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A Poker Life With Brandon Barnette

by Julio Rodriguez |  Published: Jul 08, 2015


Great poker dealers are often the most overlooked, yet essential element of a good poker tournament. If a dealer does their job the right way, you’ll almost never notice their presence. It’s usually only when they make a mistake that they get any attention at all.

Poker dealers thanklessly man the box every down, trying to stay sharp, both mentally and with their mechanics, hoping they don’t encounter a grumpy player hell bent on blaming them for every bad card that pops up on the board.

Because they often don’t get the respect they deserve, we thought we’d honor one of the more notable dealers of the summer, 29-year-old Brandon Barnette, who won the Casino Employees event at the 2015 World Series of Poker and scooped $75,704.

A Competitive Background

Barnette grew up in Corona, California, less than an hour away from Los Angeles, the poker capital of the world, but he wouldn’t pick up a deck until well after the poker boom had died down. Barnette’s first love was roller hockey.

“When I was in sixth grade, we actually moved from one house to another in Corona,” Barnette recalled. “There was a boy a few houses down from us that played hockey, so I started playing with him and just got really into it.”

He continued his passion for the game well into his teens, and eventually decided to attend Lindenwood University in St. Charles, Missouri to play on the collegiate team. Although roller hockey doesn’t get the same attention as ice hockey here in the States and abroad, Barnette explained that it’s quite a sizable sport once you get to know it.

“If you are in the roller hockey world you realize just how big it is,” he explained. “But if you are an outsider looking in, it seems like just a small community. It’s very similar to poker in that regard. The rest of the world may see poker on television here and there, but until they go the WSOP and see it in person, they’ll never know how massive it really is.”

Barnette, whose position was forward, was good at roller hockey. Really, really good. In fact, in 2006, he was named the National Collegiate Roller Hockey Association’s most valuable player. Barnette’s university was, and still is, a powerhouse in the sport, having won the national championship nine out of the last 13 years.

Playing On The Biggest Stage

Given his skills, it was no surprise that in 2008, Barnette was invited to try out for the national team.

“They have a camp every year and for a little while, it was in Colorado Springs at the Olympic Training Center,” he said. “So a tryout was basically held all weekend at the camp and they selected the national team from there.”

While a member of the national team, Barnette continued to excel and the team won huge in international events all over the world.

“I was a part of four championship teams between 2008 and 2012. I won three world championships and I won a World Games gold medal as well, which is like a mini-Olympics. We competed in Germany, Italy, Taiwan, and Columbia.”

Although Barnette was at the top of his sport, roller hockey wasn’t exactly a lucrative profession.

“There’s not a lot of opportunity to make money as a professional roller hockey player,” Barnette admitted. “There are some decent leagues overseas in places like France, but even those don’t pay much. Those of us that played did it because we loved the game first and foremost.”

Poker Beginnings

In order to pay the bills, Barnette took a job working at the nearby Ameristar Casino in St. Louis.

“I had been dating a girl at the time who worked at the casino in a different capacity and she told me that they were running a dealer school. They basically hired me, put me through the school and then I had to pass a test at the end of training to keep the job.”

Despite having not much of a gambling background, Barnette passed his test. He started out by dealing table games, but eventually worked his way to the poker room.

“I used to play a little blackjack and very little poker, so I was pretty inexperienced with the gambling world,” he admitted. “I started playing a little more poker while working in table games and then once I moved over to dealing poker, I started really getting into it.”

Barnette was seeing poker during his downs all day long, but he credits his time outside of the box to his development as a player.

“There were times when I was dealing when I would practice and start putting the players on hands and seeing if I was right, but for the most part, I learned way more by just playing the game. I don’t fit the usual dealer stereotype when I play. Dealers have a reputation for being a little crazy, chasing their draws to the end and being stubborn. I’m not against a little action, but I think I’m a lot more patient than the average poker dealer.”

The World Series of Poker

After his time at Ameristar, Barnette moved over to Harrah’s in St. Louis and saw the WSOP Circuit roll through town for the first time. It was there that he got the idea to head to Las Vegas to deal in the annual summer series.

“They had their own dealers for that series, but while they were there, they put up an interest list for dealers to come and deal the WSOP during the summer,” he recalled. “I signed up and dealt that summer. Then in 2012, I was in the process of moving back to California, so I dealt it again on my way back to the West Coast.”

Barnette missed the poker boom, but in Las Vegas he could see poker in its grandest form.

“It was definitely cool to see the full scale of the WSOP,” he said. “Dealing it gives you a different perspective on things than the player’s experience. You really get a sense of just how much goes into planning and executing a series of that size.”

After settling down in California, Barnette landed a job dealing at Pechanga Resort and Casino in Temecula, California, about halfway between Los Angeles and San Diego.
Bagging The Bracelet

Barnette spent two summers dealing at the WSOP, but he had never played an event. As a casino employee, however, he was eligible to compete in the exclusive $565 tournament that kicks off the summer every year.

“I have an uncle who lives in Vegas and he was upset that I didn’t tell him I was coming out to deal the WSOP, because he thought I should play in the casino employees event and wanted to back me. At the time it was an afterthought, but this year he got ahold of me a few weeks before and told me he really wanted to put me in. Of course, now he’s really happy that he did it and the rest is history.”

Playing in his first-ever WSOP event, Barnette navigated his way through a field of 688 other dealers, floor men and casino staff. Two days after registering, he came out on top to score not only the bracelet, but a huge $75,704 payday.

“I was surprised by how calm and relaxed I was at the final table,” he said. “I wasn’t nervous at all. Maybe that has something to do with the fact that I competed at the highest level already when I was playing roller hockey, so the final table didn’t faze me.”

That composure came in handy during the last stages of the tournament, when Barnette suffered three brutal bad beats to put him on the short stack.

“I’m very competitive. I didn’t care about the extra $30,000, I wanted the bracelet. I took a few really crazy beats when we were three handed and then heads-up, but I’m proud of the fact that I didn’t give up. I’ve been under that kind of pressure before. I can shut out the distractions and focus on the task at hand.”

Moving Forward

After winning the first major tournament of his life along with a sizable bankroll, Barnette didn’t do what most poker players would do and immediately go register for the nearest $10,000 tournament. Instead, he packed up and headed back home to his wife Lindsey and son Jaxson to get ready for his usual shift at Pechanga.

“I just went back to work,” he said. “I’ll be playing some more events this summer, but work is work. I have a four-month-old son and just bought a house, so I don’t have the disposable income to just play all the poker I want.”

Whether he stays in the box or eventually becomes more of the poker player he showed he could be at the WSOP, nobody should doubt Barnette’s pedigree as a champion. He already did it in the roller hockey world and perhaps, with the right opportunity, he can reach the winner’s circle again in poker. ♠