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Vanessa Kade Achieved A Dream $1.5 Million Tournament Victory

The Canadian Player Defeated A Field of 67,876 Entries To Win The 15th Anniversary Sunday Million

by Erik Fast |  Published: Jun 30, 2021

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On a brisk March afternoon in Kelowna, British Columbia, Vanessa Kade defeated a field of nearly 68,000 entries to win the 15th Anniversary edition of the Sunday Million, the recurring $215 buy-in no-limit hold’em event that has been a staple of the online tournament schedule since 2006.

The Canadian native earned a massive payday of $1,514,920 as the champion, just days after having been announced as the newest addition to Americas Cardroom’s team of pros. The two accomplishments, securing a poker sponsor and winning that particular event, were goals that Kade had singled out in a scribbled statement of intent she had penned years earlier.

“Somewhere in my house, on a bit of paper, it’s written that I wanted a sponsorship and to specifically win the Sunday Million,” Kade revealed.

Prior to this massive victory, Kade had made a name for herself in the game by playing online and broadcasting her grind on the Twitch live-streaming platform. While the self-taught programmer and former video game producer primarily focused on online play, she also has live cashes dating back to 2013 amounting to six-figures in earnings.

Just a few months before Kade’s whirlwind week, however, her focus was a social media debate that arose following online site GGPoker’s sponsorship of social media star Dan Bilzerian.

Kade shared her disappointment and frustration with Bilzerian’s signing, given his problematic history with women that includes lawsuits and allegations of assault. Bilzerian responded to one of Kade’s tweets by posting, ‘Quiet hoe [sic], nobody knows who you are.’

“I have wanted to say something about it for years, but it’s very difficult to address without feeling as though you’re probably hurting your future prospects in the industry,” said Kade when asked about speaking up about concerns of how female players are treated in the poker world. “I hit a point where I saw a company proudly parading around Dan Bilzerian… and couldn’t help but to finally say something.”

Kade recently spoke to Card Player about her start in the game, her seven-figure victory, her thoughts on the treatment of female players in poker, her new sponsorship deal, and more.

Card Player: When did you first start to play poker, and how did you find the game?

Vanessa Kade: Almost 10 years ago some guys at work had a $5 buy-in, single-table tournament at lunch twice a week, and one of my friends who played in it thought it might be something I’d like and suggested I come and watch. I agreed, and asked him to show me how to play. Later that week we sat in my basement suite with a deck of cards and I learned the basics.

CP: What about the game caught your interest?

VK: Poker immediately struck me as an interesting behavioral prediction and pattern recognition game, two things I find fun and challenging, and having a large luck factor gives it a beautiful volatility.

CP: Do you think you have any particular skills or personality traits that helped you excel at poker?

VK: Like anyone else, I definitely have some traits that help and some that hurt. Historically, I was very patient with getting unlucky, even for extended periods, and I don’t have much of an ego so it makes reviewing my mistakes in an honest and objective way easier. But the flip side to this is that I can lack confidence and doubt myself easily when things don’t go well. As we get better as players, the luck component can become harder to stomach, and personally, I need to be careful not to feel entitled to win more often. It’s important to remember that even the very best in the game make mistakes all of the time, and not to be too hard on yourself. The goal is to do the optimal thing as much as possible, and that’s all we can do.

CP: Do you have a background in playing other strategy games or sports?

VK: I played competitive softball when I was younger, and a pretty wide variety of sports and activities. For the most part, I’ve been more interested in trying absolutely everything than mastering a skill or two. I played video games for several years and was quite competitive with those, particularly World of Warcraft, and will get really into games and play them obsessively for short periods. Most recently [I got into] Beat Saber, a virtual reality rhythm game.

CP: Can you tell me about your work experience outside of poker, especially in the gaming industry?

VK: I used to be a producer in the video game industry, running parts of large video game projects for a few companies including BioWare, Disney, and LucasArts. [It was a] pretty good gig, and I really enjoyed my time in the industry overall.

CP: What led to you taking poker more seriously after first getting into the game?

VK: I was lucky enough that in the games I played in initially, playing tight was enough to do well, and most people stuck to playing the same hands so I could guess what they had pretty accurately and was winning almost right away. My game developed quite slowly. Like a lot of people in poker I tend to pick up skills and be good at things easily, but this becomes a huge negative and can result in being lazy and complacent. The last few years there have been tools and resources widely available – almost none of which I used, and I finally had an honest moment of self-reflection where I realized if I ever wanted to be really good I would need to put in some effort. This led to me taking advantage of some of the tools available to us, and reaching out to a coach and peers for more in-depth discussions.

CP: What does a $1.5 million victory mean to you?

VK: It’s definitely the dream, but life and cards are unpredictable so nothing is guaranteed. Really, all I’ve wanted to do since I’d discovered poker was to find a way to combine it with my other biggest passion – travel – and spend my life traveling around the world having fun and competing for the thrill of big wins. About two years ago, I tried an exercise where I wrote down things I’d wanted to achieve, and read them out loud once a day. This lasted for about a week before I forgot about it, but somewhere in my house on a bit of paper, it’s written that I wanted a sponsorship and to specifically win the Sunday Million. Pretty wild!

CP: This event had a gigantic field of nearly 68,000 players. There were still 17,516 entrants left heading into day 2. How was the first day of action for you?

VK: I was 12-tabling during the bulk of day 1, and remember almost nothing from the first day, which is what tends to happen when it’s just one of many tables. I have almost no memory for individual hands unless I can learn something from them.

CP: Heading into the final day you were in 13th place with 65 remaining. How did the middle stages of this event play out for you? Were there any interesting or exciting spots along the way?

VK: There was one hand on day 2 where I lost a massive pot with pocket kings for what would’ve probably been a top 5 stack when someone squeezed AJ, and it took me from having what would have been a massive stack of over 100 big blinds to around 15 big blinds. About an orbit later, I shoved the button with pocket sevens over a hijack open and cutoff flat. The cutoff had trapped me with pocket aces, but there was a miracle seven on the flop.

Day 3 I spent a lot of the time, including most of the final table, pretty card dead. There were some seriously close calls with a couple of hands that would have been justifiable shoves, that I chose to muck in these instances, and in each case when I watched the playback the opponent had a monster that would have ended the tournament for me. I got incredibly lucky to dodge some coolers by nitting up at the right time.

CP: By the time the final table was set, you were in seventh. What was your mindset at that point with such huge pay jumps on the line?

VK: Largely I was focused on playing my game one hand at a time and triple checking my decisions. If the action I was about to take would cause me to be eliminated from the tournament, I wanted to be at peace with that before clicking the button. Once I got super short and ultimately recovered, the rest of the tournament felt like a freeroll, and I was determined to be happy regardless of the outcome.

CP: You tweeted out the following after the win: ‘It feels impossible. This is the best day of my life. It’s not close.’ Can you tell me more about why this win meant so much?

VK: The last year and a half leading up to this tournament had been very difficult for me. There were probably a dozen times that I had been down to the last 20-30 players in a tournament with a big score up top and a near-chiplead stack, when things catastrophically and unavoidably went sideways. Six months into a bad run, I’d started reassuring myself that it can’t continue forever, and a year after that, playing thousands of hands almost every day, I’d started to feel the weight of built-up exasperation. Nearly two years of self-doubt and frustration releasing all at once is quite a feeling. I cried.

CP: That huge win came right on the heels of you being prominently involved in a public discussion about women in poker. Unfortunately, both the gaming industry you used to work in and the poker world have had plenty of issues when it comes to making female players feel welcome in the community. What are your thoughts about both of these hugely popular hobbies having a lot of room for improvement with regards to inclusivity?

VK: Much of the recent dialogue has surrounded the idea of glorifying having tough skin, and being a ‘warrior’ – taking pride in being someone who is strong enough to withstand a hostile environment. While this is probably the ideal outlook to have if you’re a top competitor, I think we need to remember that the vast, vast majority of people who face harassment are simply trying to play recreationally and for enjoyment.

Hostility is not a necessary component in poker at any level, and if my mom were to go play $1-$2 at her local casino I shouldn’t have to be worried that she’s likely to have someone with a fragile ego swear at or insult her. I shouldn’t have to tell her to suck it up and be a warrior. If we want more people in the game in general, we should be making a much larger effort to do better and make sure it’s an environment that lends itself first and foremost to people enjoying themselves.

CP: Is speaking out on these issues something you were comfortable with and eager to do, or was it more of a situation where you just didn’t feel comfortable letting the status quo remain without addressing problems that arose?

VK: The majority of my time playing poker has been spent in low-stakes cash games where I met some wonderful people, but also where I faced near-constant verbal aggression, being called names, belittled, and even threatened. Sometimes it was dealt with by staff, usually, it was not. As I got a little more well-known, thankfully this tapered off, but I realize it will not be the case for most people. I have wanted to say something about it for years, but it’s very difficult to address without feeling as though you’re probably hurting your future prospects in the industry. Finally, I hit a point where I saw a company proudly parading around Dan Bilzerian who embodies every one of these negative traits, and couldn’t help but to finally say something.

CP: How do you hope to be part of the improvement process on this issue moving forward?

VK: I hope by at least having the discussion, and others seeing that I’m still offered opportunities, that maybe the fear surrounding speaking up about these kinds of issues will dissipate enough that problems are dealt with more directly as they arise.

CP: Speaking of opportunities, shortly before your recent Sunday Million victory, Americas Cardroom announced that you were added to their team of pros. Can you tell us about that exciting development, and what this partnership means for you?

VK: We’d been in discussions about a potential sponsorship for quite some time, and it felt like the right time to pull the trigger. I’d played the majority of my games on ACR over the last couple of years anyway, and I’ve seen firsthand how dedicated they are about improving their player experience and how passionate the team is. I’ve always wanted to be a part of a sponsored team, so everything that has happened for me in the last few months is definitely a dream come true.

Follow Vanessa on Twitter @VanessaKade, and check out her stream at Twitch.tv/VanessaKade. ♠

*Photo credit Vanessa Kade