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A Poker Life -- Steve O'Dwyer

O'Dwyer Takes Tournament Circuit By Storm

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Steve O'DwyerSteve O’Dwyer may seem like an unlikely candidate to take the tournament circuit by storm, but that’s exactly what he’s been doing this last year. The 30-year-old pro spent years grinding and refining his game, but it was only recently that he broke through and put all the pieces together.

O’Dwyer has more than doubled his lifetime tournament earnings in the last year, putting him at over $3 million. In 2011, he closed strong and finished the year in 11th place in the Card Player Player of the Year rankings. This year, he’s made seven final tables, once again putting him in contention.

Getting Hooked On Poker

O’Dwyer was born in Colorado Springs, Colorado on April 6th, 1982. He lived there with his parents for two years before his father, who was in the army, was transferred to Doylestown, Pennsylvania.

O’Dwyer’s family, which also includes a younger brother and sister, then moved around the world, following the head of the family from base to base. After stops in Germany and New York, they finally settled down back in Pennsylvania, where O’Dwyer’s father became a history teacher and his mother an elementary school librarian.

All of that travel, however, failed to give O’Dwyer much of a gregarious personality. “I was pretty introverted growing up,” he said. “I still am, actually. I like to joke around that I’m afraid of people, but the truth is that I’m just not that comfortable with unfamiliarity.”

Though his brother and sister would eventually decide to stay close to home, living and studying in Philadelphia, O’Dwyer ventured further, choosing to attend school at East Carolina University in Greenville, North Carolina to study broadcasting.

During his senior year, O’Dwyer happened to catch ESPN’s coverage of the 2003 World Series of Poker main event, won by an accountant from Tennessee named Chris Moneymaker.

“I knew what poker was, but I didn’t know that there was such a heavy skill element to it,” he said. “I certainly didn’t realize that people were playing it for high stakes and making good money from it. I just figured, I liked games and I was pretty good at them, so maybe I could do the same with poker.”

Beta Testing Online Poker

Steve O'DwyerO’Dwyer wandered into a Thursday night $5 home game on campus, but found himself hooked and wanting to play more often.

“In February of 2004, I saw a post on a message board online, advertising a new online poker site called Full Tilt Poker that needed beta testers,” O’Dwyer recalled. “Basically, every 1,000 play money hands got you entered into a $5,000 freeroll. I ended up cashing for $7.50 in one of them and lost that in the first orbit of real money play once the site went live.”

After more research, O’Dwyer discovered that he could take advantage of a number of deposit bonuses if he played long enough hours. During his last semester, he decided to explore other interests at another college while playing online poker at night.

“I spent a lot of my early days online grinding hard, trying to clear various deposit bonuses. I had a few decent scores and even took third in the big Sunday tournament on Bodog. I used that cash to finance my last semester of school and then made the decision to try my luck out in Las Vegas.”

The Struggle Begins

With just $14,000 in his bankroll, O’Dwyer packed up and moved to the desert, determined to get his poker career off the ground. He started off with a lot of low-stakes no-limit hold’em cash games and although he was winning, he was never quite able to break through for a significant payday.

“I struggled for years,” O’Dwyer admitted. “I was able to pay my bills, but I could never really get over the hump and string some solid scores together. Luckily for me, I had a lot of great poker friends who really believed in me. I had some really tough times here in Las Vegas, but they got me through it. I really appreciate the faith they had in me and my game.”

The friends in question were some of the top young players in the game and included Vivek Rajkumar, O’Dwyer’s first real backer. Rajkumar, a WPT champion, put O’Dwyer in games higher than he could afford to play on his own. That valuable experience paved the way for his future accomplishments on the tournament circuit, but unfortunately, O’Dwyer’s skills just weren’t translating into immediate success.

“In the summer of 2007, Isaac Haxton and Scott Seiver encouraged me to start playing heads-up cash games online. I started playing at $1-$2 and never really advanced beyond $5-$10, but that was more than enough to pay my bills for about two years. My game was really improving and I was more confident in my abilities.”

O’Dwyer didn’t really play many tournaments during that two-year stretch, because the action online was too good. He was winning, but also becoming completely engulfed by poker.

“I was sick of Las Vegas. I was learning a lot about poker, but I didn’t like the fact that I was surrounded by poker all of the time. I moved back to North Carolina for a little while to recharge. When I got there, I focused on the game without any external distractions and I spent months grinding hard online.”

Steve O'DwyerGetting Out Of Makeup

Haxton and Seiver took over staking duties for O’Dwyer, putting him into a number of $5,000 and $10,000 events. After 14 months of tournament play, he found himself in the biggest hole of his career, a peak of $404,000 in makeup. To make matters worse, Black Friday hit, leaving him completely broke and with no way to make money on the side in online cash games.

“The summer after Black Friday, I came back to Las Vegas and spent the entire time sleeping on Scott Seiver’s floor. I had a horrible WSOP at the Rio and although I wasn’t exactly on the streets, things got so bad that I was borrowing money just to eat.”

Despite the setbacks, Seiver and Haxton never wavered in their support for O’Dwyer and his potential on the felt.

“Ike and Scott are two of the most logical people around,” he said. “They get how it can be in this business, but they believed that I would turn it around, that things would finally start going my way. They told me that I would be playing very high stakes and that downswings can and will happen, but that I could and would play my way out of it.”

O’Dwyer started to turn it around right after the series by taking down the $5,000 Bellagio Cup main event for $259,452. He had no cash to show for his efforts and was still deep in makeup, but he had cut it down by more than half.

In August, he continued to make progress by winning a $1,500 Pro-Am during the first Epic Poker League series for $43,810. He then went to EPT Barcelona and took fifth in the high roller event for $67,568. He was getting close to getting unstuck. It was just a matter of time. That time came in October, when he finished runner-up in the EPT London main event for the biggest score of his career, $717,728.

“The London finish got me completely out of makeup and even put a little money in my pocket. It felt great to not only win for myself, but for my backers as well,” he said. “They believed in me when it couldn’t get any worse and after that, I was able to repay them with some major scores of my own.”

Keeping It Going

O’Dwyer wasn’t done in London, however. He final tabled a World Series of Poker Europe prelim for an additional $48,568 and after a few other scores, won another side event at EPT Loutraki for $25,439. In December, he finished second at the WPT Venice main event, banking another $125,740.

In the new year, he final tabled the EPT Copenhagen main event for $51,265 and then won the WPT National Series main event in Denmark for $159,227. That would be enough for a profitable year for most pros, but O’Dwyer kept on plugging away, finishing second in an EPT Campione side event for $98,159 and third in the WPT Vienna high roller for another $56,986. Most recently, he finished fifth in the WPT Championship at Bellagio for his fifth six-figure score in 10 months, taking home $192,176.

O’Dwyer was finally being rewarded for his years of hard work, but he didn’t attribute his recent success to any particular change in his game. Instead, he humbly admitted that it was a combination of confidence and run good.

“I haven’t really made any major changes in my game in the last few years. Of course, I’m always looking to improve, but this run isn’t because of a new strategy or a fancy new play I learned. It’s just a matter of my confidence being high and variance being on my side.”

Moving Forward

Though he loves poker, O’Dwyer doesn’t necessarily enjoy living the typical poker lifestyle. Others with tournament success and big paydays often overspend on lavish luxuries, quickly finding themselves back at the low-stakes tables.

“I don’t play poker for money. I just don’t really give a shit about it. I’m not a flashy big spender and I’m very comfortable with my lifestyle. The money was nice because it cleared my makeup and got me off of people’s couches, but it’s not why I play the game. I play because I like the challenge. What really gets me going isn’t necessarily the outcome, but making the correct decisions day in and day out, becoming the best player I can be.”

Steve O'DwyerIt’s that type of attitude that allowed O’Dwyer to turn it around from a prolonged dry spell, one that would have buried a lesser player. But through it all, O’Dwyer never lost sight of his goals.

“I think I handle adversity better than most people,” he said. “For me, it was never a question of if it was going to happen, but when it was going to happen. I knew that if I stuck with it, there was a lot of money to be made. I didn’t want to be one of the casualties of Black Friday, a decent winning player who was forced out of the game for mistakes made by other people.”

Still, O’Dwyer’s resurgence can be linked back to just a handful of players in the poker community who never let him give up and always offered encouragement.

“I’m really fortunate to have met and bonded with some of these great poker minds, who I now call my friends,” he said. “I wouldn’t be where I am today without them. In fact, I may not have even survived that first summer in Las Vegas. They had no reason to believe in me, but I’m happy that I was able to prove them right.” ♠