Samantha Abernathy: A Poker Star In The Making
24-Year-Old Poker Pro Has Breakout Score At Aussie Millions
Las Vegas-based poker pro Samantha Abernathy is on the rise thanks to a breakout performance in January’s Aussie Millions main event. The Atlanta, Georgia native was able to outlast more than 700 players in Australia’s flagship annual tournament.
The 24-year-old now has more than $500,000 in career earnings after beginning her poker career roughly two years ago. Her results come at a time when many argue that another poker boom will only come from an influx of women to the game. Abernathy has so far shown that quickly becoming an elite player can happen through dedication. Before playing higher buy-ins, she was a low-stakes grinder in Las Vegas.
It’s safe to say Abernathy’s wanderlust led her to poker in the first place, but it only clicked right away because of her long history of being competitive in games and other activities where money was on the line.
“The ‘Sheistiest’ Monopoly Banker You’ve Ever Seen”
People who find poker at some point in their 20s usually were into strategy games as a child. Abernathy was no different. According to her, she played “all of the games.” And she played them to win.
“The majority of my time growing up was spent outside, but at night we’d play various board and card games,” Abernathy said. “Rummy, Hearts, Sorry!, Clue, Life and so on. Occasionally my brother and I would be allowed to play PlayStation, which meant MLB 95-99. He and I also played heads-up Monopoly pretty often, and I was always the banker.”
Monopoly was where Abernathy learned how to be cutthroat. Her mom calls her the “sheistiest monopoly banker you’ve ever seen.”
“I’ve always thought of [her] as a little bit sheisty, but business-minded is a much better way of phrasing it,” Karen Foreman said. Abernathy, almost instinctively, knew to always look for that edge.
Foreman said that Abernathy was making money off prop bets since she was seven years old. “Whether it was a magic trick, how fast [she] could solve a Rubik’s Cube with her eyes closed, or which random high-risk object she could back flip off of and land on one foot, I often found myself apologizing on [her] behalf as she scraped the pockets of strangers.”
It came as no surprise when Abernathy ran what her mom calls the “infamous” lemonade stand. In addition to peddling lemonade, Abernathy later found a way to make some extra cash by selling advertisements on her high school car, which was dubbed the “mobile billboard.”
Foreman added that Abernathy “always had big aspirations” and is “the type of person who can snap their fingers and make something fascinating happen out of thin air.” At one point, Abernathy was planning on taking her gymnastics to the collegiate level, but a back injury dimmed those aspirations.
“I don’t know where [she] gets it from,” Foreman said.
Finding The Game Of Poker
While at the Seminole Hard Rock Casino in Florida a few years ago just passing some time, Abernathy “somehow found the poker room,” and the rest is history.
“I somehow registered for a tournament, somehow managed to not completely embarrass myself, all the while falling in love with the idea of pursuing a career in poker, without having a clue about what I was getting myself into,” Abernathy said. “A week later, I went to Prague to play some World Poker Tour events. It seemed like a whimsical play at the time, and when I got back to the States I decided to move to Las Vegas and take it seriously.”
In 2014, Abernathy cashed more than 30 times in tournaments around Las Vegas, which was her first foray into learning the ins and outs of poker. Prior to starting her grind, Abernathy knew she could compete.
“I think that I had some natural abilities in the beginning, but looking back on it, it was just a train wreck,” Abernathy said. According to her, she’s still "cleaning up” her game, but the string of cashes in small buy-in events gave her a solid foundation.
She started off “primarily as a feel-player” and her game has been becoming more sophisticated ever since.
“In the last year or so, I’ve been opening myself up to learning the technical side of the game,” Abernathy said. “But I’ve just been careful as to where and who I’m learning from because it seems like everyone and their mom ‘knows’ how to play [game-theory optimal] these days, but I just don’t want to absorb the wrong information and start creating more bad habits.”
The Right Kind Of Happiness
Despite dropping out of art school, Abernathy was able to land her then dream job upon moving to Chicago. She worked as a UX/UI designer for apps, games, software and websites. It was a great gig for Abernathy, who “felt that anything [she] wanted to learn was available online,” without the burden of student loans.
“As it turns out, there was nothing compatible or dreamy about me working in the 9-5 world,” she recalled. “I really enjoyed creating apps along with the security and financial stability I found in having a full-time job, but there was something intangible missing from my life. It started to feel mundane. My spark for creativity died more than I’d like to admit, and it was as if I was just going through the motions and contributing to everyone else’s projects and dreams but not my own.”
Though she left that job upon receiving the opportunity to go on tour with musicians Steve Aoki and Waka Flocka, she soon found poker. The game, she said, allows her to be more selective with projects she wants to get involved with.
She also isn’t great at scheduling, which is another reason why poker works for her.
“I’ve learned a lot about my strengths and weaknesses over the last few years, and one thing I’ve identified is that I don’t operate well on any type of structure,” Abernathy said. “I try to create structure for myself all the time, because it’s something that I know is good for me and I want to get better at it, but I rebel against myself and do the exact opposite of what I plan to do, just because. Is there a diagnosis for this syndrome? Stubborn? Just nuts? Poker does fit well in this case though. I get to play when I want to without feeling like I have to, and it makes it more enjoyable rather than feeling like a chore.”
What she struggles with can be understood in terms of her ADD. It makes her ambitious and gives her quick thought processes, both necessary in poker, but it can be devastating to a chip stack during periods when the game feels like a grind.
“In seeking to understand myself a little better, I’ve learned a lot about ADD and how I operate with it in different environments,” she said. “I tend to lean more toward anti-medicating with almost everything unless I’m nearly dying, so it’s been a challenge to figure out how to navigate playing poker while coping with ADD in a healthy way. When I’m not mindful of it, I’m more likely to punt or get overly ambitious and feel the need to somehow win every hand I play. I don’t even know how many times I’ve punted within 20-30 minutes before bagging up just because my attention span and patience is gone at the end of a 12-hour day.”
Though she is now known for her tournament results, Abernathy does like playing cash games. However, that’s when her ADD can flare up the most. For her, it’s an opportunity to kill two birds with one stone. “Usually if I’m not in the mood [to play], I’ll just wait until I’m hungry and convince myself that I can go feast at the table while I’m playing,” she said.
Career Score At The 2016 Aussie Millions
The Aussie Millions main event gave Abernathy, who had just a short time ago been grinding low buy-in daily tournaments around Las Vegas while strictly monitoring her bankroll, an opportunity for her breakout performance. She capitalized on some run-good and made the final table thanks to successfully wading through a 732-player starting field that included some of the world’s top poker players.
Abernathy already knew that she could play poker against the best, so her third-place finish wasn’t necessarily validation for her still-young poker career. It is serving more as motivation for continuing her journey.
“I didn’t set out seeking validation from anyone else, but I’m human so there were times when I felt emotionally demoralized. So this was, if anything, proof to myself that I’m capable,” Abernathy said. “Not to be results-oriented, as I’m fully aware that I still have a lot to learn, but perhaps I’m just more excited about improving now than I was at times before.”
Abernathy’s first appearance deep in a major tournament came with more drama than is standard. In one hand, she had pocket sixes and moved all-in against an opponent with pocket kings. With Abernathy barely having Mikel Habb covered, he went into the tank and eventually elected to call in what many people were calling a slow-roll. Abernathy said the hand wasn’t as black and white as some were saying.
“There has been some debate about whether or not this hand was a slow-roll,” Abernathy said. “It very well could have been a nit-roll. I was a little bit confused in the moment, and I remember thinking, ‘Did I just get slow-rolled?’ Either way, I felt that his actions and attitude that unfolded were what truly surprised me. I can’t speak to his intentions, but I feel that it was a poor demonstration of good etiquette and sportsmanship, and that part didn’t feel great on my end in the moment.”
As the dealer was about to burn and turn for the river card, Habb had two fingers pointed toward the ceiling. Prior to that, he had arguably been over-celebrating. This was all after he looked like he was in pain to call all-in with pocket kings.
Sure enough, a six on the river gave Abernathy a set and sent a deflated Habb to the rail in 15th place. “That six sure felt great on the river,” Abernathy said. “I just tried to remain Zen while everything was taking place. Needless to say, I haven’t ever smiled so much upon sucking out on someone.”
Abernathy used the chips to make it to three-handed play with Ari Engel and Tony Dunst. She received the equivalent of $437,000 for her efforts. She currently sits just outside the top 50 on the all-time female tournament money list.
According to her, she sort of jumped into the poker industry head first and got more opportunities right away than she necessarily "deserved.” So a third-place finish in one of the year’s most prominent tournaments does highlight her poker resume.
“I have a tendency to jump head first into anything new I want to try,” Abernathy said. “It’s just my nature to want to achieve things over night, but this particular experience was pretty humbling. Maybe I got a bit ahead of myself, but there were plenty of people lurking out there in the poker community who were willing and able to put me in my place. I don’t necessarily agree with any human telling another human what they do and don’t deserve, but I think that there was merit to some of the negative feedback, and it just made me want to be more skillful in poker rather than just ‘marketable.’”
An Uncertain Future, But A Bright One
Poker is going to be part of Abernathy’s life for the foreseeable future. She enjoys spending her time in Las Vegas and on the road, and with her comes her companion—a cat named Binks.
“I’m sort of a lone wolf, so I like bringing him on poker trips,” Abernathy said. “When I bust a tournament, it’s nice to go back to my room and hang out with him rather than just being by myself. Plus he likes to rail with me when my friends make deep runs.”
Her immediate goals are, of course, to keep winning money. The sheisty monopoly banker knows that you can never stop building your bankroll. Though she said that $2-$5 and $5-$10 no-limit hold’em cash games are her most profitable, her “ego wants to play bigger.” The problem, she said, is that the higher stakes are usually tougher thanks to an abundance of regulars. But she does know that you have to game select. Abernathy has played as high as $25-$50.
“A lot of tourists will come through town, sit down at $2-$5 for the first time and happily get it in with the worst hand, so I just have to remind myself that it’s a good idea to go be there when it happens,” she said.
But with a rising personal brand in the poker world, Abernathy does realize that improving herself on and off the felt is key to future success.
“I want to get better so I can crush,” she said. “I don’t know what this looks like yet, and it may not even be exclusive to poker. I just want to use poker as a runway for something bigger and better, so right now I’m just enjoying the ride.”
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