Tom Dwan opens up about being a poker game changer

It’s been an eventful past 12 months for Tom ‘durrrr’ Dwan. After losing millions of dollars to Isildur1, Dwan won big on High Stakes Poker and signed a deal with Full Tilt

Think about poker’s game-changers – the guys who came in, seemingly from out of nowhere, figured out new ways to do things, and transformed the manner in which cards get played. Names that spring to mind include Johnny Moss, Stu Ungar, Chip Reese, Doyle Brunson and Phil Ivey. These mercurial talents seem to show up once every decade or so and conceive strategies that their predecessors failed to consider. Of course, they have the advantage of building on the knowledge of those who came before, but still, devising a way to win money from some of the sharpest gamblers in the world is a serious accomplishment.

When future-generation grinders think about poker and the people who shaped it, Tom ‘durrrr’ Dwan will be in that elite company. He plays Hold’em and Omaha with what seems to be blind aggression, but is clearly, puzzlingly, something much deeper. Dwan recognises profitable edges and presses them, at multiple tables, harder and more astutely than anyone else. On TV, it seems to mystify some of his opponents. Right now, probably, there’s a kid somewhere who’s reverse engineering those televised appearances and analysing Dwan’s approach to the game. Some day soon the kid will come in and blow away poker’s superstars. He might even be called the next Tom Dwan. For now, though, when it comes to no-limit Hold’em and pot-limit Omaha, Dwan remains cutting-edge.

His online play is chronicled with the sort of detail that’s usually reserved for the New York Yankees. There is at least one fan site dedicated to celebrating his every move, and even the wealthy fish, usually slow to build up the pros that routinely fleece them, have told me multiple times, ‘durrrr is on a whole other level.’ His play is so canny that High Stakes Poker commentator Gabe Kaplan has been known to exclaim, ‘It’s durrrr’s world – we just live in it.’

Phone Booth

But sometimes, even Dwan needs to get away from it all. That makes it difficult for us to convene when he is in Las Vegas and, after a week or so of missed connections, it leads to a phone call from San Francisco, where Dwan sounds like he is in a busy cafe. ‘I am so burned out,’ he tells me by way of explaining his elusiveness and disinclination to accept phone calls or respond to texts. ‘But I knew the burnout would come. I played so much poker for the last year. Since the start of 2009 I played a ton of poker, double what I normally play. Then, for parts of June and July, it was four times what I normally play – like 300 hours over five-and-a-half weeks.’

It’s the kind of conversation that leaves me to believe that Dwan deserves a poker hiatus. Then he adds, ‘Flying out here from Vegas, I did play for an hour on the plane. For now, though, I’m probably going to stick with squeezing in games of ping pong and foosball.’ You’d think he was logging mega hours over the last year because he’s on a heater. That’s how most people operate – play when you’re winning, take a break when you’re losing. But if you know anything about Dwan, you know that he is not most people. For starters, one big reason for him to play more than usual was the WSOP – and not because he wants to win a bracelet. Well, not exactly. Dwan had a number of bets that required him to ace an event at this year’s Series. He came heartbreakingly close, finishing second in a $1,500 no-limit Hold’em event. Being out-pipped at the final table cost him a seven-figure payday.

The many poker players who bet against him being able to do it got a pretty good sweat as Dwan battled a New Zealand software developer by the name of Ben Watt. Surprisingly, Daniel Negreanu was among the pros that bet against Dwan. I say surprisingly because back when the wager was announced, Negreanu told me he’d be happy to take Dwan’s side of the action. But by the time Dwan got to heads-up, Negreanu tweeted, ‘We’re all rooting for you Tom – to finish second.’

Dwan is unenthusiastic about revealing precisely how much he had at stake, but he does allow, ‘If I won that bet, it would have been the most money I’ve ever made in a single day.’ To maximise his opportunities, Dwan says he multi-tabled the WSOP. ‘For eight or nine days, I played three tournaments at once,’ he recounts, adding that his results under those conditions were lacklustre: ‘I think I only made two day threes.’ The ambitious schedule is easy to understand once you hear the odds that he was getting. In one instance, when he had three percent of the chips in a tournament, he found people laying him 800/1 that he’d finish first. He didn’t, of course, and it wound up costing Dwan $6,000 or so. But, as he puts it, ‘It was a little closer than they thought.’

Tallying up the entire World Series, he says, ‘I probably lost a small six-figure number when you factor in what I won in prize money and some cross-booking.’ Judging by his tone, I’d guess that he’s shrugging off the sum the way a lot of people might shrug off buying an extra round of drinks at the pub. Then he adds, ‘I still have a bet to win two bracelets in three years. Now that could wind up being my best payday ever.’

New Faces

Beyond the World Series bracelet bets, Dwan had a more circumstantial reason for logging a lot of hours in live cash games and online play. It goes right against the logic posited above. ‘The games are likely to be good when I’m on a downswing,’ explains Dwan, pointing out that negative variance hits him the same way it hits everyone else (though, of course, when it does come, it seems to hit him a lot harder and is a lot more costly). Unlike nearly everyone else, Dwan makes the mathematical best of it – actually pushing the edge on running bad. ‘On a downswing, it makes sense to play at the highest stakes. For a brief period, when I was losing, people came out of the woodwork to play me.’

I comment that it must have been nice to get action from bad players. Dwan corrects the statement. ‘That’s not how I would put it. I’d say that people who would not normally choose to play me were deciding to.’ Assuming that the infamous Isildur battering, which is said to have cost Dwan a rumoured $7m in just one month, may be something of a sore subject, I want to wait until later in the interview to broach it. But a natural segue seems to present itself, and I wonder how it felt for Dwan to lose the bandied-about millions – though he never cops to a specific sum and specifically says that he won’t name the amount. ‘I’m a favourite in the game, so it was an unpleasant surprise,’ he says flatly. ‘But I didn’t let it bother me, it didn’t change my lifestyle – except that I played more poker – and I was happy to play in that game for as long as I could. The way it turned out was unfortunate, but it was a matter of variance and [the quality of] my play was negligible. People say that how much my play was or was not a factor is debatable. I’m best suited to get that but people think it’s hard to be objective.’

In trying to gauge the true extent of Dwan’s objectivity, I wonder how he feels about going another round with Isildur? ‘If he shows up,’ says Dwan, without hesitation, ‘I’m there.’

The High Life

As befits a player of Dwan’s stature, he resides in one of the best penthouses in Las Vegas. It’s a beautiful, sleek space, all wood, chrome and leather, and the spot of many a memorable bash. At least one of them took place when Dwan himself was out of town. As remembered by Alec Torelli, ‘It was truly baller. There were a bunch of girls from Sapphire strip club, dressed in lingerie and having the best time. We drank a magnum of Veuve Clicquot and hung out in the Jacuzzi on the balcony. When the sun came up, everyone headed inside, we ordered food, and shut the curtains. I woke up at noon. The party was over and the condo was messy – but nothing that the maid wouldn’t be able to handle.’ And, presumably, this is the PG-13 version.

Clearly a generous friend with awesome digs, Dwan is not exactly in love with Sin City. ‘I tend to not be in Vegas when I’m not playing,’ he says, underscoring the point that he is now in San Francisco, following bust-outs at the Main Event and the WPT’s Bellagio Cup that just wound down. ‘When I’m there, my life varies. I might go out every night and drink a lot. Or else I might live a more alcohol-free life. When friends are in town, it can be a lot of fun.’

But don’t think that things get boring for Dwan when he’s away from Vegas. He loves expensive red wine, and his idea of a good day often entails touring the top vineyards of Napa Valley. Dwan likes going on shopping binges at wineries such as Opus One, Cake Bread and Far Niente. He drinks top Bordeaux offerings from Chateaus Petrus and Lafite, and checks into the nicest hotels in whatever city he happens to be visiting.

Reality Check

Dwan cultivates a lifestyle that a lot of people, in and out of poker, would envy. Not only does he do the thing he loves, but he only does it when the mood strikes. He lives without schedule and budget. When he does decide to play, it’s often spur of the moment, sometimes based on the composition of players on Full Tilt. The first time he and I met for a story, back before he was as well known as he is now, there was a series of stops and starts in our scheduling (mostly he was stopping and I was starting). Then, without warning, he happened to find himself in New York City one night, occupying a suite at the ritzy W Hotel, ordering room service and playing the biggest game on the web.

When we met for lunch the next afternoon, at a sushi restaurant downtown, Dwan casually let drop that he won close to a mid six-figure sum. Considering that he was one of the first big internet pros I’d ever met, the number sounded staggering to the point of being unrelatable. But he soon said something else that I really couldn’t wrap my head around. He told me that he would be a huge favourite to make $90,000 in three weeks of multi-tabling $10/$20 no-limit. His ability to do it was almost a lock. I wondered why he would endure the ups and downs of nosebleed stakes and not just play the smaller games for an almost guaranteed income of $120,000 per month.

Dwan looked at me incredulously and pointed out, ‘Anybody who wants to make $120,000 a month that badly will lose $10,000 in a pot and flip out. Or else they will stop playing against a bunch of fish because they are running bad.’

The last part of that sentence resonates in light of Dwan’s recent situation in which he lost a large sum that, understandably, he is uninterested in confirming (not to say that Isildur is a fish, but Dwan clearly believed that he had the best of it). During the thick of their play, I discussed Dwan’s doings with one of Full Tilt’s founding pros who shook his head and declared, ‘durrrr is a sick puppy.’ The pro expressed surprise at Dwan letting the losses go as far as they did. He seemed simultaneously shocked at Dwan’s willingness to keep putting up more money and impressed by the young pro’s undying belief in himself. But Dwan, who understands variance better than most, apparently saw himself in a good spot against Isildur. Ignoring the vagueness of luck, he was going to keep playing until he couldn’t play any more.

Did he think it would be possible to lose as much as he did under the circumstances? ‘Anybody who doesn’t think a downswing is possible, for anyone, is just wrong,’ says Dwan.

World Series

Last November, in the middle of the Isildur blowout, and with much fanfare, Tom Dwan signed a sponsorship deal with Full Tilt. In a world where sites are becoming increasingly disinterested in taking on new pros – Dwan stands as only one of three players added to Team Full Tilt in the last three years – Dwan was one of the game’s few hot properties.

His recruitment begs the question as to whether or not he will be focusing more on high-profile tournaments that present opportunities for the flashing of his sponsor’s famous logo. Part and parcel to that, I wonder how he enjoyed playing lots of events at the 2010 World Series. For Dwan, a guy who doesn’t seem to do much if he doesn’t feel like doing it, was the WSOP a challenge? Was it enjoyable? Was it the sort of thing he looks forward to doing again? ‘I was surprised by how much I enjoyed playing, at least at the beginning,’ says Dwan. ‘For the first week I enjoyed it. Then I got to the point where I didn’t want to wake up and go to the Rio. I don’t regret the bets, and I’ll most likely do them again. But I need the bets to concentrate on the Series. There has to be an extra reason to do it.’

After Dwan busted out of the Main Event, he bought into the $10k Bellagio Cup, but he did it under a condition that particularly suited him. Because the WPT tournament was inconveniently scheduled to clash with the Main Event, and in order to not turn away players who busted out of the World Series as the WPT kicked off, players were allowed to buy in up until the 11th level. Dwan and Phil Ivey did not have to do it – they both bust out of the Main Event early – but going in late with a short stack and not needing to be there for the early levels fit with their schedules and temperaments.

Looking back, Dwan makes it sound like a tournament played under those circumstances is his kind of event. ‘It was fun to buy in late,’ he says. ‘I didn’t have to grind, got my money in, and busted to a good friend in a very standard hand. It was nice to be playing without a ton at stake. Ivey got third and I enjoyed rooting for him to do well for once.’

Fame Game

The conversational rhythms, even via a long distance mobile phone connection, signal that things are starting to wind down. The crowd around Dwan is getting louder, his responses are getting slower, I have most of what I need. Apropos of the fact that he is now finishing an interview that he probably did not feel like doing – a nudge from the PR people at Full Tilt moved things along – I have to wonder about how Dwan feels to be living his high stakes life in public.

His wins and losses are chronicled and chattered about ad infinitum. When he makes a private prop bet, it invariably makes the poker news sites. And his plays are out there to the point that YouTube not only has hands he’s played on TV, but hands he’s played on the internet as well. ‘For a while I was surprised by all the interest,’ he acknowledges. ‘Then, the more I thought about it, the more it made sense. People are interested in poker, the games I play in amount to poker at the highest level, and you can actually see all the cards. That’s a unique situation. It has benefited me [via his deal with Full Tilt] and, given the circumstances, I am fine with it.’

But surely he saw the darker side of fame during his downswing with Isildur, when people were speculating about whether he had gone broke after those wild sessions against the mysterious Scandinavian. Did all of that bother him at all?

‘People who know me, know how I am doing,’ says Dwan, speaking in a tone of candor. ‘People who don’t know me, I don’t care how they speculate. The fact of the matter is that I won back some of the money I had lost – not all of it, though. But you have to realise that the edges are not so big and the variance is very high. If you don’t understand that, you really should stop playing.’

He hesitates for a beat, leaving me to figure that he has zero intention of giving up any time soon. Then I can almost picture the corner of his mouth curling up into a half smile as he adds, ‘I’m happy to play people. I think it will work out okay for me.’

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