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“I Chase Bracelets” Says Three-Time WSOP Champ Ryan Leng

Former Hockey Standout Talks About Making “The Worst Fold In Poker History”

by Julio Rodriguez |  Published: Feb 09, 2022

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Ryan Leng broke out in 2017 with a runner-up finish in a World Series of Poker $1,500 no-limit hold’em event for $237,776, along with a deep run in the $10,000 main event for another $176,399.

The next year, Leng won his first bracelet in the $1,500 Bounty event, banking $272,504. He picked up his second bracelet in the 2021 online series in July of 2021.

Then last fall, Leng nabbed his third bracelet in the $1,500 Eight-Game Mix, taking home $137,969. A week later he would finish runner-up in the $1,500 Monster Stack for another $377,220, and he later pocketed a career-best $589,628 for taking second in the $50,000 Poker Players Championship to Dan ‘Jungleman’ Cates.

As a result, he finished seventh in the WSOP Player of the Year standings. In total, the 35-year-old has racked up nearly $3.3 million in career tournament earnings.

Leng recently appeared on Card Player’s Poker Stories Podcast to talk about how he discovered the game, transitioning from an online specialist to live player, and overcoming what some have called, ‘the worst fold in poker history.’

You can listen to the entire interview on YouTube, Spotify, or any podcast app.

Highlights from the podcast appear below.

Poker Beginnings

Leng grew up in Lindenhurst, Illinois, just a few minutes across the border from Wisconsin, and excelled at the highest levels of youth hockey.

“Hockey was everything. It was more important than school,” he admitted. “I loved traveling all over the country and Canada to play against some of the best teams in the world. It definitely sparked my competitive spirit, which has certainly lived on in poker.”

He had ambitions to make it to the NHL, and indeed played against the likes of future NHL standouts Ryan Suter, Phil Kessel, and Sidney Crosby.

“[My hockey career] ended after my senior year of high school. We lost in the state championship game, a heartbreaking game. I remember hugging my teammates, which were like brothers, but knowing that I didn’t want to pursue hockey any further. I was already into poker at that point.”

Leng and his friends found poker right before the Moneymaker boom, playing card games like ‘Between The Sheets.’ His first session didn’t go so well, but that didn’t matter to him.

“We were sleeping over at my buddy Marshall’s house. He taught me all these games and we gambled for everything in my wallet, which was maybe $20 to $30 and some Petco gift cards. He let me gamble with those because he could use them to buy bird food for his mom. He completely cleaned me out, and I was hooked.”

The game continued, and the group even got to watch Robert Varkonyi win the 2002 WSOP main event. The ESPN coverage led to introducing hold’em into the mix and a year later, everyone wanted to play.

“I would run tournaments every weekend at my house, sometimes two tables. That’s how it started. I was super competitive and just wanted to be better than everyone.”

His game improved after getting some poker books like Doyle Brunson’s SuperSystem for his birthday, and it wasn’t long before he was building an online bankroll and skipping classes to drive out to casinos in California.

While at Arizona State University, he took inspiration from Daniel Negreanu and decided to issue a challenge of his own, taking on all comers… up to $100.

“I wound up making some poker friends and playing some games I had never played before,” Leng recalled. “I played this one guy, and his mom was Starla Brodie. She won the Mixed Doubles bracelet with Doyle Brunson. He knew a lot about poker and taught me some new games and stuff, but he actually discouraged me from getting into poker. He thought it was a bad idea. Obviously, I didn’t listen to him.”

(Editor’s Note: Starla Brodie made six final tables at the WSOP, winning the Mixed Doubles Stud event with Brunson in 1979 and the Ladies Stud event in 1995.)

Breaking Through

Leng dealt cards to get by, and briefly took a job bussing tables at country club weddings, but it wasn’t long before poker was paying the bills. He won an online event and then secured the first of his years as a SuperNova Elite status player. To keep playing after Black Friday, he moved to Costa Rica, Mexico, and later Canada.

His transition to brick-and-mortar poker was relatively smooth, considering his experience in the live arena as a dealer. He won the Player of the Series title at the Chicago Poker Classic, earning a $50,000 bonus and a car. (Leng took more cash instead of the car.) He then went on to win three events in the span of five days at the Five Star World Poker Classic.

In 2017 came his breakthrough at the WSOP, scoring a runner-up finish and a deep run in the main event, taking 41st place. Leng could have gotten even further, if it wasn’t for a bad beat at the hands of eventual final tablist Ben Lamb.

“My head was spinning at that point. I felt drunk,” Leng said about his main event experience. “It was kind of heartbreaking [the way I busted], but it was still such a blast. It was still a great score for me. I remember watching the pay jumps go by. You just hear bustout after bustout, looking at the clock and realizing you just made another $20,000, $30,000.”

Leng credits the work he did with his former coach and fellow high-stakes crusher Chance Kornuth for taking his game to another level. He also got some help from top high roller Nick Petrangelo.

“It was huge for my game. I was putting in a ton of work and I was by far the most active student they had. I was just so hungry. Hungry to learn and study. It was really the first time I prioritized studying. Chance was the perfect choice because we think about the game in the same way.”

Like Kornuth, Leng likes to incorporate some exploitative play into his live game, not afraid to veer away from a pure math-based baseline strategy.

“I actually don’t like either the exploitative or GTO [label], personally. I do a lot of funky stuff, a lot of creative stuff. Live tells are a big part of my game, and there are a lot of old school tactics that get neglected these days. Phil [Hellmuth] calls it white magic, but I think it’s more an understanding of human behavior and psychology. Having empathy, being able to put yourself in other people’s shoes will really help you figure out what they are trying to accomplish in the moment. But I also want to make it clear that you cannot get away with just those skills anymore. Let’s not pretend that solver work isn’t important. I’ve spent hours and hours on solvers, just plugging in hands over and over, learning theory with players that are better than me.”

Being A Bracelet Hunter

After his close call in 2017, he got revenge in 2018 with his first bracelet win in a $1,500 Bounty event.

“I had a picture of Christopher Frank, the guy who beat me heads-up, winning the bracelet, up on my wall. Underneath it, I put a sign that says, ‘Nobody cares, work f***ing harder.’ I just kind of used that to inspire me. And then the next year I go and win one.”

The $272,504 he earned was nice, but Leng made it clear that he was most happy about the gold.

“I just want to keep winning bracelets. I have always been a sucker for the bracelet,” admitted Leng. “I chase bracelets. When I was a kid, I dreamt of winning bracelets. There is all this talk about how they have been diluted [with $500 events], but they absolutely matter to me. You go back to that Mixed Doubles event that Doyle won with Starla Brodie, it was $600. (It also only had 25 entries!) I think it’s important for poker to have one major series that’s bigger than the rest every year.”

Leng has also won four WSOP Circuit titles over the years, and added his second bracelet in the summer online series of 2021. (He won the event playing on his phone while out on a date.)

Then in the fall, he put together his best series yet, cashing for a combined $1.25 million. He finished runner-up in the Monster Stack, and runner-up in the Poker Players Championship (even going viral in the process), while also earning his third bracelet in the $1,500 Eight-Game Mix.

“Winning WSOP Player of the Year is my big, long-term goal in tournaments. I knew if I wanted to compete for that, I would have to learn mixed games. About six months before the series, I put in some serious study and even joined a group of brilliant mixed game players that host super low-stakes games.”

Although he finished seventh overall, Leng proved that he belongs in the conversation of frontrunners every year with his newfound skills and the consistency he has shown in big field no-limit hold’em events.

Rising Above “The Fold”

The Action: Three-handed at the WSOP $50,000 Poker Players Championship in a hand of limit hold’em, Ryan Leng raised from the small blind. Dan ‘Jungleman’ Cates defended his big blind and the flop came down AClub Suit JSpade Suit 7Diamond Suit. Leng checked, and Cates bet. Leng called and the 9Heart Suit hit the turn. Both players checked and the river was the KClub Suit. Leng bet, and Cates raised all in for just half a bet more. Leng folded AHeart Suit 5Spade Suit, and Cates dragged the pot with his inferior KDiamond Suit QClub Suit. The near double up gave Cates new life, and he went on to win his first bracelet and the $954,020 first-place prize, while Leng settled for $589,628 as the runner-up.

First of all, let me just say that even playing that $50,000 event was like a five-year goal for me… starting eight months ago. I was playing in the $2,500 [event] and chatting with (bracelet winner) Owais [Ahmed], and he said [I should play the $50k.]

I don’t really sell action very often, it’s such a pain to have ten people and all this accounting and money transferring. I can’t stand doing accounting. So I was on the fence, but I decided to put a tweet out [to gauge interest.] I sold out in 20 minutes.

All of a sudden, I was nervous and felt my stomach kind of drop. I’ve never played a $25k, let alone a $50k. And this is not an event where I had confidence in every spot I played, since I am still new to [many of the games.] But I thought about what an amazing experience it was going to be and thought hopefully I could cash somehow.

I feel like I learned more about mixed games in those five days playing that tournament with the best in the world than I did in all my days leading up to it. I played my heart out, I bluffed my balls off, and I had so much fun. Obviously, I ran well to get there, and then… yeah. By the time I was three handed with Paul Volpe and Jungleman, my head was spinning.

I didn’t know what the hell was going on. I was exhausted, mentally fatigued. In no-limit hold’em, I could kind of just go through the motions, but in these games, every single hand I was just constantly guessing, trying to figure it out.

[On the river], the way I viewed his chips, I thought he had a full extra bet. Still, it’s arguably an easy call.

But I will say that there were multiple top-level mixed game players who [messaged], some of them maybe just trying to make me feel better. Some said it was a fantastic fold, others that it was a small mistake. One of them who I know wasn’t trying to make me feel better, because he told me I played every other street terribly, was Shaun Deeb.

He said that the play was actually really good and was an above-the-rim fold that people just aren’t making. That Jungle should never have worse for value and can never be bluffing. And that was my thought in the moment.

One of the things that I’ve really struggled with in these mixed games is saving bets. Just trying to figure out when to save a bet here or there. In my mind, I thought that he’s got me beat here, has to have two pair or better or shouldn’t ever be shoving. And yeah, I could just call it off, but it felt lazy to just sigh, call, and say, “I guess I lose.”

But I had this thought in my head of, “No. Be perfect. Make the crazy hero fold!”
And yeah… he had K-Q.

Plenty of people have said that it’s the worst fold of all time. I don’t [agree], but if it is, that’s cool. None of it really bothers me. I’m super proud to have gotten there in the first place. [Even if] I call there and end up heads-up with Paul Volpe [instead], I may have had the same result.

Or maybe I win the tournament? Who knows? But you can’t do that with poker, you just have to learn from it and move on.

It wasn’t the first time I got bluffed by Jungle. He also got me the day before the final table in a really big pot. Jungleman is one of the best. He’s got like a 160 IQ, an absolute genius, brilliant poker player. We all know he’s out there and a goofball, but I got wrecked and I feel no shame in that whatsoever. I’ll keep working hard and I’ll be ready for him next time.

Top Tournament Scores

Date Event Finish Payout
Nov. 2021 $50,000 WSOP Poker Players Championship 2nd $589,628
Oct. 2021 $1,500 WSOP Monster Stack 2nd $377,220
June 2018 $1,500 WSOP Bounty NLHE 1st $272,504
June 2017 $1,500 WSOP NLHE 2nd $237,776
July 2017 $10,000 WSOP Main Event 41st $176,399
Oct. 2021 $1,500 WSOP 8-Game Mix 1st $137,969
Nov. 2021 $50,000 WSOP High Roller 9th $131,982
Oct. 2020 $500 WSOP Circuit Online Main Event 1st $113,040
July 2021 $1,000 WSOP Online NLHE 1st $108,654
June 2016 $1,500 WSOP Bounty NLHE 4th $95,857
July 2020 $400 WSOP Online NLHE 2nd $82,440
May 2017 $1,675 WSOP Circuit NLHE 5th $58,180
Sept. 2018 $1,000 WSOP Circuit Online NLHE 1st $56,202