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Brian Hastings: High School Teacher Played Key Role In Launching My High-Stakes Poker Career

Poker Pro Talks About His Goals And How Black Friday Affected Him

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Brian Hastings is a high-profile name in the poker world, famous for his nosebleed battles and sound poker play. His solid game and insight have landed him among poker’s elite players. Most have not played high enough stakes to play against Hastings, but many have certainly learned a thing or two from his videos on CardRunners.

Inspired by his high school math teacher, a young Brian Hastings would finish high school with a few hundred thousand dollars in his online bankroll, and go on to run a professional cash game clinic. And, as Hastings recently announced, he will soon be teaching one, literally.

Last week, Card Player asked Hastings about his famous five hour, $4 million battle with action junkie, Viktor Blom, his past and future with CardRunners, and his strong feelings toward our government banning the game he makes a living from.

Logan Hronis: First, talk a little about your childhood (where you grew up, what activities you were involved in when you were younger, etc.). Who influenced you to get into poker, and how soon did you start playing?

Brian Hastings: I was born in State College, PA, lived there for a year, moved to Selinsgrove for a few years, then moved to Hanover Township (suburb of Wilkes-Barre) when I was four. My parents live there today. I was a huge sports fan growing up, and I played basketball, soccer, and baseball as a kid. I tried out for football for a year in middle school also (I was terrible), and I picked up golf around then and ended up playing four years on the high school varsity team. I also played video games growing up. I liked playing all kinds of games and loved to compete.

I got into poker playing home games with friends after the 2003 World Series coverage on ESPN. It was really casual — usually $5 buy-in tournaments. I enjoyed it, but never took it too seriously. Then, my junior year of high school, I had a teacher who told me he made some very significant side-money playing online poker. I was a top student, and always finished my work early. I started picking his brain some, created an account on Ultimate Bet and started with play money. Within a few weeks, I got a transfer from a friend and started playing for real money.

LH: Once you got to know poker a little (before your widespread success), what was it that kept you interested and focused to keep progressing and taking your game to the next level?

BH: I was always pretty competitive and loved to play games. I treated poker much like a video game. Each stake was a new level, and I wanted to beat the end bosses at $50-$100 no-limit. I loved the learning process and trying to develop the skills it took to conquer each new level.

LH: Tell us about your early days in poker, before people knew who you were. Did you experience many obstacles taking your bankroll from where it was in the very beginning, to people realizing you were a serious opponent?

BH: When I first started playing, the games online were incredibly soft. As to why believed I could be successful, I remember my first ‘aha’ moment being, ‘Wow, I don’t really know what I’m doing yet, but everyone else is so bad!’ It took me about four or five months to start winning. I broke even before. Then I started ascending stakes rapidly. About a year after I started playing, I was beating the $25-$50 tables.

LH: Many poker players make the decision to drop everything to turn pro as soon as they experience success on a large scale. Your route seemed to be a bit more conservative, and somewhat unorthodox, in the poker world. Talk a little about your mentality, and what allowed you to handle success at such a young age.

BH: I come from a middle class family where very few people gamble and everyone has college degrees (often grad degrees) and ‘real’ jobs. My mom is an engineer and my dad is a college professor. I grew up always expecting to follow this same kind of track, although I wasn’t sure in what field. My poker success totally shocked me and everyone around me. I also just had a hard time picturing dropping everything else and getting my own place at 18, and just playing online. It seemed like a strange and isolating social experience to me. I had wanted to go to college all my life, and I talked to people I respected who were a few years older than me. They all said I’d be making a big mistake dropping out. I’m very happy that I stuck it out and graduated college; it was an incredible and irreplaceable experience.

LH: Can you cite a specific point where you had a sense that you ‘made it’ and could play for a living if you wanted? If so, describe the emotion and mentality in a realization such as that, given the amount of time and effort spent.

BH: I don’t know if there was a specific moment or anything, but I graduated high school with $300,000 in my Ultimate Bet account and a very high winning rate in every game I played. I was pretty sure I could be a full-time pro if I wanted to.

LH: Obviously, CardRunners has been a successful enterprise, and you had been involved since the early stages. Talk about how you got involved with those guys, and how it has affected you personally, throughout your career.

BH: I first got in touch with the CardRunners team through Josh Suspak (jsup), one of the original CardRunners pros. I joined as a member immediately after the site launched, basically watched every video, and posted on the forums a bunch. Then Josh made a video of a final table of a $100 multi-table tournament on Ultimate Bet. I was at the table, had a big chip lead, terrorized the table and went on to win. Josh saw that I was a CardRunners member and contacted me and we started chatting. He introduced me to Taylor (Caby) and Andrew (Wiggins), they asked me if I wanted to make videos, and I said yes.

Taylor and Andrew have been some of my best friends for many years now, and have served as great role models for me. Particularly while I was in college and trying to figure out how to balance school, poker, and everything else. They also invited me out to stay with them in Vegas when I was 18, and helped introduce me to the poker world. I can’t speak highly enough about them and I’m glad we are still close friends and business partners — both with CardRunners and DraftDay.com, a daily fantasy sports website that I’m very proud of.

LH: People always say that teaching is the most effective way to learn and internalize something. Given your experience at CardRunners, do you feel that organizing thoughts for a session in an audio format has actually helped you as a poker player?

BH: I do feel like making videos has helped my poker game. It encourages me to review my play and be analytical. When making videos, it is impossible to just autopilot, whereas just playing poker it is easy for one to do so. Making videos helps to reinforce good habits.

LH: Years later, people still buzz about your historic battle against Viktor ‘Isildur1’ Blom. Other than the money you won resulting from the epic session, what lessons do you take away from such a famous and controversial situation?

BH: Well, I certainly learned a lot regarding paying attention to detail, both from missing the fine print in the FTP Terms and Conditions — sharing hand histories rule that I hadn’t heard of — and from poor word choice in my ESPN interview after the session. Aside from that, I learned that variance is a crazy thing and really started to realize just how big the games I was playing in were. I’m much more of a bankroll nit now.

LH: Tell us about your thoughts regarding Black Friday. How was your life affected by the illegality of online poker, and will it be improved if it becomes legal again?

BH: Like most of my fellow American poker pros, I am outraged by the whole situation. Our country was founded based on principles of life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. Restricting the citizens’ freedom to choose whether to play poker online is a horrible failing of those principles. And that’s before getting into the hypocrisy of state lotteries and the like. As for my personal life, it led to a lot of different temporary homes, stress, depression, and a whole lot of confusion regarding what I want to do with my life. Some of this may have happened anyway, but Black Friday certainly had a major impact. I’m in a good place right now — living in Fort Lauderdale, Florida, playing live poker here and traveling to play some, a little bit of online, and just getting into coaching (see Hastings’ CardRunners blog for details) but I would certainly love to be able to play online poker in my native country which calls itself the ‘Land of the Free’.

LH: You’ve experienced an exciting and illustrious career so far. Is there anything specific you will look forward to in 2013 and beyond, or do you pretty much feel like, ‘been there, done that?’

BH: I was picked as a WPT ‘One to Watch’ this season, so it’d be nice to actually make a run in a tournament and live up to the honor (laughs). In general, it’s pretty hard for me to goal-set in poker, since a lot of the monetary goals that were achievable a few years ago, are near impossible now. Winning more WSOP bracelets would be cool, though. Also, I’m excited to delve into coaching and I think watching my students grow and have their own successes could potentially be even more satisfying than experiencing my own.

LH: Tell us about yourself away from the game of poker. Do you picture yourself playing poker for the rest of your life, or can you envision other endeavors taking over, to a certain extent?

BH: I’ve always thought that I would move away from poker as my primary career at some point. This past fall, I rented an apartment in Chicago planning on getting more involved with DraftDay and spending lots of time in the office. As it happened, it just didn’t feel right for me. At the moment, I still very much enjoy playing poker, and I have the ability to continue to be great at it. For the foreseeable future, I see myself as a player and coach. One thing I’ve learned is to listen to one’s feelings and live in the present, rather than worrying about planning one’s future out too precisely or worrying too much about what others think about one’s decisions.