High stakes player Brian Townsend has had a meteoric rise through the ranks. We find out his secrets: “Losing is a part of poker and so is dropping down limits when you have to”

Brian ‘sbrugby’ Townsend went from playing $0.25/$0.50 to million-dollar games in two years

‘There isn’t a six-handed game I wouldn’t sit in.’

You don’t have to talk to Brian Townsend long before you get a sense of the confidence and drive that has catapulted him to the top of the poker pile. He might appear unassuming, even a little shy, but there’s no doubting his all-consuming desire to be the best at what he does.

His well-documented rise through the ranks from a $0.25/$0.50 player just two years ago to a fixture in the highest games in the world is remarkable, but like most ‘overnight’ successes, his meteoric rise to the top masks continual and unending hard work.

We’re talking bouts of intensive play, sometimes up to 12 or 14 hours a day and over 50,000 hands a month – but equally important are the periods of study and learning. Not only does he have a habit of carefully analysing his sessions but also of absorbing everything he can about the game, leading him to claim that poker has little to do with luck. Just as Tiger Woods practises harder than anyone else and is subsequently described as a great natural talent, you suspect Townsend has simply worked harder than the competition.

Logical solution

The irony is that it was never Townsend’s plan to be a poker pro. He comes from a good family, is well educated and enjoys the outdoors – not the normal background for a career in poker. He was at college studying to become an engineer when the poker bug first took hold.

The game quickly became a fixation as he built his bankroll playing limit cash games. On completing his degree, he was so immersed in the game that trying to make it as a poker player for a living wasn’t so much a difficult decision as the only logical thing to do. His passion for poker wouldn’t let him do anything else and he says honestly, ‘When I was playing $2/$4 no-limit it wasn’t because I wanted to play $200/$400 with Phil Ivey, it was because I was having a great time.’

Obviously he has a natural aptitude for the game to go along with the hard work, but the poker gene might actually be in the blood. Townsend’s grandfather used to play pretty seriously. According to Townsend ‘he actually played with Doyle Brunson… in the second- tier games just below the biggest around’.

But whatever the level of his natural ability, it’s his commitment to applying it that really impresses. This application has brought him millions of dollars and a laid-back lifestyle in Santa Barbara that most of us would die for.

Despite the apparent ease with which he made it to the top, Townsend insists moving through the limits wasn’t a cakewalk. He encountered losing runs like any other player, and on several occasions had to drop down limits and work on his game. He has salutary advice for others, ‘Losing is a part of poker and so is dropping down limits when you have to.’

This understanding and absence of ego in his bankroll management have contributed to his success. However, he’s not without his weaknesses and used to tilt a little too often for comfort. One occasion sticks in his memory. ‘Playing $2/$4 no-limit I was tilting and somehow got it all-in playing the board on the river. I thought he was too, and I could bluff him off it.’

It’s nice to hear he’s human after all. Though, of course, he’s worked on the tilting problem since those early days and puts it down to playing tired and unfocused.

Nowadays tilting is a very rare thing, kept in check by playing rested, sticking to shorter sessions and living right.

Dropping down

Once he’d reached the top Brian encountered a new set of problems, as a hint of complacency started creeping into his game. Having beaten the biggest games, he admits thinking he could beat them on autopilot, and suffered a big downswing in the middle of 2007. And a big downswing at the levels Townsend plays is BIG – almost $4m. Not enough to threaten his participation in the biggest games, but enough to make him think about his approach.

His response has been typically focused and he’s dropped down to work on his heads-up game, committing himself to playing 100,000 hands at lower limits. Not only that, but in a symbolic act of this fresh start he got a new laptop and began a new database of results.

He’s also made sure his internal game is right, committing to ‘playing my best every time I play’. Certainly his hunger is undiminished as he follows this up by saying, ‘I want to beat them out of every dollar they have.’ He’s also one of the few willing to put his money where his mouth is, as Tony G found out in a recent TV cash game. When the Australian trash-talker tried to get under Brian’s skin with his usual banter, he was met with an invitation to a $1m heads-up freezeout.

Poker’s largest mouth was – for once – silenced. Having a downswing is one thing; having it play out in public is quite another. Thanks to his participation in the online community and willingness to be frank about his results in his blog, his losses are as documented as his wins.

During his latest downswing there were no shortage of forum posters willing to write him off as a flash in the pan. This was something he struggled with at first. ‘I remember when I was coming up I saw a comment in a thread that said sarcastically, “Yeah, wait till you start running good,” which upset me. I’ve come to realise people can be small and petty about things.’

Certainly the critics haven’t deterred him from maintaining his warts-and-all blog, though posting results involving other players can be tricky. In the past, Brian has been asked by high stakes pros to remove content from his blog and he acknowledges that for many of the other players, anonymity is a big part of the high stakes world.

The small player pool at the highest limits also means he needs to be flexible about the games he plays. Pot-limit Omaha is now his favourite game and he’s currently learning Omaha Hi-Lo. It also involves making some sacrifices such as playing live in Vegas every World Series – not a place he cares for.

However, when games come together like the mixed Hold’em/Omaha game with $1k/$2k blinds and a $4k straddle that was played this year he can’t be anywhere else. In this game winning or losing a million was incredibly easy. He experienced both sides of that equation – on his best winning day making $1.8m.

Artificial intelligence

Playing at some of the highest limits was always going to make him a public figure in the poker world, and Townsend isn’t a natural for the media spotlight. In fact he detests some of the artificiality that goes with the media game. However, his position in poker means he’s doing more of it – mostly in order to get bigger exposure for his poker tutorial website, CardRunners.com.

Which begs the question, with enough money banked to never have to work again, why is he spending his time working on an educational site? ‘CardRunners and the community really helped me grow as a player and I want to give something back.’

He owns part of the site now and seems as passionate about building it as he was about moving up the levels. ‘Honestly, I’d like to help everyone who wants to become a good player.’ He puts part of his poker success down to discovering the site when he was playing the lower limits, and says watching the videos was ‘like a light bulb turning on in my head’.

He has strong opinions on other educational material available to players and reckons that ‘almost every poker book on the market is bad’. His main criticism is that the people writing the books aren’t necessarily playing in and beating the games they’re writing about (although for those that are interested he cites Winning in Tough Hold’em Games by Nick Grudzien and Geoff Herzog as an exception). He also sees this online, with some players posting advice about games they either don’t play in or don’t beat.

The more Townsend talks, the more you realise how much he loves poker and how invested he is in its future. He describes himself as ‘shocked’ when the game was legislated against in the US. But he’s as shocked at the poker industry as he is at the lawmakers: ‘I just can’t believe the industry didn’t protect itself.’

Future proof

However, he is positive that the future is bright and is sure the future of poker is safe. ‘Some say the sky is falling but people will always want to gamble.’ He also believes high stakes cash games will always be around despite the increasing number of high buy-in tournaments.

His optimism is particularly evident when talking about poker in the UK. When I spent time with him he was in town for the WSOPE and to promote CardRunners in the UK, a place where he sees a lot of promise. ‘The UK is where the US was six or seven years ago, which means there’s huge potential.’

So he sees a bright future here and for the industry at large, but what of his own future? Right now he’s having a great time growing the business and playing the game. ‘Every day I still get up and think, “Now I get to go and play poker!” Some players I meet seem to see playing as a grind, but if I woke up tomorrow and didn’t want to play, I wouldn’t.’

His message for those who want to emulate his success is straightforward and uplifting: ‘I would never have believed two years ago that I’d be here in London playing in a £10,000 buy-in event. Set your sights high and apply yourself – you’ll end up better than you ever imagined.’

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