World Player of the Year Allen Cunningham explains what it takes to get to the top: “I have room to improve. It will take a lot of hard work because I feel I’m pretty high up as far as the echelons of poker go”

We catch up with Allen Cunningham, Poker’s 2006 World Player of the Year

Poker’s World Player of the Year has more WSOP bracelets than Daniel Negreanu and more lifetime winnings than Phil Ivey, but it’s fair to say that Allen Cunningham possesses nowhere near either player’s ‘superstar’ quality. Maybe it’s something to do with his laid back Californian roots, but a more overriding reason is that his low profile is in many ways his own doing.

In person, Cunningham is exactly the same as his table persona: softly spoken, serious with every answer given deliberate consideration. He finds signing autographs ‘kind of bothersome’ and is wary of the insincerity that circulates the top pros. ‘You’re not sure if someone’s being friendly or just approaching you because they’ve seen you on TV,’ he says.

It’s hard to imagine anyone less affected by the limelight, but it’s understandable considering he treats poker more like a job than a way of life. He believes he has ten competitive years left in him, but after that the world is his oyster. ‘I think once I’ve done well enough out of it, I’ll definitely slow down and try to pursue other interests. I played it all throughout my twenties and it was fun, but when it gets tedious in a few years time, I won’t play a full schedule anymore. There are other things to do.’

From acorns to oaks

It may seem a bit premature to speak of retirement seeing that Cunningham is relatively young at just 30, but his experience in the game stretches to over a decade. And, unlike many of the young players today, he had to build his bankroll through hard graft. For two years he only played in $60 and $100 tournaments at his local casino – Lake Elsinore in California. It was only after a 25th place in his very first WSOP event – the $2,000 pot-limit hold’em in 1998 – that he began to spread his wings. But what really changed was his mentality, hence his decision to quit engineering school. His parents weren’t exactly thrilled. ‘I wasn’t winning millions of dollars, I was winning hundreds, so I guess it didn’t seem like a great choice or path. It may not have been at the time because I really couldn’t have forseen how well I would do.’

Cunningham admits his primary motivation is a constant desire to just get better. ‘I have room to improve. It will take a lot of hard work because I feel I’m pretty high up as far as the echelons of poker go. I need to improve to keep ahead of everyone else.’

Going into the final day, the expectation that surrounded you was immense. Was it a heavy burden?

Well afterwards, everyone said that they were rooting for me and that felt great. But while I was in it, I was not worried about any expectations and just thought about playing as well as I could. I really just wanted to win it for myself, I wasn’t thinking about who else would be happy if I won.

You ducked out of the press conference after you busted out. What was going through your mind at that time?

Well I did the ESPN interview, but I just didn’t particularly feel like talking.

What were you most upset about? Was it the way you went out or just the fact that you went out?

Going into the final table, I was thinking that as long as I played my best, I’d be happy no matter where I finished. When I was all-in on the last hand and got knocked out, I was thinking: ‘I don’t care if I played terrible or whatever, I still want to be in it.’ It really was the most exciting tournament I’d ever played in. I wasn’t happy about being all-in with a coin flip on the last hand to just get back to what I started the day with. As far as my play, I felt like I played very well, but maybe only at about 90%.

Can you give us an example?

There was one hand that was probably my worst play of the day. It was against Paul Wasicka and he made a bluff against me. He bet the turn and I was pretty convinced he didn’t have much of a hand. He may have had me beat by a little bit. I decided to raise him to try and drop him right there, but my raise looked so suspicious that the best play would have been to just call and risk losing if he had me beat for a much lower investment. He realised it looked suspicious so he re-raised me all-in. That cost me $4 million and was a real turning point. Twenty minutes later I lost with pocket 10s against K-J suited.

There’s been a lot of talk in the media and on forums about the fact that Jamie Gold got lucky. Do you share the same view?

He certainly had to get lucky in order to turn $10,000 into the $25 million he started the final table with. At the final table itself, he actually played pretty well against the players he was playing against – most of them fell for his moves. I can’t say I knew for sure what he was doing or what he had each time, but I had a good feeling about the kind of hand he had most of the time. I found myself cringing as players moved in against him and I thought he had the nuts. I played several big hands against him and I felt like I made the right move every time.

Daniel Negreanu was commentating as we were watching the play unfold. When you went out, he said he had to go and see if you were OK. Is that what happened?

I met him in the hallway and we did have a drink before I went to bed that night.

What did Negreanu say to you?

He just listened. When you get knocked out, you just want to tell someone about your bad beats so it was nice to just wind down. He said he liked my play, but I didn’t really need those words of encouragement. I knew I played well and there may have been one and a half mistakes that I made. You can always go back and think I should have played extra hands or stole more before the flop, but within the context of the hands I played, I think I played very well.

At the final table, Gold reckons he had you figured out.

He strikes me as the kind of guy who talks like that. I don’t really know what he means when he says he ‘had me figured out’.

Do you think it’s a realistic possibility to get as far as you did, again?

I wasn’t in jeopardy that many times. On the first day I was all-in and a small underdog. Then I wasn’t in trouble until I was up to 500,000 in chips and all-in on a coin flip. But that doesn’t really say much about how well I could do. No matter how well you play, it’s going to be hard to make it through that many people. I don’t particularly forsee myself making the final table. You like to hope it’s going to happen, but thinking it will happen right away is not realistic.

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