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Ari Engel: ‘There’s Good Information In Beratings’

Longtime Tournament Grinder Talks About Learning Mixed Games

by Steve Schult |  Published: Dec 01, 2021


Over the last nearly two decades, Ari Engel has carved out quite a bit of success for himself playing poker. With cashes dating back to 2006, the 38-year-old amassed nearly $7.5 million in live tournaments alone, including two World Series of Poker bracelets, 10 WSOP Circuit rings and a seven-figure score from a victory in the 2016 Aussie Millions main event.

Even before his dominance in the live arena, Engel was known for his online dominance. While studying finance at New York University, Engel won another several million on the virtual felt playing under the screen name ‘BodogAri.’

For most of his career, Engel was making a living playing almost exclusively no-limit hold’em tournaments. But recently, the Toronto native began transitioning to mixed games. And it came with quick success at some of the highest stakes available.

Engel won his second bracelet earlier this fall by taking down the $10,000 Omaha hi-lo championship for $317,076. He sat down with Card Player to discuss how he dove into the mixed game world and what he’s done to generate so much success in seemingly a short amount of time.

Steve Schult: Congratulations on your second bracelet. You won your first in 2019 in a $2,500 no-limit hold’em event, but your second came in a $10,000 buy-in mixed game event. Can you talk about what happened the last few years that led to you wanting to play the Omaha hi-lo championship?

Ari Engel: I’ve played a lot of Omaha hi-lo over the last 10-12 years. In that regard, I’ve always been into that game, and I’ve gotten more and more into it. So, there were a lot of differences between my $2,500 no-limit hold’em win and this one.

My level of confidence in my play against the field was not near its peak in the no-limit stuff. I think in 2016 and around that time, I was much better against the field than I was in 2019. I’m still a good player and all that, but I got it in bad a million times and won it.

This Omaha, I’ve been playing a ton of it. During COVID, I just sat at all the O-8 tables on the legal sites in New Jersey, mainly, and just waited for action. Whenever I got it, I would play heads-up or short-handed. Since COVID started, I’ve played more O-8 hands than almost anyone.

I’m an addict. Just because I win doesn’t mean I shouldn’t use that word. I’m addicted to poker, and I played a lot. I was very strict about COVID, so online poker was my thing. It was really nice to win in a game that I put a lot of effort into.

SS: You seem to be transitioning into a mixed games player. Five out of six cashes this series are in non-hold’em events. Do you enjoy no-limit hold’em less than these other games that you began playing recently or are you just finding a bigger edge in these other tournaments?

Engel at the 2017 WSOPAE: I enjoy no-limit hold’em tournaments a little bit less than I used to, and I don’t know where my edge is bigger. Very likely it’s still bigger in some higher value no-limit tournaments that day. But when I’m looking to play a tournament each day, I don’t look at where I’m going to make the most money. I look at where I want to play.

Like yesterday, I played a 2-7 triple draw tournament. There are like five 2-7 triple draw tournaments a year. I can either play that or never play that game. It’s more that during the WSOP, it’s one of the few series a year where you can actually play a bunch of mixed games. I do enjoy playing them, but if these ran all the time, I would probably not be playing as high of a volume of mixed stuff.

But since there is no choice to play them outside of this, I am playing more of them.

SS: You said you were playing Omaha hi-lo for a long time, but what made you transition into other games?

AE: I’ve always used to playing a round in these games. I’ve been playing HORSE and stud tournaments online since the beginning almost. And then a couple years ago, I went to the [Los Angeles Poker Classic] and outside the World Series, they always did a good job at running a bunch of mixed games. I started playing a little bit over there.

There was some lower buy-in stuff, and it was a really easy way to ease my way into that world. I had some success in it and that will kind of do it. You get a little bit of success and that makes it more exciting. And some of the people that I met in the mixed game world, once COVID hit, they started running an online game with all these crazy games that I hadn’t played before. All the draw games and stuff like that.

During COVID, I was playing a lot of low-stakes 25-game mix. We were playing on Zoom together, so it was a very social experience, it was low-stakes, and it was a lot of fun. So even though I wasn’t necessarily making a ton of money playing them, I would sometimes choose to play those games over my regular tournament schedule. Over time, playing a lot of that, I started feeling much more comfortable playing the mix games.

When I came back to live poker over the summer, I was playing a lot of cash games, and probably losing, but I was enjoying it and learning some new stuff. I’ve been a pro for a long time and there is some monotony to only playing the one game all the time, so it was kind of just to mix it up and who knows? Maybe I could get good at different games and then we’ll see what happens.

Coming into the summer, I knew I was going to play more mixed game stuff and I’m really not sure where I fall in the mixed game spectrum, but I’m going to keep playing them and hopefully get better. I have even more to gain by getting better in these. The leap that I make in no-limit is much smaller incrementally because I’m newer to them.

SS: Can you talk about the learning curve for mixed games versus no-limit hold’em?

Engel at the final table of the $10K Omaha hi-loAE: Obviously I have some good card sense, or whatever you want to call it, that I’ve developed over the years. But a lot of the stuff that you do intuitively as a no-limit tournament doesn’t translate well. For years, I was just kind of doing the same things when it came to the mixed games. And I was really stuck at a plateau.

I’ve been playing the $1,500 HORSE, or a similar tournament, like five or six times before COVID and I’ve never had a cash in it. My stud games just had way too many mistakes that I didn’t realize were mistakes. Then starting with those LAPC’s in 2019 and 2020 and going into the COVID times and playing with mixed game players, and starting to think about it, I started plugging holes almost accidentally.

I started seeing what other people were doing. Like this year, I took a big shot, and I played the $25,000 HORSE. Adam Friedman was at my table, and I don’t know whether it was intentional, but he just said something, and I was like “Oh yeah, that makes a lot of sense.” I was able to plug something there. But it’s been really cool learning and so clearly seeing my mistakes.

The same things happen in no-limit. I love watching these high rollers and seeing some of the things that they do, but I guess I’m just a little more stuck in my ways in no-limit hold’em because I’ve been doing that much longer and had more success. It makes it a little harder to change what I do compared to mixed games where I’m super open-minded.

SS: I was going to ask if you had a mentor or a coach at any point, but it sounds like you’re just listening to people berate you and then just filter through the criticism.

AE: There’s some good information in those beratings (laughs). 14 years ago, ‘Stealthmunk’ (Justin Schwartz) berated me when we were three-handed in an online tournament, and he was completely right.

I was able to plug some nice little holes in my no-limit game from that. I’ve definitely learned a lot from that type of stuff. It hurts the ego for a minute, but if you can tune out the ego and just listen to it, those people are talking very honestly. They are upset and they are not hiding anything. It’s rare to get good advice at the table, and there’s plenty of bad advice that you get from people berating you, but I like to think that I’m a pretty good judge of what the information is.

Engel at the 2019 WSOPI’ve learned so much just by watching people. Even from weaker players. You pick up a little bit from this person, a little bit from this other person. Sometimes you learn what not to do and you just start to get a feel. And there’s some complimentary ideas, so if I make a strategic change in stud, I can also apply that concept in triple draw.

I’m sure I’m making a lot of mistakes as I’m trying to figure it all out and implement those strategies, but this experience that I’m going through, it’s a very enjoyable experience to get better. It’s another reason I enjoy playing the mixed games. Because it’s a very fun experience.

SS: Are some games easier to transition into from no-limit? Is Omaha hi-lo easier for no-limit since they are both flop games?

AE: I don’t know. I’m not sure what the best game would be the easiest to translate. People say that 2-7 no-limit single draw is the easiest to play because it’s the easiest transition because it’s no-limit and has aggressive big bet tendencies. I think most people just naturally go to Omaha.

But for me, I was taught by Andrew Brown, and he was always playing a bunch of different games, so I got exposed to a lot of games early on. I’ve always messed around with all the games and O-8 was the game that I gravitated to, mostly PLO8, but I don’t know that that is natural for people. I think you should mess around, play low-stakes and see what you gravitate to.

At those stakes, there is so much free information out there that if you want to get into it, it’s easy to get into. The biggest hurdle is finding a place to play.

I always improved through trial and error and that’s been my approach with mixed games too. I’m sure there are different ways that work for different people in that regard.

SS: You’ve been around for a long time. You were around in the pre-Black Friday era of online poker and watched the game evolve into what it is today. Do you see mixed games as the next step in that evolution? Are more people going to gravitate to these games over the next several years?

Engel at the 2012 WSOPAE: I would like to say yes, but I don’t see any evidence that points that way. When it comes to online sites, GGPoker, which is one of the biggest sites in the world, doesn’t offer Omaha hi-lo. They offer PLO, short deck and no-limit, but nothing beyond that. partypoker offers Omaha hi-lo, but nothing beyond that.

PokerStars has a bunch of different games, but they are only one site and in America, doesn’t have much besides the Omahas. And to learn in live poker is very tough because the games move very slowly. I was lucky that I got to learn online during COVID because the games move more quickly.

I’m not that optimistic that there will be a boom in mixed games.

SS: What do you hope to achieve in poker? And even more specifically in mixed games. You have 10 WSOP Circuit rings, two bracelets, an Aussie Millions main event title. What else do you want out of this game?

AE: I’d like to get better and sure; I’d love to be one of the best in the world and playing against the best in the world, but that’s a long way off. It’s kind of a deep question because it’s starting to make me think about what the meaning of life is.

I’ve had a lot of success, sure. That’s one way to measure it. But the other way to look at it is that I haven’t reached my potential. People have called me a hard worker and I enter into a lot of tournaments, but from my own outlook, I don’t see myself as such a hard worker. I play a lot, but I feel like I left a lot on the table to where I could be and where my potential is.

By definition you never reach your potential at anything because you never max out, but I don’t think I’m doing a great job at being where I could be. I’m doing an okay job. Some people aren’t doing as much as me and some people are doing more. But it’s more about gauging it against myself. I’d like to see how far I can get while still living a somewhat balanced life.

I want to be able to help my family and friends financially. I want to be in a secure situation there and you get a lot of fulfillments by trying to max out my potential. It’s a lot more fun outplaying others than when they are outplaying you.