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Doug Polk Grinds His Way from Micro-Stakes to the Top of the Poker World

Polk Among the Biggest Winners in 2014 Both Live and Online

by Julio Rodriguez |  Published: Oct 29, 2014


The last 12 months have been an incredible ride for 25-year-old poker pro Doug Polk. The Pasadena, California native kicked things off last October by defeating high-stakes phenom Ben Sulsky in a heads-up online poker challenge for nearly $850,000.

Then, he turned his attention to live poker tournaments, where he has won more than $3.6 million, including a $100,000 buy-in super high roller event at the Bellagio and his first-ever World Series of Poker bracelet.

Polk was brash, unafraid to voice his opinion, and confident about his abilities as a poker player, even though he was a relative unknown. Now, he faces the challenge of staying on top and Card Player caught up with Polk to learn how he intends to do just that.

A Competitive Gaming Background

Polk developed his intense love for competition at an early age, playing his dad in chess and eventually participating in the World Cyber Games tournaments as a video game player in his teens.

Julio Rodriguez: Can you talk about your earliest experiences playing games?

Doug Polk: When I was five or six years old, my dad and I would play chess. In order to make it a fair game, he would play me without some of his key pieces. As I got better at it, he would add pieces back into the game. By the time I was seven or eight, he couldn’t beat me anymore. I think that head-to-head competition with my dad is why I enjoy that aspect of heads-up online poker today.

JR: What do you think attracted you to competitive online gaming?

DP: I’ve just always had a very competitive personality. I remember when I first found out about online gaming, my initial thought was just how amazing it was to log on whenever you want and be able to own somebody else in some other part of the world. I thought it was great that I was able to bring some real devastation. I’ve never really played or enjoyed the campaign mode of most video games. For me, it was all about beating an actual opponent. I loved the human element of it, making a game plan and learning to adjust.

I think the earliest video game I was playing was Madden ‘97 on SNES, but it wasn’t until after chess, and a brief attempt at skateboarding, that I really got into games. I put a lot of volume into the original StarCraft, StarCraft 2, and WarCraft 3. These games, which are in the real time strategy (RTS) genre, are a lot more like chess than traditional first-person shooter games, because it’s more about strategy. A typical game requires you to make decisions based on a number of variables and the playing style of your opponent. Obviously, the best players in these games are able to adapt and use a good blend of all strategies, much like poker.

JR: What were your first experiences with poker?

DP: I started off with a $20 deposit on PokerStars while I was in high school. I had a few unsuccessful starts with online poker, mostly because I would get tilted and then blow it all playing $.50-$1 razz. I finally put together the mental fortitude necessary for dealing with poker swings and stuck to the soft games of full-ring $.01-$.02 no-limit hold’em. I remember my first purchase from the FPP (frequent player points) bonus store. It was for a PokerStars polo, which I would wear to school. I thought I was the coolest.

Polk at the WSOpTaking Poker To The Next Level

Polk decided to cross the country for college, enrolling at the University of North Carolina at Wilmington. His initial intention was to study political science and eventually go to law school, but poker and a negative experience with a professor got in the way. Polk was taking a class that had a mandatory attendance policy, but due to a late transfer, he wasn’t aware of a daily sign-in sheet. After explaining the circumstances to his teacher, she informed him he would be failing the class anyway. Polk had enough, dropped out of college, and moved to Las Vegas.

JR: How did poker fit into your life while you were in college?

DP: I was moving into my dorm with my two computer monitors. One of my roommates noticed and asked me if I was a poker player. It turns out he was a $0.10-$0.25 grinder on PokerStars, so, in my mind, I just thought that the year was going to be awesome. Over the course of that semester, I had some real swings. I got drunk at a party one night, went back to my room, and lost about half my bankroll at the Ultimate Bet blackjack tables, which, in hindsight, is a relatively cheap life lesson. I was able to rebound and keep building my bankroll. I had one week alone where my bankroll went from $500 to $5,000. I eventually got to the point where I was playing full-ring $1-$2 and $2-$4 no-limit hold’em. This was during the time where you could play up to 24 tables at once.

JR: Then you had that incident with your professor and quit school to play poker full time.

DP: It’s funny when I tell people that story. They are always impressed by the part where I tell my teacher to go f—k herself, but less impressed when they find out that when I moved to Las Vegas, I moved in with my grandma. I was only around 19 at the time, so I wasn’t moving to Las Vegas for live poker. I was just done with school and wasn’t happy with my social circle in North Carolina. It also helped that I had some family and friends in Las Vegas.

Becoming A High-Stakes Cash Game Wizard

Although he resided in Las Vegas, Polk still spent the vast majority of his playing time online, grinding his way up the cash-game ranks. After Black Friday, he was forced to spend more time in Vancouver, Canada to continue playing, but he made it work.

In September of 2013, Polk took part in a series of high-stakes heads-up matches against Ben “Sauce1234” Sulsky, who, at the time, was the biggest online cash game winner of the year. The two agreed to play 15,000 hands of $100-$200 no-limit hold’em. The winner would keep their profit, along with a $100,000 side bet. In the end, Polk won roughly $840,000 from his opponent. A popular high-stakes cash game website now lists Polk’s online winnings at about $2.3 million.

JR: Ben Sulsky was the biggest online winner in 2013 and you made it look easy while beating him.

DP: That was my proudest poker accomplishment. He was considered to be, if not the best, then one of the best players at the time. Initially, most people in the high-stakes community believed he would win, but when the challenge went down, I just stomped him. That gave a lot of validity to the claims I was making about how good I was as a player. Personally, I felt the pride of coming full circle and realizing that I started out at the lowest stakes online and had just beat one of the best at the highest stakes online in a game I had come to master. It was just a very rewarding journey.

JR: When you were initially deciding what to play, how did you settle on online cash games over tournaments?

DP: I’ve always been an online grinder. In fact, this is going to be the first year that I post a win in live tournaments. In terms of my expectation and potential, I spent way too much time limiting myself in live tournaments in the past when I could’ve been making a lot more money online.

One of the biggest reasons why I play live tournaments now is because it’s become so hard to find action online. Obviously, I can’t get a game going when I’m in Las Vegas because those games don’t run on those sites, but even when I’m in Vancouver, it’s become very difficult to get anyone to play me. Those that do want to play always have these specific terms, trying to change the game in a way that favors them. They say that they’ll play, but only with x amount of blinds deep or for certain periods of time. Personally, I just want a fair match.

JR: The tracking sites out there say that you have won about $2.3 million online. Is this an accurate figure?

DP: These sites aren’t 100 percent accurate and don’t account for a lot of factors. Sometimes certain games are missed and obviously the site doesn’t know if someone sold action or cross-booked with someone. Stuff like that happens way more than people think. It’s not the end-all resource that some people make it out to be, but it’s a pretty good indicator of someone’s success.

JR: Have you ever considered jumping into the nosebleed live cash games that run in Las Vegas, Los Angeles, or Macau?

DP: Let’s say there’s a $2,000-$4,000 game out there. Of course my hourly rate in that game would be higher than anything else I can find online, but there are a bunch of issues to consider. First, there’s a liquidity problem. Simply coming up with that much cash for the game in the first place would be tough. Also, you’d have to deal with selling action. Then, you have to worry about the politics involved with getting invited to the game at all. When you compare that to being able to play three or four tables of smaller stakes games, having all of your own action, and getting way more hands in per hour, online poker is just always going to crush live poker.

Dominating Live Poker Tournaments

Because he still finds it difficult to find any takers online, Polk did branch out to high-stakes live poker tournaments in 2014. Prior to this year, he had just four cashes on his tournament resume for a total of $45,000. In the last eight months alone, he has won more than $3.6 million.

In February, Polk traveled to the Aussie Millions and took fourth in the AUD$100,000 buy-in high roller event, winning $770,130. Later that month, he finished second in a $25,000 high roller at the Bellagio for $112,044. In April, he took third at Bellagio for another $118,200. Then, at the WSOP, Polk won his first bracelet, along with $251,969 in the $1,000 turbo no-limit hold’em event. Polk wasn’t done yet, however. In late June, he finished fifth in the $100,000 buy-in Summer High Roller Series at Bellagio for $602,910, and then won that series’ super high roller event in July for another $1,648,350.

JR: You obviously consider yourself an online cash game player, but your results this year in live poker tournaments are incredible. What, if anything, did winning a _WSO_P bracelet mean to you?

DP: I think the reason why I care about the bracelet is because other people care about it. The bracelet doesn’t validate anything for me, because I was already pretty confident in my game and my abilities, but the truth is that other people put a lot of stock into bracelets. After I won, I got messages from people I hadn’t heard from in years congratulating me on the bracelet. It wasn’t even one of my top three tournament scores of the year and was only one-third of what I won in that heads-up challenge, but nobody cared about that. So, at least the bracelet put me on other people’s radar.

Calling Out Kid Poker

In August, Daniel Negreanu made poker headlines by Tweeting that he would be a winning player at the $25-$50 six-max no-limit hold’em games online, given two weeks of practice and study time. Negreanu was so confident, he was willing to bet $1 million on it.

Polk, along with other high-stakes players such as Dan Colman, Ben Sulsky, Ryan Fee, Brian Hastings, and others were interested in betting against Negreanu, but neither side has yet to agree to the right terms.

JR: How did you get involved in all of the drama surrounding this bet?

DP: This whole thing started with Negreau posting that with two weeks of study, he could beat $25-$50. So I took that to mean that if given two weeks of study, he could beat $25-$50. Apparently, what Negreanu meant was that he’d be given two weeks of study, and then get a whole year to beat $25-$50, along with another year of play if needed with some consequences or something. So, the question is, am I willing to bet against Negreanu beating $25-$50 over the course of two years while cherry-picking his spots and getting coaching? No, of course not. But that’s not what he originally said. The terms that I think are reasonable for the bet, he would never agree to.

JR: What was it about Negreanu’s claim that rubbed you the wrong way?

DP: It was extremely insulting for him to insinuate that he could just hop into these games and beat them. I think Negreanu is a fantastic live tournament player. He has great results and is a great ambassador for the game of poker, but he is not a good high-stakes online cash game player. He’s just not. There are guys who spent a lot of time and energy making their way to that level and winning and he’s basically dismissing their effort by saying he could just jump in and beat them. Most of the older, more recognizable live pros just don’t have the skill set to win online.

Moving Forward

In a relatively short period of time, Polk has risen from the smallest stakes to the highest stakes online, while simultaneously dominating the big buy-in tournament circuit. So what’s next?

JR: In many ways, you’ve already beaten the game of poker by climbing to the top. You are, essentially, the big boss at the end of the video game. How do you stay motivated now that you’ve proven your skills?

DP: At the end of the day, it is all about the money. I want to have a successful career and be able to afford all I want out of life. But the challenge isn’t over just because I’m currently on top. There are always more games, more opponents, and the fact that now it’s my job to stay on top.

JR: There have been a lot of poker players who spent some time at the top of the online poker world, but many of them are no longer beating the game like they used to. Are you worried about a similar fate?

DP: I think it’s foolish to think that I’ll beat everyone every time. How hard do I want to work? How good are my opponents? I wouldn’t be surprised if there comes a day when someone is better than me, but right now, I just want to put in the time and make as much money as I can while I have the opportunity to do so. ́