High stakes poker guru Sammy Farha talks about his WSOP and Vegas experiences: “People thought I was in the oil business. They didn’t realise that all the money I had was the money in front of me”

Sammy Farha, the Big Game legend, describes his first trip to Vegas and why he lost the 2003 WSOP Main Event to Chris Moneymaker

Even among the highest of high stakes poker players, Sammy Farha is known to be a big-action guy. He is fearless at the table, an expert on pressuring opponents, and unafraid of taking major risks for major rewards. Born in Lebanon and based in Texas, Farha began playing poker in 1990, won his first bracelet six years later and quickly established himself as the coolest cat in the biggest game. Early on in our interview, Farha talks about finishing runner-up to Chris Moneymaker in the 2003 World Series of Poker Main Event…

Did you cut a deal with Moneymaker?

No. We got to the heads-up and Chris said, ‘Sam, let’s do some business.’ He said he wanted to negotiate [a chop]. He had $5- $6m out of $8.5m in chips, and he would have been willing to take less than half.

Considering that he wound up winning do you view your decision not to chop the money as a mistake?

No, that’s me. But if I’d made the deal I would’ve played differently and won the tournament.

How so?

The decisive hand was when I laid down Q-9 towards the end of the tournament. I flopped top pair, he had a draw and re-raised on the turn. I set him up to do exactly what he did. I was not going to put him all-in. He had been lucky throughout the World Series, he was on a straight or flush draw, and I knew he would go all-in if he missed. Then he did exactly what I wanted. My problem is that I was so tired, I was practically in a coma. I had drunk 20 cans of Red Bull and 20 cups of coffee; you can imagine what that does to your brain.

When you play cards, you have to go with your gut. I should have immediately called – and I would have if we’d already agreed to chop. Instead I took 10 or 15 minutes to decide, I figured I could beat this kid with my remaining 2.5m – after all, I’d already come back from having less than $10,000 at the end of Day 3. I knew I could catch him in a different situation. But still, I knew I had him and it bothered me that I laid it down. Then, four hands later, I flopped top pair again, played it all the way, and lost. Obviously, he was meant to win it.

Tell me about your first trip to Las Vegas…

I went with a friend of mine and had $2,000 in my pocket. I’d been playing poker for a year or two and we stayed at the Golden Nugget. But before we even checked in I lost $500 playing blackjack. Then we walked across the street to the Horseshoe. We found a pot-limit Omaha game, with $5/$10 blinds, my friend kicked in some money, and I made $3,000 so fast. I won $6,000 that day and said, ‘This is it. I want to be a poker player.’

How important is the World Series for you?

Until the late 1990s I went to the World Series and played cash games rather than the Main Event. Tournaments are very expensive and I thought that $10,000 was a lot to risk on a long shot. Now, though, the money is great and there are a lot of bad players. For $10,000, I can win $5m? Beautiful.

These days viewers of High Stakes Poker see you as a total cool cat: unflappable, sucking on your lucky unlit cigarette, going with the flow, and always willing to gamble. What was your table image like back in, say, the mid-1990s?

People thought I was an Arab sheik. I built the image of being a multi-millionaire. People thought I was in the oil business. They didn’t realise that all the money I had was the money in front of me.

I know that, even now, you have major swings. Yet, from what I’ve seen, you take the negatives pretty well. What do you do when things go badly at Big Game stakes?

Take a break, relax, freshen up, think about what I did wrong. Ultimately, though, I always believe it will turn around. Last year, for example, started badly and I lost a lot of money. But I kept playing. You have to know that poker is a lot of ups and downs. In the Big Game though, running bad can kill a player. And I play with my own money. So if I lose a lot, I have to take it. After a big loss, I remind myself that I started with nothing and that a lot of people would love to have what is left in my pocket.

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