Exclusive interview with Gavin Smith. He talks us through his amazing poker story: “I think every person on the planet plays no-limit hold’em better when they have two drinks in them”

He may have a reputation for getting drunk and making stupid bets, but did you know Gavin Smith actually has one of the sharpest minds in poker?

Gavin Smith might have great recollection for poker hands, but his mind is useless when it comes to keeping track of appointments. On a recent Saturday afternoon, he opens the door to his Las Vegas home and stares at me quizzically, as if he thinks I might be popping by to fix a drain or mow his lawn. When I tell him that I am there for an interview, Smith (whose tournament winnings total $3.27 million since 2004) feigns recognition and invites me inside.

We sit in the living room of his nicely proportioned house – complete with sky-high ceilings, a dramatic staircase and a pretty sweet looking pool table. He’s got a poker felt signed by fellow pros, a big poster of himself promoting Black Velvet whiskey (produced in his home country of Canada) and a cell phone that trembles with saccharine pop music whenever a call comes in.

This first question is in honour of Jerry Yang. Have you ever prayed for cards at the poker table?

GAVIN SMITH: Never. I figure that God has more important things to do than help me to make a hand. He doesn’t care whether or not I win a tournament. He’d want me to stop that nonsense because he’s so busy.

Among your other fellow Full Tilters, who is your favourite to play heads-up against?

GS: Gus [Hansen]. I think he stinks. He’s not very good in games. Wait, let me rephrase that: in some cash games. If he wants to play Omaha 8 or better, I like to play him at that because he gambles too much and has no idea what he’s doing. That said, he thinks he’s the best in the world at it.

Tell me about your very first trip to Las Vegas.

GS: The first time I came here was with my mother. It was 1989, I had just turned 21 and my dad had recently passed away. We stayed at the Stardust. I knew nothing about gambling and I played every table game at a huge disadvantage. I thought Vegas was the coolest place in the world. But I also saw that it could be my demise; I figured that gambling could wipe me out.

But poker saved you. Tell me about your first poker trip here.

GS: I was still living in Canada and a bunch of guys that I played with were coming out to Vegas. I won $2,200, in a $15/$30 game and the boys were leaving the next day. So I bought myself a ticket and came down here with them.

How’d it go?

GS: Really well, except that one morning I took my poker winnings from the night before and started playing blackjack at the Imperial Palace, where we were staying. In 15 minutes I was up $4,000. Then we played a $17 buy-in tournament at the Luxor. I finished first and my buddy finished second.

After that we went to the MGM Grand. I got hot as a pistol and won $6,000 playing blackjack. I was up $10,000 and it was the most money I’d ever had. It was fantastic. I planned on paying off my truck and figured that I’d have a little bankroll. Then, the next night, I lost it all at the Flamingo. That taught me a pretty good lesson.

Your first big tournament win was the WPT Mirage Poker Showdown in 2005, with a grand prize of more than a million dollars. Was that your first time on television as well?

GS: My second. I was also on television when I final tabled a tournament at the Plaza, downtown.

I remember that being a tough one.

GS: I was there with Ted Forrest, Freddie Deeb and Daniel Negreanu. I was pretty much of an unknown and came in as chip leader. The first prize – $200,000 or $300,000 – was a ton of money to me. But I played awful and finished fifth. I remember losing a pot to Daniel where I had the best hand and knew that I could have pushed in and won. But I was afraid to pull the trigger.

What happened?

GS: There were a lot of firsts that day. I was on TV for the first time, it was my first huge final table and my first time playing against all these accomplished players. After the tournament, though, I sat down and made a mental note not to let anyone ever intimidate me again.

That kind of thinking has got to come in handy after you win a pile of money – like when you finished second in the pot-limit hold’em event at this year’s World Series. You must encounter loads of people trying to borrow money and pressuring you to invest in all kinds of sketchy things?

GS: That’s true. People want to give you business opportunities and stuff. You get sucked in sometimes. I bought a hockey team that fell apart. But I don’t really get involved in backing people and loaning money to non-friends. So I haven’t gotten hurt too badly. I’ve lost like $50,000.

I read online that your nickname is Bird Guts?

GS: When I was in high school, my brother’s friends told me that I should be a professional wrestler. They asked me what I would call myself, and I said: ‘Bird Guts.’

But you don’t have a poker nickname?

GS: My brother and I were talking about this last week. We’ve never had nicknames that stuck. I like Bacardi and Diet, which Erick Lindgren came up with for me.

I take it that the nickname stems from your love for the cocktail. Do you think that drinking and poker mix?

GS: I sometimes drink when I play. I think every person on the planet plays no-limit hold’em better when they have two drinks in them; it releases inhibitions and improves your game.

For real?

GS: Totally. But the problem is that very few people can get to two drinks and stop there.

What’s your limit at the table?

GS: I don’t really have one. I’ve gotten pretty drunk. I played the BARGE tournament [which is put on through rec. gambling] in 2004 and had no fewer than two drinks per hour. The tournament started at 10 a.m. and ended at 2 a.m. Man, was I smashed. Then, after winning the tournament, I met my buddies at the bar and we stayed up till about 6am. I don’t remember much about that final table.

What do you like to gamble at other than poker? I notice that you have a pool table right here in your living room. Does that generate a lot of action?

GS: Some. I’m an average pool player, but I basically gamble at everything. Last year, during the World Series, I lost a bunch to Phil Gordon here. He lucked out and beat me for $20,000. But that’s okay, I’m not afraid to gamble.

Tell me about one of your sickest non-poker bets.

GS: We bet Casey Thompson [an investor in Ultimate Blackjack Tour] that he couldn’t jump off the roof of my car and onto an awning at Lake Las Vegas Hilton. He said he could do it. But, basically, we knew that he would have to be a world- class rock climber to pull it off. He needed to jump to a tiny ledge, hold onto it with his fingertips and swing his legs up. Scott Fischman and I wanted to bet him $10,000 each. But he wouldn’t do it for less than $100,000.

I called Erick Lindgren and told him I had a great bet. Erick asked me if I thought Casey could do it. I said: ‘No chance in hell.’ He said: ‘You sound pretty sober, I’ll take the $80,000.’ Forty-five seconds later I called Erick back and said: ‘You just made $80,000.’ Casey attempted it, and all we heard was splat.

Scott and I were on the other side of the car, celebrating the fact that we’d just made $10,000 a piece. But we didn’t know if Casey was alive or dead or if he had broken his leg or what. That was a little sick.

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