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A Poker Life: Tony Dunst

by Erik Fast |  Published: Sep 28, 2016


Tony Dunst is having a career year on the live tournament circuit in 2016. The 31-year-old poker pro and host of the World Poker Tour’s “Raw Deal” segment has made four huge final tables, cashing for more than $1.1 million, while winning his first World Series of Poker gold bracelet along the way.

Some might say that this success is hardly surprising as Dunst has been a recognizable face on the live tournament scene for a decade now, but the jovial player and TV personality actually came quite close to giving up on poker.

In recent years a couple of timely tournament scores have put Dunst back in the game, and 2016 has been his most productive on the live circuit. He is currently ranked among the top ten in this year’s Card Player Player of the Year race and is enthusiastic to continue working with the WPT and his sponsor Party Poker to help make poker fun and exciting for fans new and old. Here is a look at the up-and-down ride that has been the poker career of Tony Dunst thus far.

Online Entrepreneur

Dunst at the WSOPDunst was born in Milwaukee and lived there until he was six before moving to Madison, a university town. He lived in Wisconsin into his twenties. While many of Dunst’s peers established a foundation for poker, playing chess or card games Dunst took a different route that led to poker.

“I played a lot of video games and I think I was kind of an early adopter of the idea of making money online and through those games,” said Dunst. “I used to play EverQuest (a massive multiplayer online game) as a 14-year-old and, instead of playing the game for its own merits, I realized that through trading and bartering I could accumulate valuable items in the game and sell them for real money on eBay.”

Dunst accumulated a few thousand dollars in this way and found that he much preferred making money online at games in his own time rather than working a summer job for minimum wage.

“It’s very possible that I made more money doing that than at any of my numerous high school jobs, most of which I hated,” said Dunst. “When online poker came along it seemed obvious to me that I could potentially make a lot of money at poker.”

Oceans 11 and a string of other movies in the early 2000’s helped to glamorize the world of gambling. That world already held a special fascination for the young Dunst who had learned how to count cards in blackjack after reading Ben Mezrich’s Bringing Down the House. Around that time the WSOP main event began to air on ESPN. Dunst was playing poker for at least a year before Chris Moneymaker won the 2003 main event. He created his first online account and picked the screen name that has stuck with him, “Bond18.”

“I loved the James Bond movies,” said Dunst. “When I picked my screen name I asked myself, ‘who’s the guy that always wins at gambling? Of course, James Bond!’ I admired the persona and lifestyle.”

Dunst was playing poker in small home games and online as a hobby. He crunched the numbers and saw that he actually had a better hourly rate doing that than working part-time jobs. It seemed like only a matter of time before he committed to trying poker as a profession.

Going Pro

Dunst deposited $75 onto an online site and never had to go into his pocket during his early career. When he got to college, Party Poker was exploding as the game’s global popularity surged. He ran his initial deposit up to $2,800 playing sit-and-gos on the side as a student. He satellited his way into the Aussie Millions main event and the package included a seat in a $1,600 event, which Dunst ended up cashing in, and he had also taken a swap with the eventual champion. Prior to the trip he had a few thousand to his name but he left Australia with $12,000 in his pocket.

Dunst used this money to go back to Australia for a study abroad program. He was enrolled in college there, but spent most of his time playing poker. He met poker player Celina Lin and started dating her. He ended up dropping out of school and moved to China with Lin to play online poker full time.

There, he honed his game by reading and posting in the poker strategy forums online and met fellow hungry young players like Andrew “LuckyChewy” Lichtenberger, Mike “Timex” McDonald, Mike Watson, and many other fellow forum posters who would become his closest friends in the game.

“Sometime around May of 2007 I was speaking to Timex, who was 17, and he told me that he had become a millionaire that day. He had bought a piece of a friend who had won a $10,000 event and he wanted to continue backing people because it was going so well.”

McDonald decided to back Dunst for the entire WSOP that year. Dunst traveled the circuit playing live events with backing from McDonald or Mike Watson, while keeping his own action playing multi-table tournaments online for the next several years. He had some scores here and there on the live scene, but had yet to really establish himself with a big win. That day would come eventually, but not before Dunst had to face the most trying years of his career.

Black Friday Blues

On Friday, April 15, 2011 the U.S. Department of Justice shut down the major international online poker sites in the United States. Players across the country had their money seized or lost forever.

“Among my group of friends I think I was the hardest hit by Black Friday. I know it’s not a contest or anything, but I had almost all of my own personal wealth spread out across the sites… Of the $100,000 or so I had to my name on that day, I was left with under $2,000 after the taxes.”

Dunst had just been hired by the World Poker Tour to host its “Raw Deal” segment and its live stream final-table broadcasts. He found it hard to stay positive about the game when Black Friday had left him in such a tough position.

“I was supposed to be their online expert, authentic commentator and at the time I just felt like a huge failure. I was almost broke, I was in a quarter million of makeup and I couldn’t make money playing online anymore. I was just exhausted.”

For two years Dunst kept up working for the WPT, but outside of his duties there poker was one of the last things he felt like spending time on. He worked on his writing skills, hoping to someday craft a book of some kind. When he hit a wall in that endeavor in 2013 he decided to finally try playing cash games again. He played $2-$5 no-limit at first and soon had gotten back to playing $10-$20.

With some confidence regained he played a smaller WPT event in the Caribbean in the fall of 2013 and won the title, earning $145,000. The win put a much-needed dent in his makeup and also earned him a $15,000 seat to the WPT Championship the following spring. He finished third in that event for $452,729.

“That solved my problems to a large extent. After I paid the makeup and my backer’s share I still had enough money to be comfortable. I was ‘back’ and my interest in the game was rejuvenated.”

Career Year

Dunst returned to playing live events with backing in between fulfilling his duties for the WPT. He also picked up a sponsorship from Party Poker, joining fellow host Mike Sexton as the two faces of the brand. Dunst also supplemented his salary and live poker winnings with money won playing daily fantasy sports, which was booming at the time.

With some of the confidence and stability, Dunst was primed for a big year on the live circuit in 2016. He began the year strong, finishing runner-up in the Aussie Millions $10,000 AUD main event. He almost hadn’t played the event, having lost a $5,000 chip from his pocket while waiting in the line to register.

“You can lose a few thousand dollars playing poker and you say, ‘Oh well, I was just doing my job.’ But when you just throw $5,000 in a trash can because you’re an idiot and not being careful with money, you’re just furious at yourself.”

Frustrated with himself, he decided to sit out the tournament and informed his backer Mike McDonald. A few hours later he had calmed down and he decided to take McDonald up on an offer to play the event on a free roll, with McDonald putting up the whole buy-in and Dunst playing for 17 percent of whatever he wins. He cashed for $1 million AUD, roughly $700,000 in US dollars at the time.

Dunst made two more small final tables in the spring to keep his momentum going into the World Series of Poker. His summer was mostly quiet until early July, when he entered a $1,000 no-limit hold’em event along with 2,451 other players. In the end Dunst stood alone, capturing the title, the $339,254 top prize and his first WSOP gold bracelet. With over $1.1 million in earnings in 2016 Dunst is among the top ten in the Player of the Year race, but he is trying to keep a level head about it all.

“I’m really happy that I’ve gotten to have the experience of running incredibly hot for a while,” said Dunst. “I’m also happy that I’m not results oriented and don’t have some confirmation bias about why it happened. I see these people that say they’re winning because they changed their diet… I’m just like, ‘I didn’t change anything about my life or work on my game. I just ran better.’ In my opinion that’s about 99 percent of the reason anybody has a hot streak.”

Dunst understands that not every year will be like this. He is content to play live poker part time with realistic expectations while working with the WPT and Party Poker. He holds out hope that someday he might write the book he’s been meaning to get around to or maybe a screenplay. Who knows? Maybe someday he will create an iconic character like James Bond that some future hotshot poker player will base their screen name on. ♠