Brian Townsend had become the poster boy of the online high-stakes scene before going on a $4 million downswing in 2008
Brian ‘sbrugby’ Townsend helped redefine the concept of the poker star. In early 2007 he was a god among men. Townsend was ten feet tall, crushed games in his sleep and had a bankroll equivalent to the GDP of a small African nation. That is, if you believed the online forum cognoscenti.
But even outside of the insular world of online poker Townsend was rapidly building a reputation as the greatest no-limit hold’em cash-game player alive. He appeared on the High Stakes Poker TV show and saw his face on the cover of several magazines. His star status heralded a shift in focus from major tournament winners to the guys slugging it out in the biggest online cash games.
Townsend, the good-looking, healthy- living, quietly spoken engineering graduate, became the scene’s unlikely poster boy. And he cemented that status when during the 2007 WSOP he began playing electrifyingly high-stakes $ 1,000/$ 2,000 games against the top live pros with spectacular results.
In June 2007, he made over $ 2m in five days. But towards the middle of the summer things began to change. Poker was about to take a bite out of Townsend. After all, when you reach the top with such haste, there is really only one way to go. And the fall is always going to be ugly.
THE QUIET AMERICAN
The first time I heard of Brian Townsend was in late 2006, in a suite in the Bellagio overlooking the technicolor throb of the Las Vegas strip below. Roland de Wolfe and Patrik Antonius were discussing the identity of some of the high-stakes online players. ‘Do you know about this guy sbrugby [he pronounced it “ess brugby”]?’ De Wolfe asked, and Antonius shrugged.
At the time, Townsend was killing the high-stakes games online, and on my return to London I started following with interest as details of the 26-year-old man from Santa Barbara, California began to emerge. How he began playing limit hold’em, shifted to live no-limit before going on a huge run up the limits online, going from $ 2/$ 4 to $ 50/$ 100 in a few months. How his screen name was a reference to the Santa Barbara (SB) university rugby side he played for. How he was universally viewed as a fearless, creative and brutally good player.
By the time I met him for the first time at the 2007 WSOP Europe he was already a bone fide poker star, but you would be hard pressed to tell. There was none of the Hellmuth swagger or even Ivey’s cool air of disdain. Although he’s tall and well built, in person he is shy and somewhat distracted.
Typically dressed down in a shirt and jeans, he looked like a typical engineering student with messy brown hair and a bashful smile. At the photo shoot he looked uncomfortable in the spotlight, and there was no alpha male ego present. He’s a confident guy, for sure, but he seems happy to take a back seat and observe rather than be centre stage like many of his live-game peers.
And like many of his high-stakes contemporaries he also seems slightly absent-minded when it comes to life outside of poker. When asked his suit size for our cover shoot he didn’t know, asking his assistant to send on the details. But to be fair to Townsend, he has had a lot else to think about in the past 12 months. This is a man who this time last year was recovering from dropping $ 4 million in a very short space of time.
So how did he fall so far, so fast? ‘I was a very good six-handed no-limit hold’em player,’ Townsend says evenly as we speak over the phone. ‘I like to think I was one of the best, but those games really dried up. When they did, I switched over to playing pot-limit Omaha. I think my PLO game is okay, but my heads-up game has a lot of leaks and I lost a lot of money in those games.’
Back in July he posted on his blog that his downswing had hit a sickening $ 3m. ‘It began the last two days of live play when I lost $1.8m and has continued online by losing another $ 1.2m,’ he said. The $ 1.8m came in a now legendary pot against Bobby Baldwin where Townsend bluffed all three streets against Baldwin’s made straight. But it was the online downswing that was to prove more significant.
The bleeding didn’t stop at $ 1.2m. Townsend, battered and bruised, took some time off and redeposited for the first time in a long while. He wired in $ 1m to his Full Tilt account and stepped back into the biggest pot-limit Omaha games. Around a month and a half later the money was gone.
‘I was playing really badly, I wasn’t focused and I wasn’t playing my A-game. In my mind it was easy money and I could make loose calls. I was very lackadaisical, I wasn’t focused and I was like “meh, whatever.”
‘I think my PLO game is really good now, but a year ago I was getting beat by better players. It has nothing to do with how I was running. I am not as good as I was at no-limit hold’em. It’s as simple as that, and I am not going to make excuses for myself.’
THE BIG CLIMBDOWN
For a man placed on such a pedestal, who set such stock in beating the biggest games around, to suddenly be on the end of a $ 4m downswing was tough to take. He still had money, he could have found backers, but his response was surprising. He admits that at the time he felt playing in lower-stakes games meant he had failed as a poker player. Nonetheless, he sucked it up, left the nosebleed games behind and moved down in stakes to $ 25/$ 50.
‘I have never had good results in the big PLO games and that bothers me a lot,’ Townsend says with a rueful tone. ‘I don’t know why exactly. I have been thinking a lot about my game and working on it, and I think I definitely have the skills to play in those games. But I want to prove it by building up instead of just jumping in.’
‘A lot of players keep playing higher stakes and like to sell action in themselves, but I prefer to reduce the variance by moving down. I am prideful and it does bruise the ego a bit, but I know it’s the right thing for me.’
The response from the online community, however, was anything but sympathetic. ‘Townsend is busto!’ ‘He just ran good!’ ‘The king is dead!’ It was a feeding frenzy as people snatched the opportunity to take shots at Townsend, and revel in the schadenfreude of his temporary downfall. By early 2008, the CardRunners pro was yesterday’s man and the internet fanboys had moved on to new idols.
But what had really changed for him? In reality, not much. Life was good. At the height of his no-limit success he had bought a house in Santa Barbara, California overlooking the ocean, and had made several investments including a stake in burgeoning poker training site CardRunners.com. He was still set for life, played poker at very high levels and spent each day doing pretty much what he wanted in the balmy Californian sunshine.
Nobody doubted Townsend was still one of the best no-limit hold’em players alive, but there was a feeling he had fallen away as one of poker’s elite. His life increasingly revolved around the CardRunners business and refining his Omaha game. ‘I get really bored doing the same thing,’ Townsend explains. ‘When no-limit hold’em was going really well for me I got bored with it after a while and I was like “what’s next?”’
He’s a man who is constantly seeking new challenges, and in part this explains his absence from the big no-limit hold’em games. The games have dried up, but when they do run Brian Townsend is often conspicuous by his absence. So has he given up on his first love?
‘I would still sit in any six-handed no-limit hold’em game. I don’t really want to talk about what stakes I play at, but I have played quite a bit more than you would expect this year. I like to stay really in touch with it for the sake of CardRunners, so I can keep putting out A+ videos.’
Certainly Townsend’s status as one of online poker’s true stars remains undimmed. His no-limit videos are consistently the most viewed on the CardRunners site, and this is a testament to the affable charisma that made him famous in the first place. But he’s not content just to be known as the best at no-limit hold’em. ‘PLO is what I am trying to figure out,’ he says.
This desire, bordering on an obsession, to be one of the best pot-limit Omaha players in the world has to some extent been a curse for Townsend. He refuses to settle for the easy life, and won’t be content until he has conquered PLO the same way he did hold’em.
Ultimately, it was this desire to be the best PLO player in the world that led to his darkest moment so far. During his move down the levels Townsend began using his assistant’s account to play in the $ 25/$ 50 games. He said in a public apology it was to hide from the constant glare of the online railbirds.
But with his status as a sponsored pro on Full Tilt, this was never going to sit well with the poker public. And when he decided to come clean he faced an outcry from the forums, and a six-month ban from Full Tilt. Townsend apologised and donated $ 25,000 to charity, but it wasn’t enough to prevent many of his detractors from sharpening their knives.
In reality Townsend’s offence was pretty minor, and something replicated by many of the big online pros in the past. His crime was more one of vanity than one of collusion or angle shooting. For Townsend, poker has never just been about the money. It’s been about the challenge, about beating the other guy, about being the best.
‘I was making a video the other day at $ 5/$ 10 and I totally outplayed some guy,’ Townsend says, his voice speeding up as he tells the tale. ‘I still got a thrill out of that. It’s all about respecting your opponent, thinking he is a good player and then beating him. Because if you don’t respect your opponent then beating him is just not very fulfilling.
‘I hate to admit it, but I wish I could play $ 25/$ 50 for the rest of my life. I would have a lot less stress. But so much of it is about the challenge. The people who sit there and play six hours a day of $ 25/$ 50 are the people who have a nice even influx of cash. I wish I was like that, but I know I would just get bored of it.’
ACE ON THE RIVIERA
In the past few months Townsend has made some big changes to his lifestyle. He’s left his home and his friends in California, and temporarily moved to Monaco. To be precise he has rented a I wish I could play $ 25/$ 50 for the rest of my life, but I know I’d get bored home in the nearby town of Beausoleil and seems really content, despite the strange sleep schedule it’s given him. ‘I get up at 2-3pm. I go to work out, have dinner out and then come back and play all night.’
Townsend seems really excited about being forced out of his comfort zone in Santa Barbara and plans to travel all over Eastern and Northern Europe while he is here. ‘I should really take advantage of the freedom I have to do what I want and go where I want whenever I want. I was looking at this cheap airline magazine and there are so many places I want to go. It’s really exciting.’
It’s unlikely he will be playing that many live poker tournaments on his travels, however. ‘I don’t ever see myself playing the circuit. Even if I was given the buy-in I don’t think I would play a lot of the events. There would just be too much travel and too much hassle. The WSOPE was kind of fun for a while, but it was four 14-hour days and that is just brutal.’
PLAYING FOR PRIDE
Townsend appears happy to leave the hunt for TV fame to others, and admits he has learned that being seen as the best player in the world is ultimately not that important. He’s no longer chasing spots on TV shows or magazine covers to flatter his ego. ‘I used to really want that and want those adulations. Now I don’t really have that desire.’
What drives him now is more personal, deeper rooted. He may not want to say so, but his descent from poker god to mere mortal must have been a humbling experience. And getting back to the top, and on top of a game that has seen him lose millions is clearly his main focus.
‘I think I am really good at six-handed PLO. I don’t have the results to prove it and I wouldn’t ask anyone to agree with me. It’s going to be a fun challenge to prove to myself that I am one of those top five PLO players. It’s not going to be easy, and there is going to be a lot of frustration, but I am confident I am going to prove that I can.’
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