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L.A. Poker Classic Champion Dennis Blieden Determined To Prove ‘Win Was Not A Fluke’

by Julio Rodriguez |  Published: May 23, 2018

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The players that have won the prestigious World Poker Tour L.A. Poker Classic main event make up some of the most well-known names in the poker world today. It started with Gus Hansen winning the inaugural event, back in 2003, and continued over the years with champions such as Antonio Esfandiari, Michael Mizrachi, Alan Goehring, Phil Ivey, online poker legend Chris Moorman, and three-time WPT winner Anthony Zinno.

In early March, however, an unfamiliar face emerged from the field of 493 entrants at this year’s LAPC to win the tournament and pocket the $1 million first-place prize. Dennis Blieden, an amateur poker player with just two prior cashes on his live tournament resume, somehow managed to navigate his way to the victory.

The Cincinnati-native, who now resides in L.A., turned heads during his title run with a seemingly-endless series of shown bluffs, and blind raises, and he even managed to get under the skin of the poker brat himself, Phil Hellmuth.

Now, the 28-year-old is considering doing the unthinkable, hoping to parlay his seven-figure score into even more success, by competing in the $300,000 buy-in Super High Roller Bowl. That is, if he can find a way to secure a seat.

Card Player caught up with Blieden to talk about his life-changing win, and why he’s eager to keep playing against the very best players in the world.

Julio Rodriguez: Can you tell our readers a little bit about where you are from, what you do for a living and how you got into poker? How much experience do you have playing poker and did you ever consider playing professionally?

Dennis Blieden: I’m a Cincinnati kid, but I have been living in Los Angeles since I graduated from Ohio State in 2012. I am the VP of finance for a digital media company out here, and an avid investor in my spare time. Poker has always been one of my first loves and something that I forever believed I could compete in, but I never took the time nor had the patience to build and maintain a bankroll. I probably ran deposits of $500 into $50,000 over a few days at least 20 times in college online, yet I would always proceed to donk the bankroll off over relatively short periods of time. After college, I put aside whatever pipe dream I had of one day being a professional poker player and I focused on my career.

Technically, being a complete amateur, I do have the unique advantage of being able to call some of the most respected US professionals some good friends of mine. This really paid off during LAPC, as I was chatting with Chance Kornuth on almost every break while we both ran deep. Chance would provide real time feedback on various hand histories, and even let me in on a few of those famous live tells he had picked up on a couple of the players. His mindset and approach to the game is unlike anyone I have ever discussed poker with, so there is no doubt in my mind that he impacted my confidence and style of play that week.

JR: This was only your third recorded live cash. Have you played any other big buy-in events before?

DB: Fast forward to 2017. I had a little money saved up (thanks Bitcoin), so I decided to dabble in a few events at the WSOP. I made a solid run in the $5,000 turbo event and was in first place with 13 runners remaining… but I got 13th place. I was really going for it! My only other event was the main, and even though I got out on day one, that was one of the biggest rushes I ever had. I left Vegas that summer knowing I would be back, but didn’t really have any other plans to play specific upcoming events. I did not play again until LAPC last month.

JR: Can you talk a little bit about the early stages of the tournament, how you were feeling, did you recognize anybody at your tables, and were there any key hands that didn’t make the live updates?

DB: It is honestly hard to explain, but going into the LAPC I’d never had more confidence or belief that I was about to do something special. I actually made a last longer bet with Daniel Alaei, where there was an additional kicker if one of us got top two. He would probably tell you I only won to give him maximum punishment. This is arguably about as -EV (expected value) of a bet as someone like me can make against a professional, but I just felt too good to turn the bet down.

As for the actual play early on, I really picked up momentum about half-way through day 2. I had built up a top stack and was at a table with [Mike] Sexton and some other tighter players, allowing me to exploit a lot of spots that it seemed no one else was willing to take. By the end of the day I had around 125 bigs, and would never dip below 100 bigs again for the entire tournament.

By days 4 and 5, I was really having the time of my life. I knocked out Billy Baxter, Phil Hellmuth, and Anthony Zinno all on the same day which was just surreal. Billy and Anthony were both extremely nice, talkative, and class acts. Phil not so much. With about 15 players left Phil got moved to my table for the first time all tournament. I was under-the-gun and Phil was in the small, so I of course popped it up with the 4-5 offsuit. After he called and then check-folded the flop, I showed him the five-high bluff and instantly he exclaimed, “Oh what is this goofy shit? How are guys like you even still around?”

I couldn’t have been loving it more. I then won a hand with him where I took half of his stack by value betting when my jack high made second pair on the river, and Phil tank called with ace high. What pursued afterwards was a 15-minute explicit blow up where no one else at the table could even get a word in, except maybe me needling him on the number of WPT titles he had. All in all, getting under Phil Hellmuth’s skin was definitely a top moment of the entire event.

JR: What was it like at the televised final table? Did you have any nerves going in?Can you talk about your decision to blind-raise before the cards had even been dealt?

DB: I was extremely calm going in, as crazy as that may seem. I went in with a strategy of relentless preflop aggression, confident the smaller stacks would not get out of line and knowing that I would need to adjust if Toby [Lewis] chose to play back at me. Early on I was able to pick up that he was content keeping pots small preflop and trying to let me blow up post-flop. Within the first 15 hands I unsuccessfully attempted a triple barrel bluff against him with queen high, which now made me extremely confident he would continue the same strategy. This allowed me to raise almost every hand, continue with small sizing, and pick up pots while keeping my number of decisions to a minimum.

Once I jumped out to a huge lead, I continued to keep my foot on the pedal with the exact same strategy. I thought there was a chance for Toby to start playing back at me though, as we were still all very deep. Three-handed started with me having about 200 bigs, and Toby and Derek [Wolters] each having around 40-50. To minimize this, on my button I started blind raising with the thought process that this would expand Derek’s calling range, and in return tighten Toby’s, hoping for Derek and I to play a large pot. Since I was going to be raising 100 percent of buttons anyway, I really believe having any chance to minimize Toby’s three-bet range was +EV. I have a feeling that any pro reading this out there may think I am a fool and this logic does not make sense, but hey, that is why I am the amateur.

JR: There was an interesting pot during three-handed play where you raised preflop from the button, and made a continuation bet into both of your opponents with just AHeart Suit 3Spade Suit on a flop of KClub Suit 9Heart Suit 4Heart Suit. When Lewis called, it seemed like you were shutting down on the 6Diamond Suit turn, when it went check, check. But when the 5Heart Suit hit the river and Lewis bet, you decided to shove. Then after he folded, you showed the bluff. It was actually your third river bluff of the final table.

DB: Toby had been check calling me all night out of position, so I checked back on the turn for both pot control and knowing that if a heart came on the river I could be in a spot to get tricky. With with any flush or two-pair combos, I believe Toby would have been checking that river, so I narrowed his range down to either be extracting value from a king or a bluff. Since I thought betting the king was as likely as a bluff, and that I did have the nut flush blocker, I decided to apply maximum pressure knowing his tournament life was on the line (and that my range also included every non-king, two-pair and straight combo).

In terms of showing, I don’t think I really put too much thought into it. I had been showing bluffs all tournament, and they were going to know what I had in 30 minutes anyway, so I decided to give my rail something to cheer about!

JR: What was your initial reaction to winning the LAPC, and how do you feel about it now that you’ve had some time to sit with the accomplishment? Do you plan on turning pro or playing more events?

DB: I don’t think the reality of what I had just accomplished hit me that night, I was riding too much of a high. It really hit me the first time when I was invited by local sports talk radio in Cincinnati to do an interview, as the broadcaster is a guy I grew up listening to and is literally the voice of sports in Cincy. As the weeks have gone by, I still find myself shaking my head in disbelief as I think about the names I am in the company of as LAPC champion.

I don’t plan on turning pro, as I kept my day job and have no plans on quitting anytime soon. That being said, I do plan on playing more events than I maybe would have without this win. A week after the win, I decided to enter my name into the $300,000 buy-in Super High Roller Bowl lottery, because hey, why not? I truly enjoy challenging myself against the best in the world, regardless of how big of an underdog I am. If there is any way to prove to myself that my first win was not a fluke, making a deep run in that tournament would do it.

I unfortunately did not win the 30-person lottery, but I still have a chance to play if I am chosen as one of the 16 VIP invitations that Aria has. The names that I am up against are some of the biggest in the game, so I am keeping my expectations low. If they do choose me, I can assure you that I will go into that tournament with the same confidence and fearlessness I had during LAPC and promise to hold it down for all the amateurs out there reading this!

*Photo courtesy of the World Poker Tour.