We go deep with David Rheem: “I’ve never been afraid to gamble”

David Rheem airs his views on fame, gambling and not giving a f***

To poker fans who tracked the 2008 WSOP main event, David ‘Chino’ Rheem seemed to emerge from out of nowhere. Despite his earlier blasts of success in tournaments and cash games, the volatile but diminutive Rheem, 28, remained largely unknown to the general public. But over the course of the WSOP championship, on his march to the final table, he emerged as a feisty player with a ton of heart and loads of gamble.

Touted as a favourite to win the bracelet, he was knocked out in seventh place. It was an unsatisfying outcome, but one that generated $ 1,772,650 in prize money. If that windfall didn’t ease his disappointment – and it probably didn’t, as Rheem appeared ill-tempered and highly emotional after being eliminated – he found redemption one month later, with a first-place finish at the Doyle Brunson Classic. The WPT event cemented Chino’s reputation and garnered $ 1,538,730 for the suddenly famous pro.

All that money may be life-changing, but it is not Chino changing. His newly found fame and riches have done nothing to tone down the fiery personality and outspoken rawness of Chino Rheem.

When I called you the other night you were in the middle of playing a $ 500/$ 1,000  game at the Commerce. I appreciate that you were willing to do the interview at that moment, while playing, but I figured you had bigger fish to fry.  How’d you wind up?

DAVID ‘CHINO’ RHEEM: Fine. The cash game was good. I won a lot of money, around $ 30,000.

Are you more into cash or tournaments these days?

DR: I like it all. I travel the circuit, but action at the Commerce, during the L.A. Poker Classic [which is going on as this interview takes place], is the best in the world. You have a wide selection of games and lots of players. The stakes go from low to high, but I always play high – at least as high as I can.

What sort of stakes would you play before you fattened your bankroll with $ 3.5m in tournament
winnings in 2008?

DR: I’ve never been afraid to gamble. I have a lot of heart. Even before I had the big wins, I was chasing money. I’m known for putting my bankroll at risk a lot of the time.

That can be dangerous for a poker player.

DR: Yeah. I’ve been broke so often that I’m numb to it.

Surely that’s not your situation now. When’s the last time you were out of money?

DR: Right before the main event of the 2008 World Series. I chalk it up to poor money management and bad decisions on my part. But being broke has a positive effect on my play.


DR: Yeah. I play better broke. That’s when I need to win and need to get out of the hole. I want to play better. That said, though, now that I have a lot of money, I am playing the best poker of my life. I’ve got more determination and more confidence.

How’d you get into the main event?

DR: Some friends – including Mike and Robert Mizrachi – put me in.

How do you look back at the main event?

DR: As one more experience that I’ve been able to learn from. I’ve learned not to take anything for granted and to appreciate life for what it really is. Before the main event I was broke; after it, I wasn’t. Before the main event, some people knew who I was; now a lot more people do. The fame is not important to me. I don’t give a shit about fame. But it is nice to get credit for something that I do well.

The exposure has definitely made you more of a known quantity. Prior to the main event, outside of
L.A. and certain professional circles, you were an under-the-radar kind of guy. Today everyone that
you might play against knows about you and your style. What’s been the upshot of that?

DR: It’s good for me. Now, when I have a hand, I get paid off all the time. The World Series has helped to publicise my image as that of a loose, aggressive player. People know that I’m more than capable of bluffing.

Have you adjusted to capitalise on what opponents expect?

DR: To tell you the truth, after Bellagio and the main event, my style went from playing crazy to playing more solid poker. Because of what people think I’ll do, I have to switch it up on them. The way I play now is better. I could have taken advantage of my table image a long time ago, but I didn’t. I am definitely taking advantage of it now.

Tighter tournament poker might be more profitable now, but I bet it was more fun to play loose.

DR: Looser was not more fun. You put yourself out there more. You’re more vulnerable to lose pots. You chase people. It gets you in trouble. But had I not played the way I did then, I wouldn’t be the way I am now.

How did your style of play change as the main event progressed?

DR: Of course I tightened up. You get closer and closer to making the final table, and you don’t want to do anything to ruin it. Along the way I got advice from lots of friends. I’m very open to criticism and take my friends’ advice seriously.

Were they telling you about reads on people and advising on how to play certain types of hands or

DR: That would have been ridiculous. Who was playing? Were they playing or was I playing? The kind of advice you’re talking about would have been way too specific. They mostly told me to keep my composure and stay calm.

How does your strategy change when you go from tournaments to cash games?

DR: It’s completely different. When I play cash I tighten up and wait for good hands. Real money is at stake, not tournament chips, and that changes the way you look at things. What’s good for me, right now, is that people assume I will play loose because of the money I made from the tournaments. But the opposite is true. Last night, for example, I never bluffed. It was fold, fold, fold… Raise with a hand. And, obviously, it worked out pretty well for me.

If you could go back in time, are there things that you would have done differently at the World Series?

DR: I wish I could have folded Jacks to Queens. But, really, looking back, I have no regrets – even though I got unlucky and got knocked out.

There was nothing you could have done about that. You got your money in with the best of it: A-K
to Peter Eastgate’s A-Q – and a Queen came on the flop. You obviously played well, and I’m sure that
simply making the final table had a major impact on you.

Of course it did. I have more money and – even though I still live the way I lived a few years ago – I can do more of what I want to do now. I don’t have a set schedule, nobody can tell me where to be at a certain time. I can go shopping, go to the movies, watch a show with my girlfriend. I used to fly coach and now I fly business class. I have a lifestyle. Plus I can play more and higher than I did before the tournaments.

Have you done anything special with the winnings?

DR: After making the final table, I bought my girlfriend a Range Rover and sent money home to my family. But I didn’t buy anything too nice for myself. Now I’m thinking of getting a new place [to live] in Southern California.

Beyond the money, I’m wondering about the psychological effect of final-tabling the World Series
and then, soon after, winning the Doyle Brunson Classic.

The biggest thing is that it boosted my confidence. I feel that I can play with the best of them and nothing can get me.

Any huge plays that stand out?

On the bubble I had Aces full and that hand gave me the chip lead. On day four, I called Clonie Gowen with Ace-high, and it was good. Other than that, I was playing a lot of small-pot poker. I was controlling the size of my pots when I felt I didn’t have the best hand.

Now that you’ve gotten lots of attention and a certain amount of celebrity, have you been invited
to play in any of the Hollywood games? You live in L.A., and I hear that they can be super-juicy.

DR: You’re asking me a really clichéd question here. You think every poker player wants to play the celebrity home games? I have perfectly good games at the Commerce. I don’t care to play in a game with a bunch of actors. That shit doesn’t appeal to me. I just play to keep winning money.

You’ve got a reputation as a guy who’s anything but a nit. Since winning all that money last year, have you done much gambling away from the poker table?

DR: I like to play in the pit. I am a gambler and understand how to play all the games – blackjack, craps, whatever. The pit gambling I’ve done, since the main event, has gone great. Some buddies and I have won a lot of money. I am who I am. I do what I do. I don’t give a fuck what anybody else thinks.

Let’s go back a bit. How did you get into playing poker to begin with?

DR: After turning 18 I began playing low stakes in the Indian casino in Florida. That was where I met Robert and Mike Mizrachi. We played the $ 100 sit&gos, I got to know them, and I never looked back. I had just finished high school and had a choice of going to college or getting a job. I decided to play poker. My father is happy about the choice now, but he wasn’t then. No parent would be. But, hey, I’m Asian and I like to gamble. I never thought of poker as a career choice. At the time, it was just what I did. I lived with Mike and Robert, they looked out for me, and moulded me as a poker player. They will forever be my brothers.

Were you guys crushing those local games?

DR: Not necessarily. There were times when one of us would be broke, and the others would help out. But we were able to win large sums of cash, and the fast money appealed to me. I remember the first time Robert took me on tour. We went to L.A. and played the $ 1,000 buy-in tournaments at Hustler [Larry Flynt’s casino in Southern California]. My first big taste came when I finished second to Alan Cunningham in 2006. It was the $ 1,000 no-limit hold’em tournament at the World Series [Rheem won $ 327,981]. But before then I had wins of $ 30,000 and $ 40,000. I knew I could do this and make money.

What do you think allowed you to take to the game the way you did?

DR: Certain people are just meant to play poker. I have a natural knack and learned quickly, for free, from the best poker players in the world [the Mizrachi brothers]. That’s priceless. Now I have a lot of knowledge about the game that other people don’t. I can lose the minimum with two Aces when I’m beaten, and other people go broke.

Between making the final table in July and playing it in November, news surfaced about your
problems with the law, going back to your days in Florida. Were you surprised when that came out?

I was surprised when it surfaced. But, at the same time, I wasn’t surprised. You become famous and people try to find dirt on you. I was angry that it came out the way it did. But it is what it is. I have no shame about it, and I have nothing to hide.

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