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A Poker Life: Brent Hanks

by Julio Rodriguez |  Published: Dec 26, 2012


For a few years, it looked like Brent Hanks would follow his father and sister into the education field. The upstate New York native spent his first three years out of college teaching grade school, loving every second of it, but ultimately, something was lacking.

Hanks had a passion for poker, a passion that had translated into quite the profitable hobby during his spare time. After building a bankroll that would make any teacher jealous, Hanks made the tough decision to put his newfound career on hold in order to chase a new one in Las Vegas.

In the roughly six years since he took that leap of faith, Hanks has earned nearly $3 million in combined live and online tournament winnings. This summer, after numerous close calls, the 30-year-old etched his name into poker history by winning his first career World Series of Poker bracelet.

Here’s at how one of the nicest guys in the game also became one of the best.

Like Father, Like Son

Brent Hanks wasn’t the first person in his family to mess around with a deck of cards. That honor belonged to his father Dave, who played in a weekly game for years in the family’s small farming community of Filmore, New York, a town a little over an hour southeast of Buffalo.

“He introduced me to poker, although it wasn’t the games that we play now,” said Hanks. “He played in a weekend home game with some of his friends and when I was a teenager in high school, he would bring me along and teach me the rules. There were a lot of weird games being dealt, like acey-deucey, Chicago or stud variations with community cards and qualifiers.”

As a good student, Hanks was accepted into nearby St. Bonaventure University. He didn’t know what he was going to select as his field of study, but his father, who was a school administrator for years back in Filmore, gave him the nudge he needed.

“My parents put a strong emphasis on education while my sister and I were growing up,” Hanks recalled. “My sister Ashley followed my dad into the education field by becoming a teacher. Even though I went to college undecided, it wasn’t long before I decided to do the same.”

Hanks earned his bachelor’s degree in elementary education and almost immediately began seeking a master’s degree in literacy. Meanwhile, he took a job teaching fifth grade reading classes at a school located about 10 miles from where he grew up. Hanks spent his mornings in the classroom teaching and his afternoons in the classroom learning. His nights and weekends, however, were spent exploring his new hobby of poker. This wasn’t the same game that had been introduced to him by his father years before. This was Texas hold’em, and Hanks quickly found out that he was a natural.

After some small scores in live tournaments at the nearby Seneca Alleghany Casino in Salamanca, Hanks turned his attention to online poker. When he should have been grading papers or sleeping, he was grinding out a small bankroll on Full Tilt Poker.

“I didn’t play online until after I started teaching,” he admitted. “To be honest, I didn’t even know that was a possibility while I was taking my undergraduate classes. I deposited about $300 and just took shots at different tournaments whenever I had some free time. They had these $24 tournaments at night and I wound up winning one of them for $6,000. After that, I started buying into bigger tournaments online and never really looked back.”

From Farm Town To Sin City

Hanks continued to do well online and by the summer of 2007, had built up a sizable bankroll. Poker had become more profitable than teaching and Hanks knew that he’d never realize his full potential in upstate New York. Before the new school year began, he resigned from his job at the elementary school.

“My close friends saw it coming,” he said. “They saw the passion I had for the game and realized that it was the right time to take a shot. It was really tough for me, though. I was close to the kids and my coworkers. I took a lot of pride in making school enjoyable for my students. I would stand on the desks and read them a Roald Dahl book called The BFG, or The Big Friendly Giant, which suited my personality. I would join them on recess for games of dodge ball. For me, the true satisfaction came from hearing the students say that they liked going to school and wanted to learn.”

With $60,000 in cash and online funds, Hanks made the trip to Las Vegas to move in with some fellow aspiring poker pros. Any doubt about his career change was immediately cast aside after his first weekend in Sin City, where he won the PokerStars Sunday Million for $278,000.

“I knew afterwards that I had made the right decision,” he said.

Hanks continued to crush online poker until the next summer, when he ventured into some live tournaments at the WSOP. In a $2,500 no-limit hold’em tournament, Hanks navigated his way through a field of 1,397 entrants en route to a fifth-place finish, good for another $178,000. It was this experience that allowed him to meet up and coming pros such as Shawn Buchanan, Steven Merrifield and the man who would become one of his closest friends and business partner, Jason Mercier.

Taking On Less Risk

In less than a year in Las Vegas, Hanks had banked away nearly half a million dollars. It was enough to take some more shots, but he didn’t necessarily want to put it all back on the line either. It was then that he came to an arrangement with Mercier for live tournament play. Hanks would continue to keep his online action, but Mercier would stake him for his live events. It was a relationship that would last five years.

“I did exactly what I shouldn’t have done,” Hanks admitted. “I went out and picked up a backer. I had made a bunch of money in a short amount of time and I kind of wanted to sit on it while someone else took on the risk.”

Hanks doesn’t mean to say that he had a negative experience working with Mercier, he just acknowledges that he may have approached the arrangement the wrong way.

“I could have done things differently. Unless you are a guy like Jason Mercier, you’re not going to make money in the long run by playing every single tournament on the schedule. Most guys need to be very selective. I wasn’t selective and I wound up getting deep into make up by jumping right into a ton of $10,000 events right off the bat. I had run well when I first moved to Las Vegas and I kind of just assumed that it would continue forever.”

There were a number of close calls with some top 20 finishes, including two WSOP final tables, but nothing big enough to make up for the mounting make up he was getting into with Mercier. At his peak, Hanks was in the hole for about $240,000. Despite his live dry spell, he never regretted his decision to take on poker.

Becoming His Own Backer

Hanks finally put it all together during the 2012 WSOP, taking down his first career bracelet in a $1,500 no-limit hold’em tournament. He defeated a large field of 2,101 for the top prize of $517,725. After the win, however, Mercier surprised Hanks by ending their staking arrangement.

“The two of us remain great friends, but at the time, I was a little stunned,” said Hanks. “After all, I had just made him whole and put six figures of profit into his pocket, so I probably said some things I shouldn’t have. Ultimately, I think he was just over the entire situation, but considering the fact that he had made quite a bit of money from backing, it was definitely a surprise.”

With the rest of the series being played on his own dime, Hanks put together a nice run in the WSOP main event, finishing in 282nd place for another $38,453. Now that he has become his own backer, he has taken on a new approach to playing poker for a living.

“I’ve had to adjust and transition into playing a lot more live cash games,” said Hanks. “I’ve become much more selective with what tournaments I play. It’s no longer about throwing money around and hoping for the best. Now, it’s about looking for good spots and being smart.”

Moving Forward

Hanks enjoys his time in his new home and spends his days between cash games or local tournaments. His nights are spent with his girlfriend Liz, a school teacher whom he was introduced to by his sister.

“I couldn’t be happier,” Hanks admitted. “I guess you could say that I’ve been domesticated. I get to live a pretty normal life outside of the fact that I spend my days working in poker rooms.”

His mother Debbie and his sister also love having a relative, as well as a place to stay, in Las Vegas for family vacations, but it’s his dad who gets the biggest kick out of his new career.

“My dad’s now retired, but he’s become quite the low-stakes grinder at the $1-$2 and $2-$5 tables around town. He’s getting really into it.”

Though he would eventually like to get back into teaching or coaching, Hanks isn’t going to force anything. For now, he’s content with his title as a teacher turned poker pro.

“It’s like three or four times a week, Liz and I look at each other and grin about how much we love our life. I wouldn’t have it any other way.” ♠