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Speech/Play With Dan O’Brien

One Man’s Passion For Poker And Politics

by Rebecca McAdam |  Published: Oct 01, 2012


Dan O’Brien’s story starts like many others’. The young American got the poker bug when he saw Rounders while in college and took to it like a duck to water, playing six days a week. Although, admittedly, terrible at the time, he was better than his opponents and the draw of both money and mental competition was just too much to resist. “When I came back for my third semester, the game my friends and I were beating didn’t want us back,” says O’Brien. “I didn’t want it to stop, so I gambled on trusting an online poker site called Party Poker. The site’s terms said that it wouldn’t pay players connecting from illegal territories, so I was really worried that I wasn’t going to get paid. I made a few hundred dollars and decided to cash some out to see if it worked, to see if it was real. I took a few days off and waited. When that first cash-out hit my bank account I was more excited than I was winning hundreds of thousands years later. It was real, and I was ready to work.”

O’Brien may have been inspired, like so many, by the movie Rounders but since that fateful day, he has written his own adventure and continues to do so. With enough success, through hard work and determination, to do what he loves for a living, he has travelled the world, played amongst the best there is, and transformed his life in a matter of years. O’Brien discusses the incredible opportunities the game has given him, “I can basically do what I want, when I want to do it, with few obligations. I may have made more money if I’d stayed on Wall Street as a trader, but money can’t buy the freedom that I have. I’ve gotten to meet some very interesting, successful, and occasionally famous people that I wouldn’t have come in contact with anywhere else. I’m also able to travel the world, experiencing different cultures while competing against some of the very best poker players. It’s far less profitable than playing against amateurs, but I find it far more entertaining.”

Side Action

Recently, and particularly since Black Friday, many professionals can be found focusing their attention on areas outside of the game itself. Perhaps not having online poker has forced some affected players to follow passions they had previously left on the back burner. For O’Brien, the turn of events was not too devastating however. “Black Friday really hurt poker overall, but it hasn’t adversely affected me very much. I didn’t have much money on Full Tilt and I was getting sick of grinding online anyway. I am looking forward to its return though and hope to start some grinding again.” When it comes to live play, the pro may not have any major titles to his name but is clearly a survivor of the times with close calls a-plenty and more than $1.4 million in live winnings under his belt. It wasn’t circumstance but choice that led him down the road he has taken, one which is filled to the brim with various caps for him to wear such as businessman, entrepreneur, commentator, presenter, and writer. Although his passion for the game is clear, he has now diverted a little of his attention away from the felt. “I still love playing in huge tournaments, but the daily grind hasn’t appealed to me lately. So, I’m working on a few side projects I’m interested in,” he divulges enthusiastically. “One of them that combines two of my major interests, poker and educating, is a mobile app called Insta Poker. It combines the gaming aspect of poker with the instructional side in a way that’s never been done before. As the user, you get to play hands that pros have played, make decisions they had to make, and get feedback instantly not just if it was the best play, but exactly why it was or wasn’t the best play. You’re learning the game through hand analysis — the same way the pros learn and the same way I try to teach through commentary. I’m really careful about what I attach my name to, and I’m really proud to be a part of this.”

A Star Is Born

Commentary is yet another string to O’Brien’s bow. Last year the World Poker Tour asked him to be in its “Ones To Watch” segment and during production the topic of commentary came up. He says, “They had no proof that Tony (Dunst) and I could carry a show for 8-10 hours, but they threw us in there and it came out pretty well.” This got the attention of other tours and major events such as the Paddy Power Poker Irish Open. O’Brien quickly gelled as one of the team earlier this year when he was brought in as a hand analyst for the main event. The New Yorker went down a storm with an audience who are not always the easiest to please. His brutally honest comments and dry sense of humour are a refreshing addition to any event, but working on the other side of the fence is not as glamorous as it can appear, and far from the freedom of showing up and playing in a tournament of one’s choosing. “Being on the media, or ‘working’ side of poker, is definitely a change and a challenge. The WPT streams are great. I get to go play a tournament and if I bust, I get to do the final-table commentary. It doesn’t get much better than that. The iSeries and Irish Poker Open, however, were much tougher. I had to skip the event in order to work it, so while I’m doing commentary I’m wishing I had a shot to gamble and beat the guys whose play I’m analyzing. Also, Dublin was five or six straight days of work with long hours every day followed by pubs every night. That trip really took a toll on me,” he says. “But I hope to do it again every year,” he adds, smiling.

Talk The Talk, Walk The Walk

This begs the question: when a poker player sits on the other side of the camera and has to pay close attention without getting involved, does it help improve their own play or make them realise anything in particular about the game overall? According to O’Brien, “Commentating hands and discussing how to play optimally can only help my game. I’ve had the opportunity to watch some great players and learn a few things that I otherwise may not have. Recording hands for Insta Poker has really helped my discipline. Sometimes I’ll want to make a play at the table that I would never advise anyone to make. I’ll want to make this emotional or otherwise stupid play, and then think, ‘How can I tell someone to play like this?’ It helps me to make the right play even when the wrong play may be easier.” Putting your opinions out there and letting people in to personal thought processes, is not an easy thing, especially for a professional player. Being a poker authority adds the pressure of staying on top of the game and achieving the results to back up certain viewpoints. O’Brien discusses being in the limelight outside of his previous comfort zone, the felt, “I’ve always wanted to be successful in the game, but I didn’t care too much about what the masses thought of me. I’ve had the respect of a lot of top players for a while, and that’s all I need. As a commentator and pro for Insta Poker though, I’m much more under the microscope. I’ve never won a big buy-in tournament, or had a seven-figure score, so who am I to tell a celebrity poker player that he’s playing like trash? I can explain it logically, but some people just need to see those credentials. So that’s made me a little more motivated lately to go out and prove that I’m one of the best. Unfortunately, that can be a very difficult thing to do in the high variance world of tournament poker.”

Useful Information

One wonders if a poker-playing commentator uses his time as a fly on the wall to pick up tells on fellow players or to familiarise themselves with certain pros’ styles? Instead of using this knowledge against the pros he has watched, O’Brien explains how he is more likely to pick and choose what he likes to add to his own game and put it to use in that way. However, he does highlight the advantage of watching a player throughout an entire final table and wouldn’t think twice about using this information in future. Playing in so many tournaments, and now analysing so many others, O’Brien must bear witness to many mistakes at the baize. For the outspoken young gun, one common fault is final-table bet-sizing. He says, “Final tables generally have pretty shallow stacks. Short stack play is one of the key differences between cash games and tournaments, and a lot of pros still have quite a bit to learn. I’d say the biggest pro mistakes I see are bet-sizing errors and calling too often in short stack situations.”

Being in O’Brien’s firing line is not something one would take on lightly. He makes no qualms about telling it how it is, and doesn’t hold anything back. This makes the discourse enthralling and, even at times, controversial. The key thing O’Brien attempts to do, which keeps the viewer’s interest alive, is educate those watching as best as he knows how. He takes his time when analysing hands, and does so as clearly and honestly as possible, live and under the gun, something not every commentator can do. So, if O’Brien had an ideal table to commentate on, and, indeed, tear apart here and there, who would be on it? After some thought, he answers, “I would like a good balance of talent, personality, and of course, lack of talent to rip on. So, my ideal table would have to be:

Phil Ivey – Talent
Daniel Negreanu – Talent, Personality
Phil Hellmuth – Personality, Rip on, maybe even a little Talent
Jason Mercier – Talent
Jared Bleznik – Talent, Personality
Sam Grizzle – Personality
Devilfish – Personality
Allen Bari – Talent, Personality
Tom Dwan – Talent

He then adds, “God, that’s such an incredible group. Let’s make that happen on the next iSeries, shall we?”

Taking It All On

In the past year Dan O’Brien has added so many fantastic experiences and memories to his collection purely by branching out and taking on new ventures. For him, playing and commentating appear to have a symbiotic relationship, and as a big sports fan and the eldest of five boys, O’Brien is competitive enough to want to prove himself on and off the tournament floor. With far fewer gigs for poker commentators these days, especially when it comes to TV poker, it says a lot about O’Brien that he is one of very few with a regular place behind the microphone. Speaking about these changes in poker, he says, “Poker peaked with the rise in online poker and an inflated economy. Both of those have been hit hard in the last few years. Online poker will hopefully grow quickly again in the U.S. as legislation goes through. The economy will be a lot tougher to correct, but hopefully it strengthens for poker, and more importantly, for the well-being of people everywhere.”

The Las Vegas resident is as outspoken on subjects outside of poker as he is about the game. He can often be found on social media hotly debating political issues and voicing his concerns on the American economy. Regarding non-poker ventures, the pro is working on a YouTube show dealing with economics and political issues. He says he wishes to deal with these subjects in a “well thought-out manner and shed some light on the ignorance that swirls around these important real world issues.” Aside from this, O’Brien is also doing some writing and wants to create something in comedy in the next year or so. The great thing about being a professional poker player, as he himself will admit, is the time, and indeed freedom to bend time, to make these things happen. O’Brien’s to-do list is ever-growing and there are only so many hours in the day, but the sparkle of determination in his eye says everything. With desires and ambitions oozing from every pore, it is hard for the pro to name all his goals for the future. “Full disclosure of my hopes and dreams would take a long time to get out and frankly, I’m a bit scared to know them all,” he says, smiling. “To keep it short and sweet, let’s just say I hope to be the next Elky/Mercier/Rettenmaier of tournament poker and enjoy my life outside of poker while doing it.”

Time To Shine

O’Brien took a chance on poker in the beginning and it has so far paid off, personally and financially. With the limelight previously shining on those around him, it is clear this young man’s time has come. He has watched three of his best friends; Jason Mercier, Allen Bari, and Brent Hanks win World Series of Poker bracelets, and is aiming to have one of his own sooner rather than later. A star in his own right, it is exciting to watch O’Brien truly come into his own. He knows what he wants and is going for it, in and outside of poker, and as far as the game is concerned, has no intentions of going anywhere. Much like his wishes to be a pro, it won’t be long until he makes his current dreams a reality. Just watch this space. ♠

Dan O’Brien can be followed on Twitter @DanOBrienPoker. His new app Insta Poker can be downloaded at