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Capture the Flag With Stephen Diamantas

by Brian Pempus |  Published: Mar 18, 2015

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Stephen DiamantasFlorida-based poker pro Stephen Diamantas has been grinding out a living playing cards for years, despite being only 23 years old. He has been playing poker since he was just 15, though not for serious money back then, and grew up watching his father pursue poker professionally for about seven years.

Diamantas credits the experience of his father with helping him spot the pitfalls that come with a professional poker career. So far, the results for Diamantas have been stellar.

He already has nearly $600,000 in lifetime tournament earnings, with several six-figure scores on his resume. His most recent came last year in the Seminole Hard Rock Casino’s 2014 Summer Poker Open, where he finished third in the $3,500 buy-in event for a solid cash of $102,000. His largest lifetime score was a win in a World Poker Tour Regional Series event, also in Tampa, in 2013 for $121,900.

Card Player had a chance to speak with the young poker pro about the poker scene down in Florida, as well as how he found poker and what basic mistakes people are still making in live cash games.

Brian Pempus: Can you talk about how the Florida poker scene has changed over recent years?

Stephen Diamantas: When I first started grinding live poker in Florida there was a $100 max buy-in to any cash game. Some card rooms would have a $5-$10 game that was $100 max buy-in. The game was a lot of fun, but it’s nothing like now. There were a few low buy-in tournaments, but no huge events. It’s amazing to now see Florida becoming one of the best places to be a professional poker player in the United States.

BP: Yeah, that’s really great to see. Are the games drawing a bunch of tourists visiting Florida for whatever reason? Or would you say the games are really driven by local amateurs?

SD: I would say both. In South Florida in particular, there are quite a few local amateurs who have huge bankrolls for poker and they love action. There are also a lot of professionals there that make up some of the higher stakes games. In Tampa, we have our own thriving poker economy. Hard Rock Tampa is really starting to host events comparable to many in the rest of the country. We have a mix there of recreational players and professionals who have a passion for the game. Florida really is a great place to visit, though. It’s 70 degrees and sunny in February.

BP: From what you’ve seen, are the games typically better during certain times of the year? Or would you say it is pretty consistent year-round?

SD: It’s pretty consistent. When the really big tournaments come around, the games get really crazy, but I would say there is good action to be found here year-round. These days in Florida, it seems like there is a big tournament series every week at one of the several card rooms around the state.

BP: Yeah, definitely. Can you talk about jumping back and forth between cash games and tournaments? More specifically: Do you think it is generally an okay idea to play a cash game session after busting a tournament? Or playing a tournament immediately after a cash game session?

SD: I would say that it really all depends on the player. While there are some people who have mastered the art of remaining emotionless after busting a tournament, most people can’t help but being a little upset after busting. If I run deep in an event and then bust, it’s pretty mentally exhausting, so I will call it a day. If I bust early in a standard spot and can’t re-enter the tournament, I’ll hop into a cash game at times. It’s probably not the best idea to jump in a cash game right after busting a tournament unless you have really good emotional control.

BP: Can you talk about the most glaring mistakes you still see people making in live cash games these days? I’m talking about stuff that perhaps makes you curious about how people are still doing it in 2014, given how far poker strategy knowledge has progressed and advanced over the years.

SD: I see some pretty basic mistakes like amateurs’ flatting ranges being way too wide, people over-valuing their hands, as well as bet sizing mistakes. These are just basic principles a lot of people can work on with all the resources out there these days, as long as they want to put in the time. Of course a lot of recreational players are here to have a good time, and that’s just fine by me as well.

BP: Definitely. Can you elaborate on the table image point?

SD: I’ll see a young kid just raise, raise, raise every hand which is fine up to a point, but then people catch on and react differently to it. It’s fine to have an aggressive strategy, but you have to adjust based on the table dynamic and how the players are responding to what you are doing.

BP: Can you talk about efforts that poker pros may take up at times to make sure a fish doesn’t feel like he or she is too outmatched to be playing in the game? I am thinking about more than just making sure they feel welcome, but perhaps subtle ways to encourage them when they do make a solid play so they will continue playing—and hopefully lose some to you.

SD: I mean, obviously we want the fish to make mistakes, but whenever someone does something well at the table I think it’s beneficial to maybe give a compliment here or there. I think the younger generation of pros are too caught up in their own friend group and are rude to some of the people who help them make a living. Of course, there are many young pros who are nothing but friendly and conduct themselves the right way though. I try my best to always do the same.

BP: Gotcha. Can you talk about the image a player gives off just based on their appearance? This topic always interests me. Just to give an example: When you see a player wearing a hoodie and headphones, do you assume he’s probably decent until you know more later on? On the flipside to that, what will alert you to them maybe being a mark before you even see them play a hand?

SD: Actually, I don’t really assume much about skill level based on solely appearance. Though, I do make assumptions about how tight or loose someone might play. While I might perceive the guy with the hoodie and headphones as aggressive, that doesn’t mean I assume he will play that style effectively. The flip side of that is for an older player I might perceive them as tight, but I don’t automatically assume they are incapable of having a few tricky plays in their arsenal.

BP: That makes a lot of sense. Can you talk about how you found poker in the first place when you were a teenager? What’s that story?

SD: I owe it to my dad. He was a poker pro for about seven years, from around 2002 to 2009. I saw the lifestyle he and my mother were living during those years and said, “this is for me!” He still plays for fun and is old school in terms of poker strategy, but he still gives me advice about some of the non-strategy aspects of surviving as a professional poker player.

BP: Did he encourage you to play for a living?

SD: No, he didn’t, but he didn’t discourage me either. He and my mother have always supported me no matter what as long as I put in enough effort into what I’m doing. That’s a great advantage I have had in my life, and I am really grateful for that.

BP: Why did he stop playing professionally? Given that you grew up with him playing, does it ever feel sort of surprising or cool to be playing for a living nowadays and he just plays for fun?

SD: He would admit this himself, but he stopped improving and working on his game. The strategy elements of the game passed him by a little. It’s cool that he was a pro, because some of the mistakes a lot of pros make he has either made or seen up close, so he helps me avoid them.

BP: What goals do you have for 2015? How about for the summer World Series of Poker?

SD: I would like to profit six figures this year from poker after taxes and paying investors. For the WSOP in Las Vegas, I would just like to have a winning summer and have my first WSOP cash. Last summer was my first WSOP and it wasn’t pretty [laughs]. It was just a lot of run-bad.

BP: For anyone reading this article that sees what you have to say and then considers moving down to Florida to play cash full time, what kind of advice would you give to them?

SD: I would say to stick to good bankroll management. It’s easy to see a good, big game down here in Florida and be tempted to jump in above your head. Variance definitely does exist and these guys with huge bankrolls are able to sense when losing hurts someone. They aren’t afraid to gamble and having a small bankroll against a bunch of rich gamblers doesn’t always work out well. ♠