Brian Townsend is possibly the greatest no-limit hold’em player alive. How does he survive among the big hitters?
It’s 9am in Santa Barbara and Brian Townsend is up bright and early for another day in paradise at his million-dollar mansion on the Californian Riviera. But today, poker is not on Townsend’s schedule. He’s going to spend his time hanging out with friends – or maybe going for a run on the beach.
The reason the laptop is staying turned off is because Townsend is taking a few days off from poker following a multi-million dollar downswing in fortunes. It’s the kind of run that would have crippled most players for good, but not Townsend. He’ll return to the high-stakes tables soon, but it won’t be because he needs to make back his losses.
The 25-year old electrical engineering graduate has already won enough to ensure he never has to work again. But his financial success is not the amazing part of this story. Townsend has become one of the most feared players in the nolimit arena after only taking the game up two years ago.
Townsend originally grew up in the Bay Area of San Francisco, with his mother and stepfather, who are both professors. He always showed a talent for logic and mathematics as a child, following this through to university at Santa Barbara where he gained his bachelors in electrical engineering and material science. He was also a keen sportsman, playing in the university’s rugby team (which is where his ‘sbrugby’ screename derives from).
But everything fell away in his final year of undergraduate study when he first discovered poker. He deposited $50 in a Party Poker account in August 2004 and slowly became a small winner at limit hold’em, progressing to $5/$10 by the following summer. By now poker had become an all-consuming passion, and so he decided to spend his summer vacation in Las Vegas playing the game full-time.
It was there that he finally discovered no-limit hold’em. Townsend had been playing limit hold’em online and was frustrated at being unable to beat the $5/$10 game. Live poker offered a new perspective. And, despite a losing first session at the Mirage, Townsend was soon crushing the local $2/$5 games in Sin City.
He stayed faithful to limit after returning home to complete his studies, but in December 2005, Townsend finally hit the online world of no-limit hold’em. His rise through the levels was astonishingly quick – progressing from $0.25/$0.50 to $50/$100 in around six months. His approach was persistent; Townsend would play over 50,000 hands a month, supported by the money he earned playing limit. By next summer he had a bankroll of $350,000. But with poker becoming an increasing distraction to his studies – he knew something had to give.
‘My supervisor was very business oriented,’ says Townsend. ‘When I sat down to explain how I was making all this money playing poker, he allowed me to take time off to see if it was what I wanted to do. I did, it was, and I haven’t looked back since.’
Townsend is keen to dispel suggestions his fast-track route to the top is down to running good. He places more emphasis on the hard work he puts in: ‘When I sink my teeth into something I work really hard at it. A lot of high-stakes players struggle to put the hours in. But I love playing poker. ‘When I was getting started, poker was all consuming and I would spend 14-16 hours a day playing or thinking about the game.
Even playing online, I still put in five or six hours a day. The last five days is the first real time I’ve taken off in two years.’ The reason Townsend has been taking a break is enough to stop the heart of a midstakes cash player. He has just lost close to $3 million. It all started this summer while he was at the WSOP. Townsend sat down to play at eye-watering stakes of $1,000/$2,000 no-limit hold’em and pot-limit Omaha with no cap. With the million dollar stacks, the potential for someone to get hurt was very real. At first it was Townsend doing the hurting; he was up $2.15 million in five sessions – determined to keep playing.
But disaster then struck in a couple of sessions: in the first he lost over $1m, including a $1.5m Omaha pot where his flush lost to an unlikely rivered full house. In the second, Bobby Baldwin’s nutstraight on the flop cost him $1.8m.
‘I decided I was going to bluff from the get go, which is very bad. He was trapping and I suspected he was, but I just got caught up in the bluff. I had a lapse of judgment and it cost me. I actually had to get up and leave the table; I was so tilted.’
This confrontation against one of the shrewdest poker minds was effectively the end of Townsend’s Vegas summer. He headed home up ‘only’ around $300,000 from his time there. But things were about to get worse with a disastrous run online that saw him bust his Full Tilt account – believed to be in the region of $1.5 million.
Thankfully for Townsend, his poker wealth extends beyond what he holds online. And, despite having 100% of his action in Vegas, he affirms that the game was well within his bankroll and that he’ll be back there if it starts up again – no questions asked. Vegas is, after all, only a few hours drive from Santa Barbara in his preferred mode of transportation: ‘A limo with a satellite connection, so that I can play internet poker on the way.’
It is, he admits, part of a ‘wanting-to-bethe- best-and-take-on-the-world-early-20sego- sort-of-thing’. But does he expect there to be young guns coming up eager to take his place? ‘Sure,’ he says, ‘it would be silly to think you can always be on top. In the future I might even decide to adopt a more business-oriented focus. I certainly feel like I’ve achieved what I wanted to in poker. I don’t know if having reached the top will take the challenge and the fun out of it.’ So, for the time being – as all players do after a rough patch – he is taking a well-earned break, using the time to relax and refocus.
He is philosophical in retrospect about hands like the Baldwin bluff, saying simply: ‘I miscalculated and he outplayed me, which has happened before and will happen again’. He says poker is ‘an exercise in risk management’. And, after two years of pouring all his resources into it – which has effectively set him up for life – losing $3m is just another bump in the road.
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