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Dan Zack: World Series Of Poker Player Of The Year

Three-Time Bracelet Winner Is Built For Long Sessions At The Table

by Julio Rodriguez |  Published: Sep 07, 2022

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Dan Zack was just 10 years old when Chris Moneymaker won the 2003 World Series of Poker main event and helped to spark the biggest boom in the history of the game. Even though the Princeton, New Jersey youngster didn’t have any real money of his own to gamble with, Zack was almost immediately drawn to the card player lifestyle and dreamed of the day when he could make a run at the series himself.

He would beg his older brother to let him play during home game nights, and it wasn’t long before he was competing online. It was play money at first, and then real money in between his classes. By the age of 13, he had already read the Harrington On Hold’em strategy book series.

It was obvious that he had the skills, running up his account as a teenager, but Zack lacked the discipline to deal with variance and tilt. After blowing through a few bankrolls and even quitting the game entirely for a brief period of time, he was able to rebuild, plug the leaks, and establish himself as one of the best all-around players today.

Zack has been a prolific cash game grinder, not afraid to put in extremely long hours at the table. But during the summer, his attention is 100 percent focused on tournaments at the WSOP. He won his first bracelet in 2019, taking down the $2,500 Mixed Triple Draw event. The next year, he bubbled the final table of the $10,000 main event when the series moved online because of the pandemic.

He has been a consistent performer in the summer POY race for the last few years. He has 89 total WSOP cashes dating back to 2014. In the last 10 years, only Daniel Negreanu and Shaun Deeb have outperformed Zack for total POY points. (Although the numbers are skewed more towards recent years as the points formula has changed.)

This summer, the 29-year-old was the runaway winner of Player of the Year honors, having racked up 16 cashes, four final tables, and just over $1.45 million in earnings.

“I set a goal to try and win this a few years ago and it’s been an insane battle each year,” Zack said after sealing the deal. “I’m really ecstatic to actually get there. I have been super stressed the past few weeks trying to close out the series. Thanks to everyone who has wished me luck.”

He also managed to nab his second and third career bracelets, winning both the $10,000 Omaha Eight-Or-Better Championship and the $10,000 Stud Eight-Or-Better Championship.

The POY title comes with a personalized banner that will hang at Paris and Bally’s during the WSOP, as well as a custom trophy, and a $10,000 seat into the 2023 main event.

Card Player caught up with Zack for an episode of the Poker Stories podcast to talk about finding the game as a child, numerous 60-hour sessions, shot taking, heads-up battles, and just how much you need in your bankroll to compete for the WSOP POY title.

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

Julio Rodriguez: I guess the story goes that you saw poker very early on.

Dan Zack: I first started playing five-card draw with my family. I remember a family reunion when I was seven or eight where I won a jar of pennies.

But in terms of Texas hold’em, it was 2003 and Chris Moneymaker. I was 10 when that aired on ESPN. I think I’m the youngest, or last person who got into the poker scene [that way.]

I would come home from school and hop into every single play chip tournament. I would occasionally cash in a freeroll and try to spin those up. I was probably 13 or 14 when I convinced my dad to let me make some small deposits, $20 here or there.

JR: What’s the story about you losing $20,000 on a family trip?

DZ: That was senior year of high school. It was actually a church retreat. I was having the bigger spin ups by then, but I still lacked control. So I was sneaking off to play during any downtime, and at some point I blasted through [the $20,000] at $100-$200 heads-up against one of the OGs that used to sit those tables. I was very, very sad for the rest of that trip.

JR: Looking back now, how do you feel about being exposed to poker at such a young age?

DZ: It was probably really bad. I’ve gotten super lucky to have found a way to turn it into a positive, but it definitely colored my teenage years pretty negatively. It’s not a game designed for children, especially to play for money.

I was good, so I would have spin ups, but you can’t win at poker without the control aspect. And I just don’t know many 14-year-olds that would have that skill. [Although] it’s obviously helped me a lot in my career now to have learned so many tough lessons about the game growing up.

JR: In college you turned $1,000 into $100,000 in just one summer.

DZ: Yeah, at Turning Stone [Casino]. That was a very good summer of mostly $2-$5 and $5-$10. I ran so good. I would buy-in for $500 and it felt like I would have over $5,000 and the end of almost every single day.

JR: You’ve been known to play some really long sessions. What was your longest?

DZ: There was a guy at Commerce [Casino] who really liked open-face Chinese poker and wasn’t very good at it, and wanted to play very long hours for pretty big. I had a best friend in college who would drive me to the casino on Friday as soon as I got out of class at 3 p.m. and we would play straight through until my classes started on Monday morning. I did that for two months straight, and would fall asleep in class every single time.

I may have played a longer session when this lawyer would come and play pretty big no-limit games. He would also get there on Friday and play until he ran out of money, sometimes Monday as well. I’ve done a lot of 60-plus hour sessions.

JR: Any Bobby’s Room stories?

DZ: It was a huge life accomplishment and just a dream come true to play cash with those guys. I have a picture I took when I was 23 of myself with [Daniel] Negreanu, [Phil] Ivey, and Doyle [Brunson]. I don’t know if that will ever happen again, so that was a fun one for me.

JR: What was it like to win your first bracelet, and when did you get the ambition to compete for WSOP Player of the Year.

DZ: Coming up in poker I took the attitude of ‘[act] like you’ve been there before.’ I found that it kept me grounded more than trying to display excitement when new things would happen for me. I remember after winning that bracelet [being] interviewed and keeping my cool, acting like I had been there before.

Then I got out of the tournament room, got outside the casino, and I just sat down and cried. I realized how meaningful it was to me in a way that I hadn’t [thought about before] given all the years of failure and how this had always been something that I really wanted.

I had come into that series thinking I was going to end up more in cash games, but I had such a good start that I remember really wanting to chase [POY]. And then I hit a one-week stretch where I bricked everything and ended the series in fourth.

JR: This year you got off to another good start for POY. How much in buy-ins does one have to set aside to compete for this title? And did you have a parachute plan if you found yourself two weeks in and already out of contention?

DZ: If I had bricked everything and was out of contention, I would still play a full schedule. I just wouldn’t play the really big no-limit events, skipping the $250,000, $100,000, and $50,000 no-limit tournaments.

This year I ended up playing about three-quarters of $1 million in buy-ins, but that includes the $250,000 and a couple of $50,000 events that I sold action for. Of my own money, I probably paid about $400,000 in buy-ins, and that’s what I expect to buy-in for each year. I never expect to completely brick a series, but it wouldn’t surprise me to lose something like $250,000. That’s a reasonable bottom 10 percentile outcome that you should expect to happen once every six years of so.

JR: You really had to earn your two bracelets this summer, which both came in $10,000 championships. (Read more on pg. 18) You got heads-up, and both times your opponent refused to lose. These matches went seven, and then eight hours respectively. Obviously, you’re built for the long sessions.

DZ: People say that it must have been exhausting, and [I reply], ‘For me or for them?’ Over the years I transitioned to mixed games, which tend to break around one or two in the morning. And I have constantly been the person who says, ‘Does anyone want to still play heads-up?’

I have nothing but good things to say about how each of [my WSOP opponents] played heads-up and at the final table. In the O8 tournament specifically, I had Dustin Dirksen outchipped 20:1 within an hour and it just looked like I was going to win [easily].

And then he came back and tied it, and then I got it back to 10:1. And then he came back and tied it, and then he was up 10:1 on me. I was sitting there like, ‘Oh my god! Am I really about to lose this?’ I remember at one point Dustin won a really big pot to get back into the chip lead and then he started barking very loudly in my direction. We we’re on the [live] stream and I was just sitting there telling myself I was never going to watch this back again. This was going to be a documentary of the worst evening of my poker career.

So I was very glad that I ended up coming back from that and closing that one out.

JR: You didn’t win the POY that night, but I think if you finish second there, you don’t win POY.

DZ: You’re probably right. It would have been really tough to lose that one and bounce back from it immediately. I pride myself these days on having much stronger mental toughness than I had earlier in my career, but that would have been a painful heads-up match to blow.

JR: Now that you’ve won the POY, are you going to sign up for it all again next year or is it been there, done that?

DZ: I’ll for sure be chasing it again next year. I really enjoy it. I enjoy the competition with Shaun [Deeb] and Daniel [Negreanu] and whichever of the 100 or so players run hot early on. As long as I’m coming out for the full series, I’ll be in the mix chasing it each year. ♠

Top Tournament Scores

Date Event Finish Payout
June 2022 $250,000 WSOP High Roller 8th $488,095
June 2022 $10,000 WSOP Omaha Eight-Or-Better 1st $440,757
June 2022 $10,000 WSOP Stud Eight-Or-Better 1st $324,174
Dec. 2017 $10,000 WPT Five Diamond Classic 7th $208,725
June 2019 $2,500 WSOP Mixed Triple Draw 1st $160,447
June 2022 $10,000 WSOP 2-7 Triple Draw 3rd $129,670
July 2017 $3,333 WSOP Online Event 4th $97,232
June 2019 $10,000 WSOP Razz 4th $94,305
Oct. 2021 $25,000 WSOP NLHE Heads Up 3rd $89,787
Dec. 2020 $10,000 WSOP Online Main Event 11th $77,832

*Some photos courtesy of PokerGO