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A Poker Life: Randy Ohel

WSOP Bracelet Winner Talks About How He Got His Start

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With 11 top-10 finishes, a bracelet and more than $1.2 million in earnings, poker pro Randy Ohel has established himself as one of the more consistent threats each summer at the World Series of Poker.

The 2016 summer was particularly enjoyable for Ohel, who managed to contend for the WSOP Player of the Year title after cashing six times and making three final tables. But outside of a few tournament trips throughout the year, the 31-year-old Florida-native mainly spends his work hours grinding high-stakes mixed games in Las Vegas.

Poker Beginnings

Ohel grew up in sunny Coral Springs, Florida, just an hour north of Miami. But while the other neighborhood children hit the playground after school and the little league field on the weekend, Ohel spent most of his time inside.

“I was definitely an indoor kid,” he admitted. “I wasn’t necessarily turning down an opportunity to go play outside, but for the most part, I was the kid who stayed in, watched TV and played video games. I tried playing some sports growing up, but I wasn’t very good at any of them. My family played a lot of games. Whether it was card games or board games, we played it. We were very competitive, but it never got ugly or anything like that.”

Being part of a family that loved games gave Ohel an early glimpse into the game of poker.

“When I was still in elementary school, I once spent a sick day at my grandmother’s house and she taught me how to play seven card stud. I didn’t get it right away, but it was a start. To this day, she likes to brag about my success and say that she was the one who got me into poker.”

Randy Ohel at the WSOPIt was a nice introduction, but Ohel’s interest in the game really piqued after the Moneymaker boom. He was just a high school student playing with other students, but his game also included future poker pro Michael Winnett and fellow bracelet winner Steven Wolansky.

“It wasn’t until my senior year of high school that I started playing poker with some regularity,” he recalled. “We had a group of friends that would get together for a weekly $20 tournament at various houses. We would get between 20 and 30 people each week and take a small portion of the prize pool to fund an end-of-the-year tournament. The World Poker Tour was just becoming popular on TV so we called our tournament the USPT, which stood for the University School Poker Tour, named after our high school. It was a lot of fun.”

Poker Tunnel Vision

What started as a game of stud with his grandmother had turned into a full-fledged fixation. While he prepped for college, just like his peers, he still had his mind on poker when he moved four hours north to Gainesville, Florida.

“I started reading Super System around this time. I had already turned 18 so I was playing online and in the local card rooms. I went on a road trip the summer before my freshman year in college. A couple nights before we left, I won enough money to pay for the entire trip. By the time I had enrolled at the University of Florida, I guess you could say that I had become mildly obsessed with poker.”

Ohel tried his best to get to the early classes and cram for his tests, but he lacked the motivation to do much besides play cards.

“I was not ready for college at 18,” he admitted. “I wish I had taken a year off before enrolling, to be honest. I was a good student in high school, but it came easy. I didn’t really have to do much work as long as I paid attention in class, but in college, they don’t force you to go to class. Dropping out didn’t even seem like a choice to me, I had to. I just wasn’t ready for any of it.”

It was a worrying time for Ohel, who didn’t have much to fall back on outside of poker.

“I went to college with the full intention of graduating and getting a good job, just like so many others do, but there was never anything that really appealed to me,” he said. “This is going to sound materialistic, but even when I was just a kid I always knew the acquisition of wealth was a driving force for me. Poker was a means to an end. It’s a lot harder to see the end if you take the traditional 9-to-5 route, but with poker, I was taking actual cash home every night.”

Turning Pro

Despite the fact that he was no longer attending classes, Ohel remained in Gainesville for his scheduled four years and continued to cut his teeth playing online and in local home games. He was profitable as a poker player, but not quite making enough to quit his day job. Then in the span of just a couple of months, he final tabled two big online tournaments to pocket a total of $77,000.

His confidence was at an all-time high, but perhaps it shouldn’t have been.

“I thought I was clearly the best player in the world,” he said. “I mean, look at my results in these two tournaments. (Laughing) I definitely acted too big for my britches for a while and a lot of that money was lost learning that I wasn’t as good as I thought I was. It took me a little bit before I realized that I wasn’t just the unluckiest person in the world. Maybe I was missing something.”

Despite the humbling experience, Ohel rebounded by grinding up what he had left of his bankroll and studying training videos. In 2008, he moved to Las Vegas and immediately began playing in the live games.

“I know I said I was an indoor kid before, but with poker, I’ve always preferred to play live. There’s a visceral appeal to physically putting chips into a pot, and hoping you get more back in return. Live poker has just always been more enjoyable.”

While the rest of the poker world was caught up in “the Cadillac of poker,” no-limit hold’em, Ohel was part of a small minority of young players who were drawn to mixed games before it became en vogue.

“Even at 18 I was already interested in the other games. I don’t know why, I don’t know where that came from, but I always had this desire to learn the other games.”

Finding Tournament Success

Although Ohel usually clocks in for work in the high-stakes mixed cash games at Bellagio, he can’t resist all of the tournament offerings at the annual WSOP each summer. His first cash came in 2008, but since 2012 he’s managed to make eight final tables. It was at his first final table that Ohel picked up his gold bracelet, winning the $2,500 deuce-to-seven triple draw event for $145,247.

“I was actually quite excited for that event, and had a feeling I would do well,” Ohel said. “I don’t know why I thought I would do well, but for some reason I did. My best result at the WSOP before that was a 32nd-place finish, so I had never even sniffed a final table let alone a bracelet. Winning a bracelet didn’t seem like it could ever happen, but once it did, I had the confidence that I could maybe do it again one day. It hasn’t happened again yet, but I’ve had a few close calls.”

More than a few actually. Later in 2012, he finished fifth in the $3,000 pot-limit Omaha eight-or-better event. In 2014, he picked up the largest score of his career, banking $313,715 for taking second in the $10,000 H.O.R.S.E. event.

He added final tables in the $1,500 10-game mix, $3,000 H.O.R.S.E. and $1,500 dealer’s choice events. In 2016, he took fourth in the $10,000 dealer’s choice event for $96,876. After a close call in the $10,000 H.O.R.S.E. where he finished tenth, he got third in the $3,000 six-max pot-limit Omaha event for $141,187. Finally, he notched another runner-up finish, this time in the $10,000 stud eight-or-better event for $209,302.

“In the moment, losing is never easy,” he said. “As time passes, it gets easier. I had my best summer ever. My wife and twins’ lives were improved by it. I’m proud of that.”

Moving Forward

While Ohel enjoys the prestige that comes from being a bracelet winner, he acknowledges that at the end of the day, it’s all about the money.

“From a professional standpoint, I would very much like to one day get to the point where I can play in the big game in a place like Bobby’s Room at Bellagio. But my overall goal is always to win enough money so that money no longer factors into my decision making. I think that’s everyone’s goal, it’s just weirder in poker because you have to use money to reach that goal.”

These days, Ohel no longer has tunnel vision when it comes to poker, especially now that he and his wife Briana have welcomed twins into their family.

“I couldn’t have been as successful in poker without the support of my wife Briana, and I love being be a father to our twins, Julian and Eleanor.” ♠