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Seth Davies’ Journey From The Dugout To The Highest Stakes Poker Tournaments In The World

How The Oregon Native Saw An Opportunity For Poker Greatness After Repeated Injuries Ended His Baseball Career

by Erik Fast |  Published: Aug 26, 2020

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Seth Davies has been one of the rising stars of the live tournament scene in recent years. The 31-year-old from Bend, Oregon has been playing poker professionally for more than a decade now, with his early years focused almost exclusively on online play. Davies entered 2016 with less than $200,000 in live cashes to his name, but in the four and half years that have followed he has accumulated more than $8.5 million in scores in live events, including a main event win on the World Poker Tour.

Davies jump-started his live tournament career with that victory, defeating a field of 417 entries to win the $3,500 CAD buy-in WPT Spring Poker Classic at the Playground Poker Club in Montreal, Canada for $176,228 USD and his first title on a major tour. Less than a year after that victory Davies had already made his way up to playing in $25,000 buy-in events, and soon would become a regular in the largest high-stakes poker tournaments in the world.

In 2019, Davies made 11 final tables, winning a title and cashing for $3,937,430 along the way for his most successful year on the circuit. He got off to a good start in backing up that career-best performance during the early months of 2020, making five final tables and cashing for $906,133 in the first three months of the year before the coronavirus outbreak resulted in the effective shutdown of the live tournament circuit.

Card Player caught up with Davies to discuss his start in the game, how a series of injuries saw him switch his focus from collegiate baseball to poker, his meteoric rise up the stakes, the phenomenon of ‘winner’s tilt,’ and more.

Card Player: Do you remember the first time you ever played poker?

Seth Davies: I remember playing 10-cent tournaments online back in the day when I was in high school. This was 2005 or whatever, right after the [Chris] Moneymaker win, when poker was pretty popular on TV. My brother was pretty into it and I got into it too. We’d see the game on TV and wanted to play. And it was so easily accessible to play for virtually no money at the time, so we both got hooked pretty quickly.

CP: What about the game resonated with you?

SD: As far as winning in poker, everything is dependent on yourself. At that time when there was so much money in the game during the boom, it was very realistic to make serious money on your own merit. And being a kid at the end of high school, that was awesome. I had never seen more than $100 in front of me at a time before. And then all of a sudden, I’m watching these 18-year-old kids making tons and tons of money playing poker and it was simply just because they were smart and worked hard to get good at it. So yeah, that was the most appealing thing. It was simply, ‘This is something that’s there for the taking and all that it takes is hard work.’

CP: Did you have a background in sports or strategy games?

SD: I was an athlete growing up. I played three sports in high school and one in college. I think that was actually a big factor in me becoming successful in poker. I was a competitive swimmer from when I was six years old to 13 years old. We had this really good coach who was a really hard coach who would drive us. He knew what it took to get the most out of people and he had a ton of success. And so, I learned really young, mainly with swimming and a little bit from my older brother coaching me in other sports as well, what it took to be good at something; it takes work. It takes being uncomfortable. It takes being mad, being yelled at and all that. I think my athletic background was really influential in my poker career.

After high school, I came down to a junior college in Vegas, College of Southern Nevada, to play baseball. The first year I was there, I had a pretty major elbow surgery right away. The first elbow surgery took about a year to recover. I came back and then the next year had to have another elbow surgery. Then I tried to come back again, but I had to get shoulder surgery. And by the end of that, it was kind of over.
I was dealing with a lot of pain at that point. I never really got back to where I was before. So I was technically a college baseball player, but unfortuantely my whole college career was spent dealing with injuries, so there’s not much to speak of there.

CP: There are a number of high roller tournament players who came from an athletic background, Alex Foxen was a collegiate football tight end, Nick Petrangelo was a serious hockey player, and both got into poker after sustaining major injuries. Was it a similar thing for you that poker became a bigger part of your life when you didn’t have that competitive outlet of sports at your disposal?

SD: You hit the nail on the head. When I had these injuries and I was recovering, I had this huge hole in the middle of my day where I was supposed to be training. I used that time to take up poker. I would say that I’m not one of the kind of hyper competitive guys that a lot of guys in poker are. I’ve kind of always just been a guy who simply likes to work hard… how would I describe it? It just feels wrong to me when I’m not working hard. I have this big urge to kind of do the work every day, but I wouldn’t say I’m one of those guys that’s like, ‘Man, I’ve got to be competing, I’ve got to be beating people.’ I think long term, that is a hurdle that would keep me from ever being legitimately the best or one of the absolute best. I’m fine with that. I’m in poker to make money, not to be the best.

CP: How did it transition from being something that was a hobby to something more serious?

SD: It started getting to the point where I actually made enough money to support myself when I was in college. This was around 2009, and I was playing sit-and-gos on Full Tilt. I remember the way it worked out was I would withdraw at least $500 a week. It was a pretty consistent stream of income. I wasn’t playing multi-table tournaments at the time, so it wasn’t high variance and I could pretty consistently make anywhere from $2,000 to $5,000 a month. Just being able to withdraw that $500 bucks a week kept me going at college, because I couldn’t just have my parents send me money whenever I wanted. At that point, I probably had another maybe year and a half where I was still trying to come back and play baseball.

When I reached the point that I was starting to support myself, I was like, ‘Okay, this could kind of be a long-term thing.’ Then that just kind of kept growing, I kept getting better. By the end of [my baseball career], I was actually making significant money. I was just like, ‘Okay, I’m full-time now. Let’s do it.’ I haven’t stopped since.

CP: How did the stakes and formats that you played evolve in the early part of your career?

SD: I was playing almost exclusively the $26 and $75 45-player sit-and-gos. Then I progressed to focusing on the 180-player sit-and-gos, coupled with a bunch of low-stakes multi-table tournaments, with an average buy-in of around $20. These were things that you could just mass table. I would play 25 tables at once. That was a good way to just kind of consistently make money. You’d make a lot of rake back, and kind of curb the variance of the tournaments with the sit-and-gos. I did that for maybe two years and then kind of just gradually moved up stakes in tournaments and started to phase out the sit-and-gos.

CP: You were still very much focused on online play when poker’s Black Friday happened in 2011. What kind of impact did that have on your approach?

SD: At that point I was still in the total online grind mode and I didn’t really have any interest switching over to playing live. So when Black Friday happened, I just immediately decided to move out of the country. I moved to Vancouver, and bounced around a little bit, spending a few months in Panama. And then, eventually moved to Playa Del Carmen in Mexico, where I stayed for four years. I didn’t start to take live poker that seriously until 2016.

CP: Once you made the move out of the US, how did your approach to playing for a living change?

SD: In 2012 I had a pretty good year playing moderate stakes online, probably $100 average buy-in. In 2013 and 2014, I kind of stagnated a bit. I was playing, not the highest stakes, but pretty much everything up to $2,000 buy-ins online. Playa Del Carmen was a huge party town. I was 24 and a bunch of poker players had relocated there. We were all drinking and spending days at the beach, five days a week or whatever, so not a great couple of years for my poker career, as you can probably guess.

In 2014 I ran out of money and I was broke. I realized I had to start taking this more seriously again. I did that and had a good year then, and then never really fell back into the whole party scene. I just kept growing and getting better from 2014 on.

CP: What led to your decision to play more live events in 2016? It ended up being by far your most successful on the live circuit up until that point.

SD: Let’s be honest, I ran really well that year when I played some live events early on, and that motivated me to play live more. This was a time when it was pretty apparent that online tournaments just weren’t going to be that great of a way to make money in the future. Live poker in the United States has always been great and it’s always going to be a thing. So I played some live events and right away I made a couple runs at big World Poker Tour tournaments. I remember a 13th place finish in WPT L.A. Poker Classic main event for $57,180. And then a few months later, I won a small WPT in Montreal for $176,228. I was like, ‘I have some money under me now, so I can weather some variance. This is going to be the way to go. I’m going to do this instead of playing online.’

CP: Did it mean a lot to you to earn a title on one of the main live tours right away? Earlier you said you cared more about money than being considered the best.

SD: No, it certainly mattered to me, for sure. I don’t get anybody that says those things don’t mean anything to them, they’re just kind of lying. It’s cool to get the attention, to have an article written about you. So yeah, it meant a lot to me, but at the same time I wouldn’t say that I started planning my career to chase those kinds of accolades. I was still always thinking that money was the main goal. It was nice to kind of get that big win early on. A lot of people that are good players, travel the circuit for years and years and don’t win a big title on the major tours.

CP: Later that year you finished runner-up in the $5,000 buy-in Seminole Hard Rock Poker Open main event for an even bigger score of $575,000. Can you tell me about that tournament and how that score impacted your career at that point?

SD: That tournament was huge, not only was that life-changing money for me, but it was also validation, in a way. When I mentioned before that live poker in the US is great and there’s a bunch of money to be made there, exhibit A are these types of tournaments in Florida. They were huge, they had tons of recreational players, they had very soft play. To actually cash in for more than 100 buy-ins, it was really a validation for what I was doing. That was great for me just psychologically, career-path wise.

CP: You ended up playing Jason Koon heads-up for the title in that event. In a post-game interview, you described him as a mentor. Can you tell me more about what it meant to have him there for that moment?

SD: Jason has definitely been a mentor of mine and continues to be. We’re really close. It was pretty insane that we ended up getting heads up in that way. I remember when that tournament was going on, we both had big stacks with like 20 left. We were just joking about how ridiculous it would be if we got heads up. That was a big trip for both of us and one that definitely we’ll never forget.

CP: The following year, you already started having some cashes in $25k and $100k buy-in events. How did you make the transition to the high roller events so quickly?

SD: Jason played a big part in that as well. He was already an established high roller player at the time. He knows what it takes to win at high stakes and he kind of saw the same attributes in me. We got closer at the time and started studying more and more together.

As we studied more and learned more about each other’s poker games, he was just like, ‘Man, you’d be profitable in some of these 25k’s. You need to start playing them.’ I was just like, ‘I’m not rolled for it.’ He was just like, ‘Don’t worry about that. I’ll get your action sold when we need it.’

I just trusted him on that and I think he was right. I don’t think I was ever in way over my head or anything. I never came right in and thought I was just crushing right away either, but I said to myself, ‘There are recreational players in these games. I think I’m good enough to battle with the pros in these events and still make some profit.’ He definitely played a big part in my transition into these high-stakes events. I just followed his advice and played stuff that he thought I was winning in.

CP: How did those first few times that you moved up in stakes to go?

SD: I did fine. I didn’t crush or anything. I remember actually cashing the first $25k that I played, which was cool. I remember being super excited about that. I also cashed the first $100k buy-in that I played, and those were definitely big, big boosts for me.

I remember specifically feeling how strange it was that I wasn’t as stressed out as I thought I would be. I mean there was stress playing my first $100k final table, but I specifically remember how clear-headed I felt. When you’re playing and actually in the hands, the stress kind of melts away and you’re just focused on the hand you’re playing. That’s something I didn’t expect so much. I thought I’d be sitting there and thinking, ‘Oh my God, I can’t bluff here. This is a $100k buy-in, I can’t just bluff all in or whatever.’ I never really had those kinds of thoughts come into my head.

CP: Now that you’ve made it to the high roller level, have these ultra-high-stakes events become your main professional focus?

SD: Definitely. At this point it’s just simply higher EV for me to focus on high rollers. Traveling for a $3,000 buy-in main event, it’s just simply not going to be as profitable as flying to Asia for a Triton event where there are multiple $100k and $50k events. Now I just go to the stops where I think I’m making more money.

CP: Is it difficult to evaluate where you stand in these high rollers, given that even with a big increase in their availability in recent years, there are still relatively few super high stakes tournaments run each year?

SD: One of the big challenges of tournament poker is to be objective. When things are going really bad or when things are going really good, you have to be objective about your play. Say it’s a day where you just get crushed, like bust. I remember specifically in a Triton London £100k buy-in event that I busted four bullets in it, all in the span of an hour. It was just an absolutely brutal day. It just crushed me.

Afterwards you have to be able to come back and think about the way you played, and be objective, and to convince yourself that you played okay, and continue moving on study-wise. Conversely, you also need to be doing this same process when things go well, after you win a tournament and everything goes right. You still need to be able to see, ‘Okay, I made a mistake here. It happened to work out, but this was played poorly.’ You must be able to self-evaluate and keep yourself in kind of a midline. You need to be able to separate yourself from the results, and get back to being focused on the process, and how you actually played the hand. That’s an absolutely crucial thing. I think that’s one of the big skills that separates the people that make it and those who don’t make it.

There’s a phenomenon called ‘winners tilt’ where people who win a couple of tournaments, go on a heater, and then they start playing worse and worse because they feel everything they do is going to work. There are a number of players, I can’t name any names, but if you think about some of the biggest heaters in high-stakes poker history, a number of these guys have followed up those runs with just brutal downswings because they kept winning and winning, and they kept doing whatever they wanted because it was all working. Then eventually, they stopped running so well.

You can start doing stuff, because you’ve drifted so far away from good play because you thought you were just superhuman, and it ends up with these massive downswings. It doesn’t make them bad players. We’re all human, and this is psychological stuff that can happen to everybody. I think that’s one of the things that I’m decent at is separating myself from the results and just focusing on the process.

CP: There were only a couple months of live tournament action this year before the coronavirus outbreak shut down the live circuit. In those few months you made five final tables and cashed for over $900,000. How do you feel about the start to the year and what have you been doing in the months since the shutdown?

SD: It’s a good time for online poker. There’s been tons of high-stakes action online, so that’s been cool. It’s kind of been nostalgic in a way to be able to play online poker more or less every day. It reminds me of back in the early days of my career.

Obviously, the live World Series of Poker in Las Vegas getting postponed was brutal. Now big events from the fall are starting to get canceled. So it has been kind of sad, but on the other hand, it’s nice to be home. I’ve been home since mid-March after the Sochi trip through the start of July, and that’s the longest I’ve spent at home for a single period in quite a long time. But now that it’s Vegas summer, it’s not so appealing anymore, because there’s not much to do with it being so hot out. I’m missing the live circuit right about now. But there’s still online poker to play and studying to be done, so I’m staying busy. ♠