Aggressive poker pro and ex journalist Roland de Wolfe tells us his story: “When you have top set, it’s not hard to play it well. And I’m still on the learning curve”

How a former journalist Roland de Wolfe has become one of the most feared and successful players in the game

The player

Name: Roland de Wolfe
Resides: London, Las Vegas
Style of play: Hyper-aggressive
Tournament winnings: $ 2,918,972
Biggest win: 2006 Bellagio Five-Star World Poker Classic – $ 25,000 WPT Championship event, no-limit Hold’em; 3rd, $ 1,025,205

Careful readers will have recognised Roland de Wolfe’s name long before he became the most hailed poker player in Europe. And that is part of what’s so extraordinary about de Wolfe’s meteoric rise through the high stakes tournament universe. A little more than three years ago he was a decent poker player, with lots of game, and a job at what was then a newly-launched gambling magazine called InsideEdge (our sister title, now InsidePoker).

Fresh from university, in Birmingham, London-bred de Wolfe was half-assed about what he wanted to do with his future – ‘Writing seemed to be the only thing I was good at,’ he says with a shrug – and got hired to write about poker, a game that was just beginning to take off in a big way. Within a year he realised that he was better at playing the game than writing about it. He knew that he stood to make lots of money at the felt-topped table, and, most critically of all, he was willing to take a go-for-broke shot at doing it.

On a recent weekday afternoon at the Bellagio Casino in Las Vegas, the end result of all that is very visible. Relaxing in a deserted high-limit slots room, de Wolfe slumps in his chair, props his sneakered feet on a cocktail table, and sips bottled water. He wears jeans and a white warm-up jacket, zipped down enough to reveal a tuft of chest hair. Slightly doughy and supremely mellow, de Wolfe is here to play in a big stakes tournament, he avoids the cash games, plays online for a few hours each day (specifically because he prefers the action of short-handed poker over the live ring games that you find in casinos), and has been generally enjoying the hell out of Vegas.

Just a few hours ago, for example, he and another poker pro got into it over which suits would flop when. ‘We entered the satellite room and played red or black on every flop,’ he says. ‘If it was all your colour, you got $ 3,000. And if it was all the same suit, you got $ 5,000. I ended up winning $ 32,000.’ He adds, however, that there are lower stakes pursuits as well: ‘I get to the gym, hang out, go to the good clubs at night and drink. I hang around with some Finnish people who drink a lot. We’re lucky to get out the door of the Bellagio.’

Running good

What goes unstated – but remains completely obvious – is the apparent ease of de Wolfe’s ascent, which has, thus far, peaked with him being named 2006’s European player of the year and UK player of the year at the European Poker Awards. All told, he’s earned nearly $ 3m in tournament winnings and reigns as the first player to snag championships on both the World Poker Tour and European Poker Tour circuits. ‘I’ve been really lucky, running good and playing good,’ he admits. ‘That’s a great combination. When you have top set, it’s not hard to play it well. And I’m still on the learning curve.’

De Wolfe’s momentary coyness runs counter to the aggressive style of play that seems to be in his blood. He’s had gamble in him for as long as he can remember, and it goes back to when he was just a kid. At age 12, de Wolfe was playing poker, gambling at pool, and regularly betting sports with a couple of school friends. He remembers excelling at math and being fearless where his meager bankroll was concerned. But so were the others.

‘Two of them are traders in the City and the other guy works for one of the country’s biggest bookmakers,’ says de Wolfe, who evolved into a fairly deadly pool hustler before taking up high stakes poker. Whatever he won at billiards, though, helped to fuel his less profitable proclivities. ‘I didn’t learn much about poker at that point, but I learned that I had the gambling instinct. Every day I went to the high street bookmakers and lost my money at everything.’

Gambling man

By the time he was old enough to go to casinos, while attending university in Birmingham, the gambling shifted into second gear for de Wolfe. He enjoyed playing Blackjack and once managed to win £1,200 in a single night. He gleefully blew it on a hotel suite for him and his mates.

His biggest loss at the time was £1,500, which seemed like a small fortune for a college kid. But it did nothing to dampen de Wolfe’s enthusiasm for financial risk. By the time he landed at InsideEdge, poker had been added to the young gambler’s favourite pursuits.

It was early 2004, the beloved Gutshot club had just opened, and London’s semi-underground joint quickly evolved into a favoured haunt for de Wolfe and other journalists (mostly with varying degrees of degeneracy). Unlike the typical hack, though, de Wolfe immediately emerged as a winner, front-running freeroll media events and managing good results when he bought in. ‘I cashed for £5,000 at a time when it was three months’ wages for me at the magazine,’ remembers de Wolfe. ‘James Hipwell [then editor of InsideEdge and de Wolfe’s boss] was impressed with the good results.’

Right from the start, de Wolfe had a few important things going for him. To begin with, he was working for a gambling publication and knew he would be interviewing professional poker players. He felt the need to get up to speed quickly and immediately immersed himself in the bible of the game, devouring Super/System and memorising the Laws of Doyle before many of the Gutshot denizens had bothered to.

More importantly, though, he had an instinct for no-limit poker as well as the requisite degree of fearlessness. ‘I understood tournament strategy in a way that others [playing low stakes events at the Gutshot] didn’t,’ he recounts. ‘I have a style that is all about putting the pressure on people and I was never scared. Maybe I was a reckless gambler, but I wasn’t afraid of going broke, and that’s a better strategy than playing too tight.’ Beyond that, de Wolfe was immersing himself in the game at its highest level.

As one of InsideEdge’s key writers, he reported on tournaments, interviewed people like Phil Hellmuth and David Benyamine, and sponged strategy tips while picking the brains of poker’s most talented pros. One week de Wolfe found himself on the high seas, covering the Party Poker Million, when Erick Lindgren won it back in 2004. Lindgren clearly made a big impression on de Wolfe – ‘It was inspiring to see someone win a million dollars in one shot’ – and he became increasingly enchanted with the idea of evolving into that kind of a player: a pro with lots of money and the willingness to risk it all.

So de Wolfe kept on improving his game, raising the stakes, and becoming more immersed in tournaments. It quickly reached the point where poker whizzed past journalism – in terms of both earning potential and sheer enjoyment.

So he quit the magazine, took a more flexible job with book publisher Avery Cardoza, and didn’t last there for very long either. De Wolfe turned pro, full-time, in 2005 and had already gotten used to shrugging off the big swings. Months earlier he’d had a big rush on the internet, winning £16,000 in three days. But what he won, he tended to blow on other forms of gambling, often playing Blackjack online and betting on cricket with the bookies. He shrugs off his disregard for cash, saying, ‘I’ve never cared that much about money. I’m not a material person. There’s nothing I want to buy. As long as I’m in action, it’s all right.’

Coming of age

Despite his profligacy, by the time of the 2005 World Series of Poker, de Wolfe had accumulated a bankroll of $ 60,000 and a Main Event seat that he’d won online. It served as a bit of a coming out for him, as he managed to win $7,000 (in the $ 1,000 no-limit Hold’em tournament) and had his first taste of being truly intimidated by a big-time poker pro (during the Hold’em with rebuys event).

‘Sitting immediately to my left, with a big stack, was Barry Greenstein,’ remembers de Wolfe. ‘He kept coming over the top and I didn’t know how to combat that. I was aggressive, I continually raised with shit, and he knew it. I didn’t have it in my game to come back over the top, so I kept folding, and eventually he knocked me out on a coinflip. But I learned a lot that day for sure.’

Confronted with the same situation today, de Wolfe says, he’d handle himself differently: ‘I’d be a little more cautious about what I opened with and a little more prepared to go with it if I did open. In fact, I had the same situation this past summer. What I did was limp and re-raise. But it’s always hard when you’re out of position; once you get deep in a tournament you don’t want to play big pots out of position. Sometimes you need to lay it down.’

Weeks after his World Series experience, de Wolfe was at the Aviation Club in Paris, to play in 2005’s Grand Prix de Paris, a World Poker Tour event with a $ 10,000 buy-in. Though he was bothered by the smoke (it’s legal to smoke at the table apart from the seats directly next to the dealer), it didn’t seem to affect his game, and he made a final table that was toughened up by the presence of Alan Goehring and Juha Helppi. Looking back, de Wolfe remembers a few key hands: doubling up early on against the second nut flush, laying down Aces and Kings, and catching a full house against an opponent’s straight. ‘I played that one really well,’ de Wolfe says. ‘I checked the nuts three times and check-raised on the end. The bubble lasted ages, I built a huge stack, and got lucky on the final. I had some good hands and there were no suck-outs.’

De Wolfe aced the tournament, won the first prize of $ 574,419, and kept approximately half (the rest went to backers). Beyond the money, though, there was the recognition. ‘Overnight you go from being a nobody to being a WPT champion,’ he says, still sounding a little gushy. ‘There are a lot of good players out there, but, until you win a big event, nobody knows you can do it. It’s a lot about confidence, about knowing you can play through the field. I know that one win doesn’t mean you’re a top star, but you’ve got to get it before you can go for the second.’ The chance came soon enough, just nine months later, in April 2006, at the WPT’s season finale, the Five-Star World Poker Classic (with a $ 25,000 buy-in).

Anybody who happened to witness de Wolfe getting pushed around by Barry Greensten during the 2005 World Series would have seen a changed man at the Five-Star. He comported himself like a seasoned pro, maintaining a jocular demeanor at the final table, appearing to sweat nothing, and playing with enough aggression that the money – seven-figure differences between third, second, and first places – seemed completely inconsequential. ‘When you look at a million dollars, minimum, one way or the other, you’re not that bothered – you just want to win it,’ he says, explaining how he felt once it got down to three players. ‘I could have slipped into second, but I gambled and wanted to win. Some people might need the money more than I do. Or they might say I’m a fucking idiot for gambling away a million dollars. But, like I said before, I don’t care about money. You can’t take it with you.’

And you can always win another tournament, as de Wolfe proved this past October when he finished first in the Irish Masters in Dublin, which gave him the distinction of being the sole player to win a WPT event and an EPT event. The latter tournament marked his signing with Full Tilt, which is a big deal and has the potential to be an even bigger deal. He’s the site’s best known player in Europe, finds himself in extraordinarily good company (Erik Seidel, Howard Lederer and Chris Ferguson head up the Full Tilt cabal), possesses wit and an ease when it comes to dealing with media (after all, he used to be one of us). In short, de Wolfe is enjoying the prospect of being able to earn money by doing more than merely grinding it out at the tables.

Taking the positives

Life has clearly gotten better for the young poker star. He’s thinking of buying himself an apartment in London, his parents are no longer fearful that he’s squandering his life in casinos, and his new good friends include the high stakes specialist Patrik Antonius. What’s gotten no easier is dealing with the fairer sex. In fact, de Wolfe has burned through at least one girlfriend directly as a result of his obsession with poker. ‘As my playing increased,’ he says, ‘I spent less and less time with her. And she didn’t like it. That can be very difficult. But it was especially difficult for her because I was a writer when she met me and a poker player at the end. She supported my playing poker and liked that I was making a lot of money. But she didn’t like the amount of time I spent doing it. When you’re a sick gambler, though, all you want to do is gamble.’

I point out that it goes beyond that, since gambling became a pure positive for him. Smiling, looking a little sheepish, de Wolfe lets on, ‘Well, it wasn’t a total positive because I still like to blow my money at other things. But I’m getting better. I’m not playing table games anymore. So that’s good.’

This leads me to wonder what sort of stakes he gambled at when it came to Blackjack, a game I know he has an affinity for (and, I believe, might find it tough to give up for very long). ‘Too much to put in a magazine,’ he replies. Refusing to get any more specific on the record, he does allow, ‘In sports I’m down huge. And at staking people I am down super-huge.’ And when it comes to betting sports, de Wolfe says, ‘You can’t put too much on the line at any one time. Have your fun but don’t go sick crazy. Don’t spend $ 20,000 on each match of the NBA basketball games without even watching the games.’ For a second it’s unclear if de Wolfe is simply issuing a seasoned gambler’s advice or if this is the level of wagering he does himself. Then, his next statement offers a bit of clarification: ‘I’m betting $ 40,000 on the NFL. You can get lucky. I’m down but not that far down.’

The sense of having something meaningful at stake is what drew him to take a run at beating the Big Game (it was unsuccessful) and generally keeps him away from playing cash games during trips to Las Vegas. ‘The only cash games I’ll be able to beat are so big that I can’t afford the swings,’ he says before untangling his counterintuitive logic. ‘I can give my A-game only when the stakes are very high. The smaller stakes games? I won’t be able to make myself care enough.’

What he does care about is winning more tournaments, winning more money, staying exquisitely in action. Chilling at the Bellagio, considering what he might feel like gambling on and where he might feel like doing it, de Wolfe is a content man who’s at the top of his game but nowhere near his personal peak. As he happily puts it, ‘I’ve been lucky in poker, lucky in life, and I feel very fucking privileged.’

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