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Dan Smith Talks About His Early Start, Building A Bankroll At Age Seven

High Roller Crusher Details His Rise To No. Five On Poker’s All-Time Money List

by Julio Rodriguez |  Published: Dec 30, 2020


“If you were to look at some of my old [forum] posts, you would see me talking shit about tournament players.”

That quote, ironically, comes from someone who holds one of the greatest tournament poker résumés ever, with $37 million in cashes during his time on the felt.

Although he is only 31 years old, Dan Smith has been playing cards for half of his life, having discovered poker while traveling the country playing chess tournaments in his youth. The Manalapan, New Jersey native was already winning big online as a teenager, and by his junior year of high school he had a bankroll that would make many professionals jealous.

He had a bit of a slow start to his live tournament career, but Smith began to rack up huge scores as he climbed his way to the top of the high roller circuit. He now has 22 tournament titles, along with nine seven-figure cashes. He even cashed in two $1 million buy-in events, finishing third in both the 2018 Big One For One Drop and the 2019 Triton Super High Roller London. He also has a World Poker Tour title, winning the Five Diamond World Poker Classic in 2013.

Smith currently sits in fifth place on poker’s all-time money list behind just Bryn Kenney, Justin Bonomo, Daniel Negreanu, and Erik Seidel.

These days, however, he is more concerned with his role as a philanthropist than his results on the felt. In 2014, Smith founded The Double Up Drive, an organization that matches public contributions dollar for dollar to more effectively help various charities. In the years since, he has brought on more members of the poker and daily fantasy sports community and helped to raise more than $16 million.

Card Player caught up with Smith for an episode of the Poker Stories podcast recently to discuss how he built his first ever bankroll, his biggest chess win, climbing the money list, and even why he decided to write his own eulogy.

The highlights of the interview are below. You can listen to the full episode on Apple Podcasts, Stitcher, Spotify, or any podcast app.

Card Player: Can you talk about how you found poker?

Dan Smith: My first love was chess. My uncle Paul got me a dino-checkers set for Christmas when I was six, and I remember grabbing the wrong box, picking up chess instead. I didn’t know how to read, and both started with a ‘ch’ and had a checkered board. The first day I beat my sister, and on the third day I beat my dad. For the next decade, I would go to tournaments all over the U.S. to compete. As far as junior players go, I was quite good and excelled. I think my highest ranking was ninth in the country for my age.

CP: What made you so good compared to your peers? Was it a lot of memorization of the plays, or was it more of a natural instinct for the game?

DS: It’s not memorization, because the game tree is just too large. I know this sounds crazy, but I think it’s true. They say there are more possible chess positions than there are atoms in the universe. So the game tree is ridiculous.

CP: Kind of like GTO (Game Theory Optimal) poker?

DS: Poker is very forgiving. If you use the wrong bet size, for example, it’s not necessarily a disaster. But in chess, an inaccuracy might just mean immediate game over. So, chess is more about precision. In poker, you can fold your hand and mentally check out until the next one. That doesn’t exist in chess.

There are a lot of factors, such as good study habits, presence at the board, maintaining composure and not panicking. Some people collapse whenever they have a bad position. There are just so many variables, and I only had some of them.

CP: What was the highlight of your chess career?

DS: I have knocked off a few grandmasters. I had a match with the black pieces (which has a disadvantage because white moves first) in an official tournament game, and I drew (tied) Leonid Yudasin, who was at one point ranked number four in the world.

However, this was not as impressive as it sounds. I did play him 10 to 15 years past his peak, and he did let me know that I got lucky. (laughing)

CP: So, you’re traveling around playing in chess tournaments, and someone breaks out a deck of cards?

DS: It was the Moneymaker effect; everyone was playing online. At night or in between games, people started taking out the cards. I was playing largely with adults, but there were some kids as well. By contrast to chess, it just seemed like such an easy game.

At chess, not even at the highest levels, everyone is trying their hardest to win all the time. Then you see poker on TV and you see these knuckleheads who are clearly not trying their best, and are doing silly things. It felt like the right game to be in.

As a 15-year-old, playing these big [chess] tournaments, I would see the no. 15 player in the country struggling to pay his bills. But with poker, these people were winning a ton of money, and I thought, why not me?

At a certain point, I had plateaued. If you get to a 2,200 rating, that’s technically a master, and I was at 2,150. But that’s still a sizeable hurdle to get over and I kind of got stuck. But when I switched to [poker], every time I played, I was learning something new, while also still crushing. I really loved it.

The fact that I was making a boatload of money as a teenager didn’t hurt, either. The summer of my junior year in high school, I won $30,000 playing $3-$6 no-limit in consecutive months.

CP: And the gambling came naturally to you?

DS: Gambling has always been in my blood. My dad used to love the horses, and I spent many a Saturday afternoon at the race track. I have a distinct memory of winning $96 as a seven-year-old. He let me make one bet every day, and I made a $2 exacta bet and won. So, for the next several weeks, I would take my $96 to the track and study the programs and make my bets. I just assumed I was going to be printing money at it.

CP: You had a brief stint at the University of Maryland, but ultimately decided to continue with poker, spending most of your time playing internationally. Things started off well with a win at the Heartland Poker Tour main event, but then…

DS: I spent 2009 playing in Europe, and I went literally zero for the entire year. I just decided to play all of these live tournaments. I did not have any success in the live arena for the next several years. I probably wasn’t as good as I thought I was, but I was also running quite bad. But the nature of live tournaments is that the variance is sick and the sample size is never large enough.

CP: Was there ever a point in time when you considered quitting and finding something else?

DS: At that point, all of my eggs were so into the poker basket. I’ve always had a deep-rooted trust in my abilities that I would make it. I’m not sure where it came from, but I imagine my chess background helped. I also don’t think I had an alternative so I could quit. I had no degree and no other skills. I don’t know what else I could have possibly done [instead].

CP: Eventually things turned around for you, and then came the high rollers. When did you start to feel established as a tournament player?

DS: I won the Aussie Millions High Roller $100,000 buy-in event [for $1.06 million]. It was a big result and a lot of money. I kind of feel like that was really my first claim that I was a high-stakes player and that I was here to stay. I played the $250,000 event a few days later, which is completely outrageous stakes, and was especially so back in 2012. Then I had those back-to-back-to-back wins in the €5,000 buy-in events in Monte Carlo [at the EPT Grand Final]. That was a really special run and I think that’s when I started to make a lot of noise.

Super high rollers started becoming a more regular thing in 2012, and I am on a short list of people who started playing all of them, and I have never been out of action. I would say there is less than ten guys who can say that, and I have been among the top players [during that stretch.] In any given tournament, the results are mostly irrelevant. Variance is a real thing, and luck is involved. But over the course of a decade, I’m proud of what I’ve accomplished.

CP: When you look at your top tournament scores, it’s hard not to notice the third-place finishes, or runner-up finishes. Do you ever think about the money you left up top, or are you good about celebrating the close calls?

DS: In the immediate aftermath, there’s usually a little bit of pain. I had the biggest score of my career, third place for £7.2 million in the Triton [Super High Roller London] last summer. For an hour or so, I was pretty cranky and upset. I was chip leader four handed, and I thought I was in a really good position to win, which would have put me number one all time. But then just nothing went my way.

But in terms of after the fact, I don’t [look back with regrets]. I think I’ve had great fortune over the course of my career, and honestly, winning another tournament… the money doesn’t really change my life at this point. When I’m particularly flush with cash, I gamble bigger. When I’m losing or illiquid, I gamble smaller. Money doesn’t change my decisions, and in terms of hoping for more accolades, that doesn’t concern me.

CP: Is getting to the top of the all-time money list one of your goals?

DS: Whatever comes, comes. I think stats that don’t account for buy-ins are pretty silly. Having just a few million dollar buy-in tournaments really skew the results, so I don’t think it means all that much. I would obviously prefer to be number one over number five just because it means I have won a ton of money in the interim, but I don’t especially care about it.

CP: You are clearly one of the best players of all time, but if you asked the average poker fan, your name might not come up as quickly as some of the others. Do you ever feel overlooked or underrated given your accomplishments?

DS: I’m just not really that fussed with what people think of me. I would say when I was on my way up, the respect of my peers was hugely important for me. In my early twenties, I had some issues with mental health, not having particularly high self-esteem. And I thought I could get there by pursuing poker accolades, getting rich, and becoming the no. one GPI player. I did all those things, and then I realized my life was still exactly the same.

If you ask some random person on the street what they think of my poker game… who gives a shit? People are free to think whatever they like, and that’s not going to have any impact on my life at all.

My therapist had me do an exercise where I’m supposed to write a eulogy about myself, in order to get a sense of what’s important to me. Granted, I’m not a eulogy writer, but I ended up not including anything about poker in it.

CP: Speaking of off-the-felt accomplishments, what you’ve done with your charity organization over the years has been incredible.

DS: I run a non-profit called Double Up Drive where the idea is that we run matching challenges. If you donate $100, I find someone who matches it so the impact is doubled. Over the last six years, we’ve raised more than $16 million.

Sometimes I have to take a step back and think about that. There was one year where my favorite charity, Strong Minds, sent me an email saying that thanks to our annual drive, 5,000 women in Uganda were able to undergo 12 weeks of therapy. Then I realized that Strong Minds was just one of 10 charities we had selected. When I think of the magnitude of difference we are making in the world, it’s profound and wonderful.

To learn more about Dan’s charity and the 2020 campaign, visit ♠