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Capture the Flag With Ryan Fee

by Brian Pempus |  Published: Aug 31, 2016


via Upswingpoker.comPhiladelphia native Ryan Fee crossed his name off the unofficial best-without-a-bracelet list when he and fellow high-stakes cash game pro Doug Polk won the $1,000 tag team no-limit hold’em for $153,358 at the 2016 World Series of Poker.

With the win, Fee brought his lifetime tournament earnings to $3,035,453.

It had been 34 years since a team event was played at the WSOP, but the variation proved very popular, as 863 teams consisting of two to four players each registered to play. The rules were that each member of the team had to sit in for at least one round of blinds. The format gave Polk, who plays a lot more tournaments than Fee, the chance to play. Polk ended up multi-tabling at the Rio.

The bracelet was Polk’s second and Fee’s first. Card Player caught up with Fee, who coaches at, to talk about the tournament win and how the cash games have been lately.

Brian Pempus: Can you talk about your bracelet this summer with Doug Polk?

Ryan Fee: Being in Vegas for the summer is really rad. I wasn’t there to play in WSOP tournaments. I was there to play a little live cash and hang out with everybody and do some Upswing stuff. I hadn’t played any tournaments until the tag team. It was funny, we were thinking about doing a promotion for Upswing where you could play with Doug and I, but when we read the rules, you could play one orbit and I could play the rest of the tournament. We were also strapped for time, so we didn’t end up doing that. Doug and I registered late, and we came in with about 17 big blinds. We hopped in and went back and forth playing a little bit. I said I had a “pretty good feeling about this one.” If you grind the WSOP for awhile, you get tired, but I was super fresh. I hadn’t had played a live tournament all year. I was in the zone…I ended up grinding it up to up to 120,000 or 130,000, and then Doug tagged in. There was less than 50 left at this point, and Doug rode out the night shift. Doug ran an all-in bluff within five minutes of him showing up. The board was A-2-3-4-5 and it was really hard for the guy to have a six, but it wasn’t impossible. I saw Doug go all-in and I was like, “I really don’t think Doug has it” (laughs). I was thinking, “man, I’ve played this tournament for hours and if Doug busts in five minutes…” (laughs). Luckily, Doug got the guy off of it, and we had 25 or 30 percent of the chips going into the final table…The final table was day 1 of One Drop, and Doug was playing that, but he had an hour before it started so he hopped in and played. I tagged in with six or seven people left and played it down to heads-up. I tagged out for three hands while he was on a break in the One Drop. He somehow doubled in just three hands. [Later winning] was super crazy and surreal.

BP: As a cash game specialist, does it feel strange to have a bracelet now?

RF: For the number of tournaments I’ve played, I have one of the most blessed tournament careers ever. I dropped out of school when I was 18, and I was playing $2-$4 cash games at the time. By the end of the year I was playing $10-$20. Then I played my first ever live tournament and won it for like $280,000. I played a full year of tournaments in 2014: LAPC, Bay 101, WSOP, Barcelona, Macau, Aussie Millions. I did pretty well, but I didn’t like traveling that much. I like cash games way more. After that year, I decided that I had had enough. I think there was about a one-percent chance of me [ever] having a bracelet. I only played one event this summer and that was because Doug was like, “Come on man, let’s do it.”

BP: What do you like more about cash games as a poker pro?

RF: One thing that stands out for me in tournaments is that you are mostly going to lose. It is tough to lose over 90 percent of your days [in tournaments]. I think you can also make more money in cash games. You can have a bigger edge. You can reload if you bust in a cash game. I think in a live setting the vibe in a cash game is also more talkative and fun than in tournaments. Your destiny is more in your hands in cash games. I tell people that being only a cash game player is fine, but I don’t think anyone should only play tournaments because of how much variance there is.

BP: Can you talk about how you built your bankroll and how you climbed the ladder?

RF: I started playing poker in school, depositing $300 and playing $0.10-$0.25 full ring. I turned $300 into like $17,000 by the end of that year. At the time I was super obsessed and absorbed by poker. I didn’t want to do school, so I left and started playing full-time. I loved it. Some of the most rewarding years playing poker were probably the first two years. It was a great outlet for me, and in a lot of ways helped me grow and become the person I am today. I switched over to six-max cash games in the second year. I won that big tournament, and in 2009 I moved out to California. I was playing heads-up and six-max. I was playing anywhere from $5-$10 to $25-$50. In 2010, I was playing up to $50-$100 online. Black Friday happened and I traveled around. I think the lowest stake I played from 2011 to now was $10-$20. I played a lot of heads-up, but kind of got sick of that and did the tournament thing for a year. But now I have a pretty good balance between live and online cash games.

BP: What are the live cash games like in Las Vegas these days?

RF: Poker is alive and well in America. Online isn’t what it once was, but all those people who played didn’t stop playing. They started playing live. With more casinos being built around the country, I would say poker is pretty vibrant. In Las Vegas, it seems like it is growing. Also in Los Angeles. I play in some private games in LA and Las Vegas, and those games are going strong as well.

worldpokertour.comBP: What are some of the biggest strategy mistakes people still make in live poker?

RF: Americans aren’t good at poker now relative to the rest of the world, and it’s because they don’t have access to a lot of online poker. If you are going to get good at poker you have to play online, if you look at it as a learning tool. You can play more tables and there is a higher caliber of player. You can play 1/10th the stakes online that you are playing and the games will be tougher. It will be great for you to learn and become a better player. When you play online, you are forced to review your play and be very analytical about things. People often think about very qualitative things and not very quantitative things. Instead of thinking about how you need to approach preflop, what hands would qualify as a bet or check, or check-raise, [the thinking] is like: “I think he is continuation betting here a lot so I am going to raise,” “he has it here a lot so I am going to fold,” or “he bluffs a lot here so I am going to call.” There’s not a lot of structure to it by linking all these qualitative things together to form a game plan. Whereas how Doug and I approach it is super structured. There is a framework.

One of the things Doug and I did when we first started playing live tournaments was calling a lot of hands out of the big blind, because we were getting great pot odds. This is something tournament players weren’t doing. We would occasionally make fun of them, but I remember a lot of tournament players would make fun of us for [this strategy]. A year or two later, I see those same guys defending J-2 off suit and I’m like, “wow, shoe is on the other foot now.”…People often do what’s en vogue, and they don’t really understand why they are doing it. I am never concerned about me not having an edge in poker, because I can learn and figure things out. A lot of people have more of a static strategy.

BP: If you had to say at what point in a poker hand are people at the low-to-mid stakes generally the weakest at, what would your answer be?

RF: Preflop is unequivocally the most important street because it happens 100 percent of hands, whereas the river happens a small percentage of the time. Of course on the river the pot is much bigger, but it’s going to be really hard for you to be that bad on the river and that good preflop, to make you want to focus on the river. The question sort of suggests you can work on a single street…but it is all in the greater context of what your strategy is. If you watch the Super High Roller Cash Game from last year, there were three tables, one of them had [Phil] Ivey, [Antonio] Esfandiari, [Doyle] Brunson, and a couple other live pro people. Another one had Bill Perkins, Rick Salomon. The last one was like Doug, Scott Seiver, Dan Colman, [David] Sands.

If you watch the TV pros you’ll notice it is very passive preflop. There wasn’t a lot re-raising or open raising. There was a lot of limping. But if you watch the one with Doug and all the young punk kids, you’ll see most of the hands are raise, re-raise, call, or re-raise, fold, or something like that. The game was a lot more aggressive preflop, and I think that’s the way to be. I would say figuring out how to play preflop is the most valuable and important thing, and also by far the hardest to do. People will ask me online to give them the GTO button range, and I’m like, “if I had the GTO button range I would have solved poker because it would imply that I’ve solved the flop, turn and river in order to figure out what the best hands to play preflop are.” You can’t figure out a perfect solution [preflop], so you have to do a fair bit of guess work and experimentation to have a handle on it.