Exclusive interview with $10m man Allen Cunningham: “When I was 13 and you asked me what I wanted to do when I grew up, I might have said, ‘Be a poker player.'”

Allen Cunningham is regarded by his peers as one of poker’s greatest talents with a tournament record that speaks for itself

Mike Matusow’s voice booms through the foyer of the Soho Hotel. He’s shouting at Allen Cunningham, trying to persuade him to come and join him at the bar. Cunningham smiles and politely holds up his hand, as if to say, ‘Sorry, not right now.’ An unperturbed Matusow shifts his attention to other members of Team Full Tilt and his guffaws dissolve into the background.

It’s as great a contrast between two players as different as you’ll ever find in poker. Matusow, loud, brash, in-your-face, ever the extrovert; Cunningham softly-spoken, impeccably polite, somewhat disconnected. The Mouth certainly has a tournament record he can shout about: over $ 7m in winnings and three bracelets say as much; but if we’re judging on that basis then Cunningham should be scaling the building with a megaphone.

The 32-year old has acquired five bracelets and over $ 10m in lifetime winnings, yet almost melts into the room. Mention his myriad other achievements in the game and he shifts uneasily and grins sheepishly. He seems to be the complete opposite of the archetypal poker player but one thing is eminently clear: Allen Cunningham makes a compelling case for being the best tournament player in the world today.

Calmness personified

Allen Cunningham hasn’t moved his hands for a few minutes now. They’ve been resting on his lap – fingers slightly interlocked – since we started the interview and in that time he hasn’t gesticulated once. Apart from a slight cock of the head when he tries to remember a hand he played or a player he met, he sits bolt upright and almost completely still. He’s a paragon of good posture. He’s summarising how the WSOP 2008 went for him. If you’ve ever seen him play on television, you’ll recognise the voice – a heavily Californian monotone which registers quite low. ‘I feel I played pretty well overall,’ he says. ‘I didn’t make any big scores which would have given me a nice World Series. Overall financially I broke even, mainly because I played the $ 50k H.O.R.S.E.’

Last year was actually Cunningham’s worst for three years (with tournaments earning him just over $ 700k) but he still managed to notch up a record that any player in the world would be proud of: a WSOP circuit victory, a WSOP final table, yet another deep finish at the main event and four other WSOP cashes.

To be fair, Cunningham hasn’t been short of ‘plus’ World Series in recent years. From 2005 to 2007, he managed to win a bracelet every year, a feat only matched by a handful of players in history. During that period, he also made five WSOP final tables – including that unforgettable 4th place finish in the main event – and picked up the WSOP Player of the Year accolade in 2005. Not counting the past four main event winners, he is the biggest money winner at the WSOP.

The statistics only make up a small portion of his story though. To get the full picture, you just have to ask the players who have faced him at the table. Patrik Antonius, one of the most fearless and feared players in the world admits he still can’t really work Cunningham’s game out. ‘I think the best part of his game is that it’s hard to try to pick out his style,’ says the Finn. ‘When I’ve played him in cash games, he’s played extremely tight. I played with him in a tournament once and he was very aggressive. He’s hard to read. I don’t exactly know his style now.’

In terms of respect from his peers, Cunningham has no equal. As far back as 1999 he was voted Best All Around Player under 35 – startling when you consider that he didn’t yet have a bracelet and his biggest cash was $ 40k. Even Gus Hansen, whose aggressive playing style seems so disparate from Cunningham’s more considered approach, is effusive in his praise. ‘He plays at a slower pace to mine but obviously he makes great decisions,’ says Hansen. ‘He’s one of the top tournament players out there.’

And to cap it all, Phil Hellmuth – a man not usually given over to extolling the virtues of anyone but himself – concedes that Cunningham has talent approaching his own. ‘To me, Allen Cunningham is getting close to my level. Allen does things differently to me but he’s definitely close.’

As you might expect, Cunningham gives players as much – if not more respect – than they give him. He picks out Tom Dwan, Phil Ivey and Di Dang (aka Urindanger) as standouts but is complimentary of most players he has faced. ‘I give a lot of the other players respect. I think that giving players lots of respect helps me figure out what kind of player they are, and what kinds of moves they might make. Everybody’s pretty intelligent, they’re all pretty successful people and they all have modes and reasons but I feel like I can interpret them very easily.’

Family start

So exactly how did this unassuming, inconspicuous Californian get so good? In Cunningham’s mind, the main contributing factor was his early introduction to the game. ‘I learnt to play with my family at the kitchen table, I was maybe 10 or 12 years old, he says. ‘We played a fair amount of games and we generally played dealer’s choice. Even at that point, I decided that there was a lot of skill involved in poker. When I was 13 and you asked me what I wanted to do when I grew up, I might have said, “Be a poker player.” I didn’t even know if there was such a thing. I wasn’t very good at that time, but for some reason I was fascinated from a very young age.’

Although his interest in the game had been piqued, his teenage years were largely devoid of poker; instead he concentrated on the standard distractions of adolescence. ‘It was mostly school, friends and sports,’ he says. ‘Although we played [poker] a few times, it wasn’t a big part of my life.’

It was only when he turned 18, that Cunningham had the chance to see if his fascination with the game could lead to anything further. At that tender age however, he could only play in casinos on Indian reservations and his first port of call was about an hour away. Cunningham explains how the journey was always worthwhile though. ‘There was a freeroll tournament every day and my bankroll was very short so I was very happy to go and play it,’ he says.

You might think that he took to the game effortlessly but the reality was quite different. ‘It was a slow progression,’ he explains. ‘I played for a year before I really started seeing some solid wins. At that time, I was in my first year of college and also had a part time job delivering pizzas which I used to fund my poker. Eventually I won two tournaments in a row, which paid $ 500 each, then I stayed and played cash games and won another $ 1k. It wasn’t exactly quick but I never looked back from there.’

Becoming the best

Cunningham is renowned for having a peerless post-flop game, and he puts this down first and foremost to his bricks and mortar upbringing. ‘The first variant I played in a competitive casino environment was limit seven card-stud. I tried a lot of the other games like hold’em and Omaha 8 and stud 8-or-better. I was mostly a limit hold’em player which is where most of the money in California was. I was eager to jump into different kinds of games which helped keep my mind open to the whole concept of poker and kept me well-rounded.’

Like a lot of the most successful players, he lapped up all the poker literature but grasped that he couldn’t take it on board verbatim. ‘At first I tried to follow a textbook approach but later on I realised you couldn’t really use the literature like that. It was mostly for expanding your mind and letting you explore all the possibilities within the game. At the beginning I wasn’t sure what the best approach was and right away I decided I needed a certain amount of tightness to do well. I added more aggression and looseness as I evolved as a player.’

Another feature that was invaluable to his poker education was having regular meet-ups with a group of players known as the ‘Original Crew’, John Juanda, Daniel Negreanu, Layne Flack and Phil Ivey. ‘We met up at different venues, talked about hands and hung out,’ he recalls. Despite this collection of great poker minds, Cunningham points out that most of his learning was still done internally. ‘Often I would sit at home with a computer and a pen and paper trying to work things out. I’d think about hands, and overall strategy for different situations. Most of my improvement came from watching how other players play.’

Considering the fact he was an engineering student, you might think that his overall strategy is more maths-based but he explains how ‘feel’ is a much bigger part of his game than people realise. ‘When you’re at the table you’re using intuition,’ he explains. ‘You’re not figuring out any sort of math or strategy; you have to think about that ahead of time so that it sinks into you. Maths is behind a lot of the standard plays anyway, so they become second nature. When you add some more sophisticated plays, you’ve probably thought about the maths behind a lot of situations and now you’re thinking about how some of the players are playing and incorporating a few tells and whether people are playing looser or tighter than normal. When you make a play at the table, afterwards you might be able to rationalise why you did it but at the time I think it’s mostly your intuition. That’s based on knowing the game.’

One man who can vouch for Cunningham’s wide knowledge base is his good friend Negreanu. The Canadian recalls how they first met at the Commerce in a $ 80/$ 160 limit hold’em game. ‘We talked about this years later, actually, and both of us looked at each other and thought, ‘Who is this kid and how does he have the money to play in this game?”’ says Kid Poker. ‘When he first started out I always felt like he knew all the right plays, but in the heat of the battle would miss opportunities. But I think his confidence has grown so much. Poker just makes sense to him and he understands all the facets of the game so well. He knows all the right answers.’

Shunning the limelight

So if Cunningham has a matchless tournament record as well as the unanimous admiration from the game’s best players, why is he not a full-blown poker celebrity with a huge entourage in tow? Of the ‘Original Crew’, it’s arguable that he gets the least attention, yet he has more bracelets than Negreanu and more tournament winnings than Ivey. Negreanu has a theory. ‘He’s not flashy or a loudmouth that will toot his own horn,’ he says. ‘So in some sense he gets less recognition than his game warrants.’

It’s an observation that Cunningham is more than happy go along with. ‘I think how far I’ve gone gives me a nice little cushion. Any more [fame] and it wouldn’t be worth it. What I’ve got with Full Tilt is pretty good and I don’t really need to stretch out.’ In short, he has always deliberately shied away from the limelight. ‘I’m glad poker’s got some pretty big celebrities,’ he says. ‘I’m just not particularly interested in putting myself that much out there. I guess everybody feels good about a little recognition from time to time,’ he continues. ‘If an article says I’m best then I guess that makes me feel a little bit good. But I don’t need it. I’m the only one who knows exactly how good I am and what I can do with the game.’

Cunningham obviously knows how good he is but arrogance is as far removed from his personality as any poker player we’ve ever met. And in many ways that is his biggest strength. You often find that some players claim to lack ego but it becomes immediately obvious they are either lying or lack any sort of self-awareness. Others wholeheartedly embrace the ego that seems to be the natural bi-product of youth and money. By being completely free of these affectations, Cunningham is free to concentrate on poker and nothing else. He has never gone broke and doesn’t experience huge downswings. ‘As long as I get in there and play as well as I can and make the right decisions, whatever happens, happens. From that point on I can just root for better results.’

Quiet legacy

So where next for the man more affectionately known online as ‘Clever Piggy’? In previous interviews with InsidePoker he’s mentioned wanting to stop competitive play in ten years and move onto other things. Today he is less inclined to leave poker altogether, mostly because he wouldn’t know what to do with his spare time. ‘I have some hobbies but nothing really big. Since I’m pretty good at it and enjoy playing from time to time, I’m going to keep going as long as they have big tournaments,’ he says without a hint of irony. ‘I don’t see myself changing the schedule unless I find something equally interesting to fill up a lot of my time.’

One thing he definitely won’t be doing is obsessing over high stakes cash games. He is adamant that he has no desire to follow in the footsteps of players like David Benyamine, who can win and lose millions from week to week. ‘I’m not sure what Benyamine’s motivation is or how much money he wants to make. He doesn’t flinch at playing the biggest game there is against anybody. Of course, he’s such an excellent player that he’s probably going to do well most of the time. When I was younger I really wanted to make some big scores and make a lot of money but now I feel like I’m okay and earning a steady amount. Honestly, I’ve grown out of it a little bit.’

Suffice to say that chasing huge fortunes is not on his to-do list. While money is still a key part of his motivation, it’s no longer his driving force. He doesn’t even take part in prop bets. ‘I guess some guys need the extra incentive of a prop bet to really motivate them. I generally think I can play just as well without them. I think five years ago I was possibly more motivated by the money, whereas now it’s a little bit more the pride. I’m so used to playing poker and trying to play well; I want to play as well as I can and not doing anything that would lower my chances in the long run.’

And with that Cunningham makes his excuses and heads to the bar. Matusow slaps him on the back, thrusts a cocktail into his hands and as the other Full Tilt pros gather around, launches into another one of his stories. Cunningham just stands, listening intently and nodding occasionally. Although he might never be able to hold the attention of a crowd like Matusow, be as popular a figure as Negreanu or strike fear into the hearts of other players like Antonius, he knows that at the table he is untouchable. His legacy will probably end up being ‘the greatest poker player you’ve never heard of’ – but we’re guessing he’ll be more than happy with that.

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