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Ben Yu Talks About ‘Leveling Up’ His Tournament Game In 2018

Three-Time WSOP Bracelet Winner Has Cashed For More Than $3.3 Million This Year

by Steve Schult |  Published: Jan 02, 2019


Ben Yu made a name for himself in the poker world as a limit mixed games player. In 2015, he won the $10,000 limit hold’em championship at the World Series of Poker and followed that up with a victory in the $10,000 limit deuce-to-seven triple draw championship in 2017.

Recently, however, Yu has begun transitioning away from those mixed games and into the no-limit hold’em high roller world. Over the course of 2018, Yu has established himself as a winning player in the $25,000 buy-ins and up. He scored his third bracelet this summer in the $50,000 no-limit hold’em high roller event at the WSOP and finished runner-up in the $25,000 pot-limit Omaha event, all while still putting up solid results in high-stakes limit events. Yu has made 12 final tables so far this year, and with his big win at the Series has climbed into 15th place in the 2018 Card Player Player of the Year race.

He is one of the first players to transition from the high-stakes limit scene to the high roller no-limit world. Card Player caught up with Yu to chat about his transition from a min-bet master to high roller savant, his work with solvers, and much more.

Card Player: Over the last four or five years, you were always seen as a mixed game player. You were playing all the high-stakes limit events at the series and now you are playing and winning in no-limit hold’em events with buy-ins of $25,000 and up. What gave you the itch to switch over to no-limit and how tough was the transition?

Ben Yu at the 2018 WSOPBen Yu: I did originally start as a limit hold’em player when the poker boom happened. I actually thought I would do that because it was less variance, which is actually wrong, so it’s kind of funny. I did also think that it was just easier for my brain to comprehend, that I didn’t have to figure out bet sizings. That’s where I started. From there, I did branch out to learning all the other mixed games because they’re all limit too so I thought it was easy to learn. I did start playing no-limit around 2010. Even though I was doing that and learning at a quick rate, I did always have this mental roadblock in my head that I would just never be able to compete with all the guys at no-limit who played at the highest level.

Eventually, when the high roller scene came into play in 2012, 2013, I just thought that it was just out of my reach and that I would never make it there. As I continued to do well within the mixed world, I just still always had the high roller arena out of the corner of my eye and I saw that it was there. It kept growing. The scene kept growing. There were more high rollers. Every stop had high rollers. They were streamed, and it was what was out there. I’ve always wanted to be … if it was there, I just always wanted to be able to compete.

Right around that time, I was still concerned that I just didn’t have the natural talent or the ability to learn and I was already just behind everyone else at no-limit hold’em, so I didn’t think I would ever make it there. I did keep working at it. I think what actually really did it was just that I met a group of friends, who they all play the high rollers. Isaac Haxton, the Greenwoods, Justin Bonomo, Dan Smith, Steve O’Dwyer. Really, just listening to how they approach both the tournament scene and the game, specifically no-limit hold’em, has helped me a lot. They taught me particularly strategy things that I learned, as well as how you should approach playing high rollers.

It’s always been my philosophy that if you can play something at breakeven or maybe slightly losing, as long as you see it as an experience to get better and use it as an opportunity to improve yourself, it’s definitely worth it. Even if you’re slightly winning in it, even if it’s not your best game or not the best use of your time financially if it’s an opportunity to learn and then you take advantage of that opportunity by asking all the questions you can, thinking about all the hands that you played. That’s always been my philosophy.

I do remember in January when I cashed in the $25,000 at Seminole Hard Rock. We had a crazy three-hour bubble here, and that was actually the craziest bubble I ever played in. I eventually ended up then cashing that one with two blinds when there were like five or six stacks at three blinds or less out of 13 people that cashed. I remember really wanting to cash, but also really wanting to play well. I remember that was the first $25,000 that I had cashed, and I felt really proud of that, that I had gotten a leveling up moment, even though we’re over 10 years into my poker career now and it’s hard for me to find level up moments. I feel like I have to work really hard to find level up moments, but that was one.

Now I do feel like I’m a part of the scene now and I’m here to compete. I want to continue to play these for a lot longer.

CP: Which transition was tougher? The transition from limit hold’em to other mixed games and working your way up those ranks or moving into a new game entirely with a totally different set of skills?

Ben Yu at the 2018 Poker MastersBY: I think learning new games is actually very refreshing. Both learning the other mixed games and learning no-limit hold’em at the start was very refreshing because it was like when you first discovered poker. It didn’t feel like work to study. All you wanted to do was play. When you were done playing, all you wanted to do was talk about it with your friends and read more and watch more video and watch more high-stakes poker being played. Learning a new game, I feel like is like that. Every time I’ve learned a new game, as long as I somewhat like the game, I just feel very ravenous. I just want to consume everything I can about the game. That has always been easy.

I do feel like I do just hit a roadblock when you want to try to get out the last 20 percent. Getting a lot better at no-limit hold’em, being able to compete at these high rollers, I’d say was very tough initially. I just didn’t know what I was supposed to be doing because I was already still playing a lot of these tournaments, these main events, and I was already talking about the hands. I just didn’t feel like I could compete at the high roller level. I didn’t know what I was missing either.

I do think in the last year or two people have been talking about playing with a lot of solver tools, a lot of computer simulations that tell you how to play a lot more balanced. Also, they teach you a lot about very tough spots. One thing that’s actually very fun recently I’ve found is there are a lot of spots where it appears like nobody ever has any bluffs, but that doesn’t make sense. That can’t be real poker. You can’t ever not have a bluff generally. Finding those bluffs is really tough and these solver tools really help you do that.

After I got over that roadblock, I knew what I was supposed to be studying and doing and what approaches I was supposed to take to the games.

CP: You mentioned having a ‘level up moment’ and how they’re tough to find for you. Was there one specific point along your journey into the high roller world where you felt “Okay, I’m here?”

BY: I think outwardly people care way too much about results. People probably assumed I was part of the community after I was doing well, after the summer where I binked the $25,000 pot-limit Omaha and the $50,000 high rollers at the WSOP. For myself, I personally don’t think that way. I like to think the level up moments are literally when I’m just in front of my computer studying. I’ve always said that bracelets are really won in the cold of winter and not during the summer. When I’m studying in the off-season. I do think outward, from the community, they can only go by what they see, so I kind of understand it, but they just go by results and seeing who shows up to every event. For them, it’s probably when they see me buy in to each event and I’m actually sitting at the table and then seeing me at these final tables. For me, personally, it’s when I was studying, and a light goes off in my head and I get really excited.

There is something to be said about executing those ideas once I’m at the table, but I think people are just too obsessed about results. I guess it’s a little easy for me to say once I’ve had those results, but I think just for the longest time everyone has only cared about who’s won or whatever. We’ve made this mistake where we just think everyone who has binked something is good and everyone who has been on a downswing is bad. That just can’t be true.

Ben YuCP: You still play all the other events. You’re still firing the mixed events over the summer. You’re not just showing up with $50,000 in your pocket on a Friday at the Aria. How do you stay sharp with all the different games while still putting in the effort to compete against the world’s best no-limit players?

BY: I actually don’t stay as fresh as I would like to. If I had infinite time, if I could clone myself, it’d be nice if I could be playing more cash mixed games when I got the chance. There are actually a lot of new great games like drawmaha and stuff that I haven’t even played. Those all seem really fun. I haven’t had the chance to level up as much. I do think there haven’t been as many changes to those games. Usually, right before the series, I do ask whoever I look up to the most in that game. I go ‘Hey Jameson, have there been any new developments in the limit hold’em metagame this year?’ If he says yes, then I go, okay, where am I supposed to implement this, and I try to have a crash course session, for sure.

CP: If everything else were equal, what would you rather be doing, playing high-stakes mixed or high-stakes no-limit?

BY: I actually just enjoy the variety the most. This sounds like a little bit of a cop-out answer, but I mostly enjoy just playing everything and switching from game to game. I’ve actually been really grateful that in life I get to do this. That I’m not just every day at the Bellagio playing limit hold’em. When I first started my poker career and thought I was going to do this for a living, that’s kind of how I imagined it. Then I just realized that having a lot of variety keeps things fresh.
I guess I would say that mixed games are a lot less stressful because you’re never put for a big decision for all of your stack in the same way that big bet games are. I think that’s just kind of an unfortunate aspect of the big bet games, I would say, but there’s nothing intrinsically bad about the people or the community. It’s kind of just an unfortunate way the game is slightly designed. It is really great for television. It’s great for sweating big hands and stuff like that. It just has its pluses and its downsides.

CP: You mentioned your work with solvers. You’re someone who plays a bunch of different games at a variety of stakes. Do you change your mindset or your strategy to fit the field? Do you maybe play a little bit more exploitatively if you’re in the Colossus versus a $25,000 buy-in? Or do you just stick to what the correct game theory optimal play is?

Ben Yu in the 2015 $50,000 Poker Players ChampionshipBY: I definitely still play very exploitatively. I think that when people hear solver, they immediately think, they just assume that everyone is advocating for, or everyone playing it is just trying to just go by whatever the computer spits out. I think some people have this misconception because Doug Polk seems to have advocated for that or advocated at least for not following reads ever. I think for everyone else that uses solvers, that’s not… no one else advocates for that. I’m not sure if I’m even putting words in his mouth if that is what he was saying. That seems to be what other people are reading into his statements.

A lot of the work I feel like me and other players that use these simulations do is inputting what they think other players are playing. Then you see a very absurd spit out of what the exploitative response is supposed to be. Our eyes light up and we go, ‘Oh, man, we get to do this. We get to raise this flop 70% of the time or something and nobody knows this.’

We’re using these tools; the default output is the non-exploitative play. I am still playing like that a lot. If it’s folded to blind vs blind and I have to play a very tough player, like David Peters on my left, I’m going to be inclined to be a lot more towards the non-exploitative play there, whatever game theory, Nash equilibrium is. In most of these high rollers still, there’s still a lot of exploitative stuff going on. I don’t think any of these high rollers would ever say that they’re not deviating from these spots a lot.

CP: What are your long-term goals in the high roller no-limit hold’em events? What’s going to keep you motivated four or five years down the road?

BY: I mostly still want to keep competing and I guess cross off things that I haven’t participated in. I did actually just put down my deposit, or I’m about to put down my deposit for the Super High Roller Bowl. It’s possible we’ll see me competing in that the next month, assuming the lottery goes well for me. If not, then another year. That is on my list.

I’m not exactly sure what my goals are. I don’t have concrete goals for climbing the money list or anything like that specifically. I do mostly just want to keep battling. I like just being here. A lot of people have ambitions to become the best, and mine is I just want to be there. I want to be able to compete. I want to be able to compete at the highest level always.Spade Suit