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A Poker Life -- Galen Hall

The 2011 PCA Champion Talks About How He Got Started and Where He's Headed

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Galen HallNot many in the poker world could have predicted that Galen Hall, a part-time poker player and student, would win the PokerStars Caribbean Adventure main event, the largest tournament outside of the World Series of Poker. Hall himself was probably just as doubtful, considering the 24-year-old had only recorded one live tournament cash for $3,460 leading up to his $2.3 million score in the Bahamas.

Even after six days of play and after outlasting 1,558 players, Hall was still a long shot to overcome the massive chip lead of Chris Oliver, the online pro across the table who held nearly 80 percent of the chips in play. During heads-up play, the river in a seemingly innocuous hand gave Hall a wheel straight and Oliver a full house and the game appeared to be over, but Hall found a fold, prolonging his tournament life and spurring a heroic comeback effort.

Three hours and a few double ups later, Hall had claimed one of poker’s biggest tournament scores and the title of 2011 PCA main event champion. This is his story.

Poker Beginnings

Hall was born and raised in Pasadena, California as the only child in a family focused on education. His father John is a professor of Civil Engineering at Cal Tech and just finished a five-year stint serving as the dean of students. Hall’s mother, Nancy, was the Vice President of a pharmaceutical company for years before recently retiring.

With both of his parents earning PhDs, Hall grew up in an academically-driven household and was expected to follow in their footsteps. That being said, it was clear early on that he would be a winner regardless of where his interests took him.

“Growing up, I was pretty frequently described as hyper competitive, especially in sports and games,” said Hall. “I did okay in school, a mix of As and Bs mostly, but was never that focused on my grades. Testing always came really easily to me and as a result, I naturally gravitated towards competitive strategy games, such as poker.”

Hall played the game casually in high school and then began to take it more seriously while enrolled at the University of California, Berkeley. Though he was winning, he never saw it as more than a leisure pursuit, choosing to focus on earning his degree in Political Science.

Galen Hall Photo Courtesy of PokerStarsIt wasn’t until January of 2010 that Hall began to compete more online, playing as GasparLeMarc and turning his attention to multi-table tournaments. “It’s never been my goal to make a living playing poker,” he said. “I just really enjoy playing the game, and as I became better at multi-table tournaments and started to win, I really got plugged into the community and got hooked. I enjoy competing against the other regulars and trying to establish myself as one of the best online players. My will to improve and win was mostly driven by my competitiveness, and I guess the money just came with it.”

Hall had a natural ability to play the game, but still had a few early hurdles to overcome in his development. “I used to struggle a lot with ego,” he admitted. “At a table with a couple of good players and lots of donks, I always seemed to get involved in pot after pot trying to outplay the good players and control the table, instead of just letting the good spots come to me and isolating the bad players. I also had a habit of trying to play too many tables at once, or registering for really difficult, small fields when I’m playing a lot of tables. Obviously, these were bad leaks that I had to eliminate, but I also think that aggressive mentality helped me to improve more quickly as a player.”

The Bahamas

Hall headed down to the Bahamas determined to put in quite a bit of time at the tables. Though he bought in directly to the $10,000 main event, he was prepared to register for up to five more tournaments had things not gone as planned.

During the first two days of the tournament, I was able to chip up relatively easily at almost every table I was sat and didn’t have any big all-in confrontations,” Hall recalled. “I went from 30,000 to 300,000 just by playing super aggressively and really hammering all of the weak players. During the money bubble, I won coin flip to knock out Viktor “Isildur1” Blom and cruised the rest of the day.”

It wasn’t all smooth sailing for him, however. Hall had to dig deep to pull out of a miserable start to his third day. “I lost a couple big pots and found myself with just 10 big blinds to work with. I vowed not to panic and after a 45-minute heater, I was all of a sudden sitting with 1.7 million, which I comfortably rode for two days leading into the penultimate day.”

Though Hall was certainly making waves in the tournament, all eyes were glued to Chris Moneymaker and his run through the field. That quickly changed when Hall’s set of tens sent the Team PokerStars Pro spiraling. A couple hours later, Hall knocked out Moneymaker and entered the final table with the second largest stack.

The Final Table

Though he was second in chips, Hall was somewhat forgotten at a final table that included online pros such as Mike Sowers, Sam Stein and the dominating stack of Chris Oliver. To add to the pressure, ESPN had sequestered the table in order to broadcast it unedited with a one-hour delay both online and on television.

Galen Hall Photo Courtesy of PokerStars“I was a little nervous for the first orbit or so, but after that it was just poker,” said Hall. “The sequestered aspect didn’t really matter much to me since they allowed my three closest poker buddies, Nick Verkaik, Dylan Wilkerson and Calvin Anderson to be in there with me cheering me on. Since I didn’t have a phone, I didn’t realize that hundreds of my friends and family were watching back at home at various viewing parties. I just figured that a couple people might watch and most would get bored and turn it off within an hour, but I was completely shocked when I turned on my phone and discovered hundreds of text messages streaming in.”

Hall formulated a game plan during his day off, but wasn’t ready to stick to anything concrete. “I had some idea of how things were going to play out, but you always want to be able to adapt to changing dynamics and you don’t want to just have a strategy that you’re afraid to deviate from. I knew that with a couple of short stacks and Oliver to my left, I was probably going to have to start out very tight and wait for a couple eliminations. I wanted to pick a couple of good spots here and there to three-bet and four-bet against light bets to maintain my stack and then really open it up once we got four-handed. As luck would have it, that’s pretty much exactly how it played out.”

The Laydown

Tournament champions can often look back and pick out the hand that propelled them to victory, but it is rare for it to be a hand they wound up losing. Hall entered heads-up play as the proverbial underdog and at one point was down 5-1 in chips before the hand of the tournament played out.

The action is well documented. He raised the button with 8Club Suit 4Heart Suit and Oliver called with ADiamond Suit 2Spade Suit. The flop fell 5Diamond Suit 3Diamond Suit 2Club Suit and Oliver called a continuation bet of 575,000. The turn was the 2Heart Suit and both players checked. The river was the ASpade Suit completing his straight and Hall fired in a 2 million chip value bet. Oliver then moved all in with his full house, but Hall stunned the viewers watching at home by folding and preserving his tournament life.

At the time, Hall seemed unimpressed by his own read, but after some reflection, he recognized why it got so much attention. “It’s not a standard laydown by any means, but I think given the hand history and game flow, a decent number of good tournament regulars would be able to fold there,” he explained. “The thing that made it standout was the fact that it was televised live and people didn’t already know what was going to happen. Also, Chris was perceived as a really crazy player, but most people weren’t able to differentiate between him going bonkers preflop and him not really getting out of line that much post flop.”

Hall further elaborated, explaining that even though he didn’t know if he had made the right decision at the time, he was able to move on without much trouble. “The absolute strength of the hand, being a straight against a full house heads up, probably made it more epic, but that’s not really a big deal to me. I thought about how often he was bluffing, which was infrequently, and how I was doing against his value range, which wasn’t good. Once I sorted all of that out, it seemed pretty easy to press fold and move onto the next hand. I do a pretty good job of not dwelling on things, so I was over it pretty quickly.”

Plans for the Future

Despite becoming an overnight millionaire, Hall still works the same job doing data analysis and strategy for a start up called Identified.com. It doesn’t pay much, but he still enjoys it because it gives him a whole new set of puzzles and problems to work on.

After taking out some money for a big celebration in San Francisco with his friends, Hall took the rest and put it aside for school and future investments, hoping to make good use of his new found fortune.

“I have a really strong passion for entrepreneurship, and that’s the main reason why I will be attending Stanford. I’ve started several of my own small companies in high school and college, which ranged from spectacular successes to stunning failures. Entrepreneurship has a lot in common with poker. You are your own boss, you are accountable for your own results, you have to be strong willed and optimistic in order to withstand the uncertainty and swings and you have a lot of freedom for creative thinking and problem solving.”

Because he chooses to avoid labels and won’t allow poker to define him as a person, Hall struggles with classifying himself as either a professional poker player or a student who has a profitable hobby on the side.

“I don’t really feel the need to define myself as entirely A or entirely B. I enjoy poker, I play it well and I put in volume when I can. Like a lot of players, I also have other goals in my life that are more important than poker and I have a lot of other things that occupy my time. I feel like there is this distinction that casual viewers make where ‘pros are good and people who aren’t are bad.’ That assumption is pretty far from the truth on both ends.”

Though he wants to play a few more live tournaments before school starts up in the fall, Hall is uninterested in the life of a professional poker player. “To me, poker is the purest competitive game ever created, and compared to other games, it’s really in its early stages of understanding. There is still so much to be learned and discovered. I imagine I will play poker and be involved in the scene for a long time to come, but I can pretty confidently say that poker will not be my primary focus after I graduate.”

Whatever he decides, Hall has already proven to be a winner both on and off the felt. In a world where so many have decided to forego an education in favor of a fast-moving, big-spending, high-profile lifestyle, it’s refreshing to see a player who realizes you can always have both.