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Greg Raymer 2004 World Champion, Makes Resurgence in 2012

The Tireless Online Poker Advocate Wins Four Heartland Poker Tour Titles

by Brian Pempus |  Published: May 01, 2013


Some main event champions over the past decade have been one-hit wonders. After winning poker’s largest event and $5 million in 2004, Greg Raymer remained a force on the tournament circuit. However, it was about eight years later before he showed the poker world that he’s still one of the best around.

In 2012, Raymer won an incredible four titles on the Heartland Poker Tour — which runs four-figure buy-ins around the Midwest. It’s not quite like the halls of the Rio Hotel and Casino during the summer World Series of Poker, but the HPT does attract hundreds of players and has championship events that award substantial first-place prizes.

Raymer grinded those events hard last year, and the results were almost unimaginable.
“Winning two of three tournaments is unreal and unexpected,” Raymer said after just his second victory of the season. “I’m overwhelmed,” he said after winning the fourth and final one.

Altogether, Raymer outlasted 935 players and won $371,967 in the tournaments, which did allow for re-entries, a feature the bankroll-solid Raymer capitalized on.

His results in 2012 on the HPT were good enough to make him the tour’s all-time money leader and the only player to ever win four titles.

Raymer won his first HPT title on July 30 at the Route 66 Casino in Albuquerque, NM for $71,875 and followed that up with an even bigger win at the HPT St. Louis main event, taking home $121,973. In late October, he took down the HPT Prairie Meadows title just outside of Des Moines, IA for $72,089 just weeks prior to winning the inaugural HPT Belterra in Florence, IN. His last win was arguably his most improbable.

Raymer entered the final table as the shortest stack, but doubled up on the very first hand and just over one orbit later he overtook the chip lead. The win increased Raymer’s lifetime earnings to more than $7 million.

Raymer attributes the success to just “variance.” He said that poker involves a lot of skill and a lot of luck. Statistically speaking, doing what he did on the HPT is far more unlikely than winning the World Series of Poker main event, which he did back in 2004.

Raymer received a lot of love from the poker community for his efforts on the HPT. However, it wasn’t validation for Raymer in his own mind.

“Poker is not a game of results,” Raymer said. “Obviously the goal is to make money and pay bills, but what I mean is that if you just try to focus on results you are going to be disappointed. Tournament poker is just not that type of activity.”

He did admit that online grinders can put in enough volume over the long run to minimize the variance associated with tournaments, but Raymer has always been predominantly a live pro.

Raymer said that he is playing his best ever, but that he’s still “losing ground” on the Internet crowd, largely comprised of college-aged geniuses.

However, Raymer loves talking strategy and trying to keep pace with the evolution of no-limit hold’em. He hosts seminars across the country for people itching to learn more poker strategy.

Gambling Before Becoming A Star

While a student at the University of Minnesota, Raymer counted cards at blackjack for extra money instead of waiting tables like his peers. When he left school and began work in the legal field in Chicago, he ended up ditching the blackjack tables for the poker felt.

He didn’t know what he was doing at first, but he read some poker books and put in his hours to learn the nuts and bolts of the game. It didn’t take long before he felt comfortable.

Raymer said that he probably played more poker before winning the main event than he has since. During the early days, he would finish work on Tuesday and drive to nearby Foxwoods in Connecticut (where he eventually moved) for a no-limit hold’em tournament.

“Back then it was probably the biggest daily poker tournament anywhere in the world,” Raymer remembered. “We got to the point, before the poker boom, where the first prize [at Foxwoods] would be five figures. It was all for this relatively low buy-in tournament that ran every Tuesday night. Doing well in that tournament was a huge part of being able to build my bankroll.”

On the weekends, Raymer would go to Foxwoods or Mohegan Sun and play cash games.
Raymer had 13 major tournament cashes prior to the summer of 2004. His best pre-WSOP championship cash was for $48,960 thanks to a third in an event at the 2000 World Poker Finals.

All of his results came from a $1,000 bankroll.

Raymer’s wife was at first concerned about his poker playing and agreed to let her husband continue, but if he lost his original stake he would stop.

“She was under the impression at that time that poker was all luck,” Raymer said.
Fortunately for the 2004 main event champion, he went on a heater right away at $3-$6 limit hold’em after the spousal agreement was made. He has never looked back since.

Despite his success out of the gate, Raymer was always cautious with his poker bankroll that he kept separate from his family’s finances. He sold pieces when he felt he should, eventually finding a group of investors that were with him for his 2004 main event win.

He has played for years with a wife and daughter, balancing a successful home life with becoming a skilled poker player. He still calls poker his “primary hobby.”

Raymer’s personal life has provided stability for him while working a job that is full of vicious swings, but he said he would still be successful if he was single and didn’t have a family to provide for. Raymer has never been a fan of borrowing money, sports betting and the like, or taking big risks with his finances — making the odds of him going broke slim to none.

He also has never spent big.

“I have no interest in a $100,000 car,” Raymer said. “I’d rather have five Hondas, one after another. I couldn’t care less about that kind of stuff.”

The 2004 Main Event

Raymer was one of the most aggressive players throughout poker’s most prestigious event more than eight years ago. One example came during the middle stages against Mike Matusow.

Mike Matusow raised preflop from late position with 9Spade Suit 7Spade Suit, and Raymer three-bet from the small blind with the AClub Suit JDiamond Suit in the hole. The flop fell 10Heart Suit 9Diamond Suit 3Diamond Suit and Raymer, with two overcards and the nut-flush draw, moved all-in for more than the size of the pot.

Matusow made the call after some deliberation and at one point he said, “I told you I was going to bust you when you came after me, didn’t I?”

Raymer was a slight favorite to win the hand. He hit his flush when the 2Diamond Suit fell on the turn. Matusow was short after the hand and busted soon thereafter. Raymer went on to the final table and eventually was the last man standing when the tournament’s final river card hit the felt.

The win was for a record $5 million, double what was awarded the previous year. With 2,576 entrants, it was also the largest tournament ever at the time.

Poker was experiencing a massive surge in popularity, as the purse for the WSOP’s marquee competition mushroomed for a couple more years until a federal law made playing online poker more difficult from within the United States.

Raymer was a crucial part of the poker boom.

After winning, Raymer went from being a full-time patent attorney and part-time poker pro to a full-time tournament grinder. He inked a deal with PokerStars and soon began heavily traveling the circuit, eventually establishing himself as a one of the game’s strongest ambassadors.

In addition to the name recognition, Raymer, with his holographic sunglasses that he bought at the Tower of Terror gift shop at Disney World while on a family vacation, became an iconic image in the poker world. Every serious fan of poker has the image of Raymer staring an opponent down through the dinosaur goggles forever stuck in their memory.

Fighting For His Life

Just months after winning the main event, Raymer was at the Bellagio and faced perhaps the toughest spot of his life. Outside his hotel room, Raymer was attacked from behind by two men.

Raymer remembers the two trying to force him into his room, but he stayed calm and made a quick decision that paid off in a big way.

He said he quickly calculated what was his “most plus EV [expected value] way to stay alive.”

“I wasn’t in panic,” Raymer said. “I just thought about what would give me the maximum chance not to be hurt or killed.”

After Raymer unlocked his door, two guys jumped on him, which prompted Raymer to immediately start yelling for help and pushing backwards. Raymer said that one of the guys was big and the other was small.

“I was able to push us all back into the hallway and knock the big guy away from me. The little guy then pulled a gun, and then came the moment I am proud of. He pulled the gun, and I stopped yelling. I was just staring at the two of them.”

Raymer noticed that they still wanted to get him into the room, and he thought that they were going to tie him up and rob him.

“I’ve seen their faces now,” he remembered. “If I cooperate and they tie me, they might decide that they needed to kill me so I couldn’t identify them. If this happens, I’m probably 100 percent going to be dead. I knew I wasn’t going to go into that room, no matter what.”

Raymer figured that if he was shot in the hallway he would at least have a chance at surviving the bullet wound after the assailants fled. “A lot of gunshot victims survive,” Raymer said.

So, Raymer started yelling for help again, and then ended up throwing the big guy to the ground after he came at him for a second time. With Raymer standing there and one of the men on the ground, the other robber ran away. The big guy got up and ran away too.

Raymer was left unharmed, and the suspects were caught a few months later.
He attributes his ability to make quick decisions to avoiding tragedy in the incident. “High speed of thought,” as Raymer puts it, is crucial for poker and in many other situations in life.

Missing Out On The Repeat

Despite all his good fortune and solid choices, Raymer is victim to one of the worst beats in the history of televised poker. It might have cost him a fortune well beyond the top prize.

At the final three tables in the 2005 main event, Raymer was gunning for the nearly impossible repeat until Aaron Kanter put him to the test for most of his stack. Raymer didn’t budge and was right with his read, but Kanter got there on the end to cripple the defending champion.

The hand started with Raymer raising preflop with the KHeart Suit KDiamond Suit. Kanter looked down at the QHeart Suit JHeart Suit and made the call. The two players saw a flop of 6Club Suit 5Diamond Suit 3Heart Suit. Raymer fired a continuation bet, and Kanter floated him with just queen-high. The turn brought the 7Heart Suit. Raymer bet out again, and Kanter decided to raise big with his turned flush draw.

Raymer, known widely as “Fossilman” by this time, wasn’t convinced and put Kanter all-in. Kanter called. The cards were exposed, and Raymer needed to dodge a heart or a four (a four would chop the pot) in order to knock out Kanter. However, the river was the 2Heart Suit, and Kanter had crippled Raymer, who would go in to bust soon thereafter in 25th place.

He admits that there were great players still left in the event, such as Phil Ivey, Mike Matusow and Joe Hachem, who went on to win the whole thing, but Raymer thinks he had a decent chance to win if the heart on the river didn’t come.

“If I win that tournament, you can be sure I would have been able to negotiate a much better deal with PokerStars. I would have been demanding partial ownership of the company, make them give me a point or two. Imagine two percent of PokerStars, which is estimated at $10 billion market cap. It’s like, ‘OK, I can live with a couple hundred million dollars.’ In a sense, we can say that if I go on to win the tournament, that pot had $25 million to $40 million in equity.”

Raymer admitted that the hand crosses his mind “every now and then.”

He’s OK with that chance being gone forever. Poker has been great to Raymer, and he realizes it. “One of the best lessons you can take from poker is that there’s a lot of luck in life,” he said.

Tournament Results From 2005-2011

After winning the main event and nearly defending his title, Raymer enjoyed solid results for the next six years or so. The highlight was a deep run in the $40,000 buy-in event at the 2009 WSOP. He made the final table, but played a hand that drew some criticism from the poker community. It was a rare moment when everyone was able to tell that Raymer was just human after all.

With about 50 big blinds and the button, Raymer raised to 400,000 (2.5 times the big blind). The small blind folded, and online pro Isaac Haxton reraised from the big blind to 1.4 million. Raymer then pushes all in for 8.105 million. Haxton quickly called.

Raymer’s pocket fives were in bad shape against Haxton’s pocket nines. It was a play that could be regarded as a blowup, but Raymer later explained the play and his thought process.

The board ran out KClub Suit QDiamond Suit 10Spade Suit 3Heart Suit 3Diamond Suit, and Raymer was eliminated in third place for $774,927.

In addition to the aforementioned performance, Raymer won a PokerStars WCOOP event in 2007 for $168,362, and made a final table in a $1,500 buy-in tournament at the 2005 WSOP.

Over the years, Raymer became aware of the trend of hyper-aggressiveness, created predominantly by the young Internet crowd. As a result, he sort of toned down his game and become more reactive to his opponents. Raymer helped popularize a culture of fearlessness on the felt, and then, eventually, he sat back and tried to let people “hang themselves.”

2012 was really a culmination of many successes and failures — his evolution on the tables.

Looking Ahead

Despite all the success with playing and coaching, Raymer said that his wife has become “more nervous about things” after he no longer represents PokerStars. The two parties couldn’t reach a deal after his contract expired at the start of 2011. However, for the poker pro, the future looks bright if the United States eventually has a regulated online poker market within its borders. He wants to represent an online poker site again in the future.

As of early 2013, Nevada and Delaware were the only states with legal online poker, but New Jersey was on the cusp of authorizing the activity as well. Other states, including California, were looking to get into the mix, as efforts on Capitol Hill have stalled.

Raymer is involved with advocating for the legalization of online poker. He serves as a board member for the Poker Players Alliance, an industry lobbying group.

For Raymer, he is always going to be a player and an advocate for the game.

As for treating himself for all the hard work, Raymer said he actually just recently bought the most expensive present he has ever purchased for himself — an indoor driving range with technology capable of monitoring his swing. All of it cost just a few thousand bucks.

There’s still room for Raymer to improve, both on the green fairways and on the green poker felt. In addition to strategy concepts, Raymer said he becomes less prone to tilt with each passing year, a benefit of growing older and gaining more experience.

When he’s running poorly at the table, Raymer tries to slow everything down and play super tight, all in an effort to not let emotions get in the way of his decision making.

Sometimes he does let his mind wander and daydream of perhaps one day finding his name on the list of poker Hall of Famers, but he quickly tells himself that it’s out of his control. It all goes back to not being results-oriented. The only thing Raymer wants to do is make solid decisions.

“Despite what some people seem to think, you can’t just go into a tournament and say, ‘I’m going to make it happen, I’m going to win.’ You can’t do that in poker. It’s just not possible.”

Raymer, who lives in Raleigh, North Carolina these days, has a love/hate relationship with traveling. However, Raymer said he might entertain running for Congress one day. He actually flirted with the idea of running for the White House in 2008 as a libertarian.

The gregarious Raymer will always be a poker player, though. Being a politician is a full-time job, and Raymer loves sitting at the card table. Taking him away from poker would be tough.

“People outside of poker ask me all the time about whether I played or will play the main event this year,” Raymer said. “I’m amazed by that question. My answer has always been, ‘If I’m not in the main event, I’m either dead or in the hospital. That’s it.” ♠