The fear of his greatest day is what drives on David Williams one of today’s best young players
It’s 3.30pm on 7 October 2006 and I’m just squeezing through the unlocked fire exit door in the Venetian Hotel’s stunning Palazzo Ballroom. I stop to rub my eyes; once to adjust to the dimly lit room and then again to make sure I’m not seeing things. Inside, 64 of the world’s top professional players have gathered in one place for the eagerly-anticipated team selection of the PPL (Professional Poker League). The faces are everywhere; David Benyamine and Patrik Antonius are standing close by, while the team captains such as Phil Ivey, Doyle Brunson, Barry Greenstein and Daniel Negreanu take centre stage. It’s the ultimate who’s who of poker, and inevitably, talk surrounding team selections and the order in which they were made echoes around me.
One of the most visibly despondent in the room is WSOP 2004 runnerup David Williams. The 26-year old Texan was the last member to join Team 2 – (headed by the PPL’s founder, Chip Reese), but remains remarkably circumspect about it all. ‘I was the last of the young guns to be picked, but I don’t think it was unjustified,’ he says. ‘If the PPL had been a tournament style, then I think I would have been picked in the top two or three. Phil Ivey said to me: “The other players just don’t respect your cash game play yet.” That’s a true statement; my cash game play is not very strong. It still kind of hurt inside, but it’s cool to be part of the PPL.’
Indeed, considering Williams was the only player out of all the other WSOP winners or runner-ups from the past six years to be invited, it would seem churlish for him to feel too cut up. He was, in fact, one of the first players to be approached by Reese when the idea of an elite league was still in its infancy. Williams recalls the meeting with the Hall of Fame inductee like it was yesterday, saying: ‘We were down to 27 in the WPT Championship, which Tuan Le won [April 2005]. I was second in chips and he took me to one side during one of the breaks and said: “Do you know what David? I need your phone number. I want you to be a part of this. You’ve really shown you can do well.”’
But just how did a player whose breakthrough performance came only two years ago with that second-place finish at the WSOP attain the kind of respect that has seen him dubbed the ‘Future of Poker’?
On paper, it may seem as though Williams was green going into that now infamous heads-up WSOP showdown with Greg Raymer, but he’d been playing cards for big money for nearly seven years.
Williams was aged 17 when he stumbled upon a group of his friends playing limit hold’em. Given that he filled his formative years with all manner of games, he was instantly intrigued. ‘I’d always played cards with my mum. We played spades, scrabble and boggle. So, when the guys said: “Jump in. It’s five bucks to enter,” I didn’t hesitate. I quickly learnt the game and have been playing it every day since.’
He quickly discovered a flair for poker. ‘I wouldn’t necessarily say I was good at it, but I had good natural talent. I figured out that I was better than they [his friends] were,’ he said, scratching his immaculately coiffured goatee. ‘I was lucky to be in an area where there were bad players. Had I started off in Vegas, where people knew poker better, I would have been dead in the water right at the beginning.’
Nevertheless, Williams’ true affections lay in the fantasy card game, Magic: The Gathering. He had already been playing for four years and was one of the top-ranked players on the circuit. As I chat with Williams, his image seems a million miles from the top trumps-playing geek the game of Magic has painted in my head. He’s a hip-looking guy; oozing confidence with every word. His manner is certainly more rock star than goofy nerd and when a self-proclaimed hell raiser like Mike ‘The Mouth’ Matusow refers to him as a ‘playboy’, you sense those stripes have been well-earned.
But despite this, Williams can’t hide his passion for the game that plays like a cross between poker and chess. ‘I loved Magic more than poker,’ he divulges. ‘You might not get the same adrenaline rush as with poker, but where poker is all about moments of intensity, Magic builds and steamrolls to a climax. You can really see the game developing as you strategise.’
Magic also provided Williams with a decent wage.
At the time, he was working in several different jobs from waiting on tables to repairing computers, but would use his holiday vacations to play on the tournament circuit. ‘I’d take time off from my job and travel round the world. Compared to the kind of money you make in poker, it was nothing; you’d have to pay your own travel expenses.
The only people who did really well at it were students who had wealthy parents. For me, my mum was a flight attendant, so it wasn’t too bad and I could fly for free.’
In all, Williams says he earned a solid $50,000 from playing Magic. However, things took a sudden darker turn when he earned himself a suspension from the game after falling out of line with Magic’s stringent authorities at the 2001 World Championships in Toronto. ‘It was claimed I was marking my cards,’ he says with a genuinely disconsolate look on his face. ‘But the cards they claimed I marked were really slow and I was playing a match-up – which was fast. If I was going to mark the cards, I would want a card that affects the early game.’
As Williams explains the intricacies of his suspension, there is an instant change in his disposition; he goes from softly spoken and subdued to animated. Even five years on, it’s still affecting him. ‘I have a lot of integrity,’ he says. ‘I wanted to win because I was very competitive. I’m not going to walk into a bank with a mask on and scream, “This is a robbery.” If I was going to cheat, I would have been a little smarter.’
In retrospect, the decision made by Magic’s governing body was serendipitous; but to Williams, it felt like his world had just caved in. ‘They suspended me for a year and I was totally devastated,’ he says broodingly. ‘It was what my friends all played and it was my passion. It’s like taking away 40 people that you’re really close with.’
The silver-lining was that Williams – suddenly with a lot more time on his hands – started to play more poker in his local Dallas card room. ‘I played limit for a while,’ he says, ‘then Omaha hi-lo split. The money I made was way better than the money I made in my job. I had a bookie friend who would back me. He really wanted to play, but was so busy with his sportsbook he couldn’t afford to take time off.’
Such was Williams’ progression in Omaha – especially the pot-limit variation – that no-limit hold’em rarely made it into his canon of games.
He knew of its existence, but any direct involvement was limited to the odd Wednesday at his local card room in Dallas. ‘I tried it a couple of times, but I didn’t know what was going on. The structure was really bad; it was more like gambling.’ At this point the idea of a career in poker was still far from his thoughts. He had completed his one-year suspension from Magic and had made a successful return to the fold. ‘I started back because I loved the game and still do.’ But at this point, university studies also began to surface – although his path to an economics degree was hardly straightforward.
‘I started doing electrical engineering,’ said Williams. ‘But decided it wasn’t something I wanted to do for the rest of my life. I then switched to computer science, but that was only really a hobby. I tried finance, but then after taking an economics class I realised that was a subject I was highly-interested in.’
Williams’ procrastination was in part due to his attitude towards life. It’s ironic that for a man who is most famously remembered for coming second in the WSOP main event, he is never satisfied with second best. Money is not everything to him; it’s the satisfaction that comes with what he does that really counts. ‘My mother told me it didn’t matter if you made a lot of money or not – as long as you’re satisfied with life,’ he adds. ‘I wanted a job where I could be rich, but it was more important to be happy. I wanted a job that was unique and was something I would want to wake up to every day.’
The future path Williams was eyeing up became clearer in 2003.
Chris Moneymaker’s dream win at the World Series led to the proliferation of online poker sites promising the same to millions of players. The avenues for playing no-limit hold’em increased ten-fold and Williams decided to try and qualify for the Aruba Classic through an online satellite – with a little help from his friends, of course ‘I would chat with the other Magic players through MSN Messenger,’ he says. ‘One of my good friends was Eric Froehlich, aka E-Fro, who is now a two-time bracelet winner. He wasn’t 21 at the time and so couldn’t play, but I’d tell him my hand and we would discuss different scenarios when they came up.’ Two heads certainly proved to be better than one, and after a few attempts, Williams won his seat.
Aruba was always going to be a shock to the system for a major tournament virgin like Williams, but even he could probably never have predicted this baptism. ‘The very first person I saw at my table was [Mike] Matusow. David Oppenheim was also there. I didn’t know who they were at the time, but could tell from their arrogance that they knew what was going on. I sat between them.’
Sandwiched between two such experienced pros, it was little wonder Williams busted out on the first day – but it wasn’t all bad. ‘When I got knocked out,’ Williams recalls with a mischievous grin cutting across his face, ‘Matusow berated the guy that beat me. He went off on how bad the guy was. He screamed: “You called $5,000 with K-10? You’re an idiot.” Getting knocked out hurt, but I felt vindicated that Mike was chastising the guy. I wasn’t qualified to say it, but it made me feel like I didn’t make such a bad play. I had A-Q.’
As a result of his maiden voyage into the world of tournament hold’em, Williams quickly realised this form of the game was something truly special. ‘I really liked the people, lifestyle and environment. I decided I had to play in the WSOP main event, but didn’t know how I was going to pay the $10,000.’
His first port of call was his bookie in Dallas, who readily agreed to back him; but Williams was going to have to work for it. ‘He would take some of what I won in a pot-limit Omaha game and if I won up to $10,000, he would put me in the main event and take a piece.’
Fortunately for Williams, his increasing skill online netted him a seat without too much fuss and instead he made his way out to Vegas with a group of Magic players, including Dutch sensation Noah Boeken. As Williams is quick to testify – Boeken was an integral part of his World Series success, saying: ‘Me and Noah had always been close and talked about poker the whole time. It was his first World Series as well. If I was in a satellite, he’d be on the rail watching or he’d get the table next to me. It was Noah who introduced me to Marcel Luske.’
According to some, that meeting with Luske was responsible for practically every poker decision Williams made afterwards.
But, as we make our way through the cavernous corridors of the Venezia Tower, it’s clear the Flying Fox’s actual contribution was more complex than that – a point Williams is keen to point out.
‘A lot of people kind of have it that Marcel was a mentor,’ says Williams. ‘But, without wanting to discredit him – because he was a great help – it wasn’t like he was saying: “You should take A-K and re-raise this guy.” He liked to show how good he was and say: “Watch this, I’m going to raise this guy because I know he has nothing.” The things he was saying were working and I’d absorb the information. I was able to take that into the main event and this was where he was the biggest help. He was more of an inspiration, more of a coach figure.’
Given that the 2004 WSOP had over 2,500 entrants, whatever Williams had managed to assimilate from Luske would have been worthless without a drop of luck. It’s a little-known fact Williams could easily have gone out as early as the second day, only to get lucky on one key hand. ‘One guy raised, I re-raised and another pushed all-in’, he explains. ‘The original raiser called, and so did I – with two Jacks. I’d never do that now. One flipped over Aces and the other a pair of 9s. I hit a Jack and tripled up.’
After that scare, the strategy was simple: don’t try anything too clever.
Amazingly both Luske and Williams made the final ten and were assured of at least $373,000. From the stands, Williams recalls how his mother was yelling at him, telling him to climb up the money ladder. It was an early sign of his now famous winning mentality that just ‘hanging in there’ held no attraction for him. ‘I didn’t want to leave that tournament.’ he says. ‘I felt bonded to it and it felt like something glorious was happening. I just wanted to be part of it.’
Williams’ high proved to be short-lived however, as he had to sit back and watch former WSOP Champion Dan Harrington dump Luske out of the tournament. ‘Although Marcel was technically in the final ten, he missed the ESPN final table,’ says Williams solemnly. ‘That was pretty discouraging for me and very upsetting. If you actually watch the TV coverage, I was crying. I felt like he deserved to be there more than I did because I wouldn’t have been there without him.’
Despite his exit, it was testament to Luske that he continued to back his young charge to the hilt; without that support, Williams staunchly acknowledges his game would have crumbled. ‘Many times things would go wrong for me, but he was there to help me recover. How often do you get it in a poker tournament where one of your opponents is doing things to keep you up? I really appreciated him for that.’v While everyone knows Williams came off second best in the final heads-up battle with Greg Raymer, few realise how badly – psychologically – the young star took the loss. Sure, he was only 24; with $3.5 million in the bank and all smiles for the ESPN cameras. But, in his head, he’d just blown the only chance he’d ever have of making history. ‘I was torn up,’ says an exasperated Williams. ‘I saw him take the glory and was so jealous. I remember I had to fake a smile and I really didn’t want to do that.’ Much of his anger was directed towards the brevity of his heads-up challenge. Raymer might have had a 2.5/1 chip lead, but Williams knows there was no need for him to capitulate in only five hands. ‘If you look at what our blinds were: $25,000/$50,000, getting millions into the pot was absurd. Back then I didn’t know about small poker. I didn’t know how to grind away.
‘It was the worst day of my life,’ he says unhesitatingly.
I raise a pensive eyebrow, but he goes on to qualify: ‘It’s funny. People ask what the best day of my life is and what the worst day is. I haven’t had anyone die on me yet, so the worst day of my life is the same as the best day. It’s not that I wasn’t thankful for the money, but I realised I hadn’t understood how important this was to me. How life-changing and how different first and second were. It was a once-in-a-lifetime situation – and I blew it.’
But Williams is refusing to let the 2004 WSOP define him. Take his attitude at the World Series last year. ‘I had to focus because I wanted a bracelet,’ he says. ‘I got an early night every night, hired a chef and ate right every day. I got up with a fresh mind; ready to go to the tournament. If I got knocked out, I would go home and relax and get ready for the next day. People would ask me out, but I’d just stay home and watch movies.’
His monk-like existence worked, winning the $1,500 seven-card stud event and coming second in the $5,000 no-limit 2-7 draw lowball – but again, Williams’ will-to-win personality is reflected in his reaction to finishing as runner-up in the latter. ‘I wanted to win that bracelet more than any other in the whole world – more than a no-limit hold’em bracelet. It’s a real old-timers game, so for someone young to come in and win, especially someone who hasn’t played it before, would have given me the respect from the old guard. I looked at the list of people who have won it in the past: Johnny Chan, Howard Lederer, Doyle Brunson, Bobby Baldwin, Allen Cunningham, Stu Ungar – and realised there were no slouches there. I wanted to be a part of that group.’
Considering his induction into the PPL, Williams may have already found himself a place in poker’s top tier. But, the scariest thing is that one of poker’s hottest properties still has the potential to go even higher.
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