was like “wow, life is amazing!”

Aside from my daughter being born and marrying my wife, winning the WPT Championship is the best day of my life because when you win – and no-one knows this unless they are a competitor or play poker – it just feels fantastic! When you’re second, you’ve still lost! When you win you can’t second guess yourself, all your previous mistakes in that tournament are erased. It doesn’t matter if you made a bad call here or there because you won! I’m the last guy left, I did it, there’s nothing to say but I’m the champion!

Had you started to feel the pressure before finally landing that major title?
I had never won a big NLH tournament. The buy-in was huge, the field was tough and it would prove to me that I knew how to play this game. I always thought to myself: “why don’t you have a big win?” There was an article in a magazine, ‘best players never to win a major.’ And there I was along with Gus [Hansen] at the time, Patrick [Antonious] and a couple of other guys. When I won I answered that question, outlasted everyone and validated myself. It was a relief. That moment when the turn card hit… I had so much pressure on me, it was almost like a noose around my neck had loosened. I was overcome with emotion.

And I suppose you’ll be looking to do it again soon…?
It’s funny because it’s like drugs. Since then I haven’t had that big win and all I want to do is feel that again. That adrenaline, that tingle. It’s such an addictive feeling. There’s no better feeling than winning a tournament. I’m actually a bit of a sicko, I like to divide the amount I won between the number of runners. Then I imagine each person in the Rio lining up and giving me $1,500! 

It’s just a weird feeling winning a tournament. I miss it and I’m ready to do it again. I think it’s coming and I think I’m going to have a good 2014. People say that every year but I really think I’m doing the right things.

Check out PokerPlayer.co.uk next Wednesday for PART TWO of our interview with David Williams. He talks PokerStars sponsorship, the problems with poker and his controversial views on the young poker pros of today…

For more poker interviews like this every month, grab PokerPlayer magazine! Available on iTunes here!

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