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Women At The World Series: Sarah Tolagson

Poker Pro Talks About Using Fake ID Years Ago To Learn Game

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For Sarah Tolagson, poker is a full-time occupation. The 27-year-old, self-described “grinder” was deep in the $3,000 no-limit hold’em event on Thursday, June 19.

The Monterey, CA, native has been playing poker for nearly a decade—from live games in seedy card rooms with a fake ID at age 18 to online tournaments for the last several years, she’s gained remarkable experience with the game.

While online tournaments are her preference, Tolagson has been coming to the WSOP since 2011. Last year, she came in 15th in the $1,000 no-limit hold’em turbo event, winning a total of $12,373.

Women have been doing well at the WSOP in recent years. Since 2012, women have made more than two dozen final tables. Tolagson was hoping to be the next one to do so.

Card Player had the opportunity to speak with Tolagson during a break in play to discuss her experiences in playing from a young age, her affinity for online tournaments and how her technique changes when playing live.

Elaina Sauber: How’s your Series going so far?

Sarah Tolagson: You know, I’ve only had one cash so far, so it hasn’t been too great, but I’m playing good, [and] I’m looking forward to some deep runs in the second half.

ES: Are you playing any other events this summer?

ST: Yeah, this is the biggest tournament I’m playing, besides the main event. I’m mostly playing just the 1,500s and the 1Ks. I’m really excited—I cashed in the $2,500, which was the biggest event I’ve played up until now. But I’m just excited to play deep—I haven’t gotten to play these 1K, 2K levels, and that’s really where all the fun is in these tournaments.

ES: When did you first learn how to play poker?

ST: I started playing when I was like 16 [or] 17. When I was 18, I started playing live, [and got] a fake ID, so I’ve been playing a long time. Nobody taught me how to play—I taught myself. But I definitely had a lot of really good mentors along the way,

ES: So you had a fake ID to get into casinos and play live games when you were 18—and it worked?

ST: Actually, it’s really funny—my ID said my name was Allah Hakim Suwaf. It said I was five-foot-three, and I had brown eyes and brown hair. They only checked it once—it was like this hole-in–the-wall card room, so every time I came in after that, I think they were just happy to see a young, pretty girl in the card room, that they were just like, ‘Come on in!’

ES: Did your family know you were playing in casinos with a fake ID?

ST: They did—I mean, I think it took them a little bit to figure it out. They’re both musicians, so actually, when I started playing poker, they were just happy I wasn’t a musician. They were like, ‘Thank God, you’re not going to be struggling your whole life.’

ES: So were you cashing back then in your teens?

ST: No. Back then, I was really bad, actually. I’d just work two jobs and then go sit at the table for like, 24 hours. [I was] kind of a degen (laughs).

ES: What’s your preference between cash games and tournaments?

ST: I prefer tournaments, but generally, I’m an online player. I really only come out for a few live series a year, the World Series being one of them, and some of the local L.A. tournaments.

ES: Do you sort of just steer clear of cash games in general?

ST: I like cash games, but it’s really hard for me to play them after I bust a tournament. Maybe I’m too splashy, too gambly. I feel like I’m not going to be on my A-game after I bust a tournament. But I definitely want to play more cash—that’s something that, every single year I tell myself, ‘At least before the main event, go play some deep-stack cash games and get some really deep-stack experience.’ So I’m going to.

ES: Have you made any big changes to your technique over the years as you’ve played more online tournaments?

ST: Yeah, definitely. There’s fundamentals—those are obviously what really propelled me to being an online player, just learning all the fundamentals, trusting your gut, and really trusting your reads. And if you have a read, go with it—don’t second-guess yourself. If you bust because of a read, you know, that’s not the worst way to bust.

ES: Are you playing full-time at this point?

ST: [I’m playing] full-time poker. I have other hobbies—I like music and videogames and stuff, but I’m just a grinder. I actually moved to Vegas when I was 18—I lived here for five years, and then I moved back after Black Friday to L.A, because there are a lot of great games there. It was right around then that I really started playing professionally. Now, Vegas has got online poker back—maybe I might move back here soon.

ES: What are the fundamental differences for you when playing an online tournament versus a live tournament?

ST: I prefer online tournaments, just because I can get a little ADD and I like to have a lot of tables up. I like to be in my pajamas, too (laughs). But it’s really different, especially in these big buy-in, WSOP tournaments, because there are still going to be your aggressive players, but then there’s other players that are so scared to lose their chips, and you really have to distinguish the difference. Online…it’s a lot more math, I think. It’s estimating what a person’s range is and going off of that, but I feel like [playing] live, you can really put someone on the dead, exact hand. You can know exactly what they have—there’s more of a perfect play than there is online.

ES: Have you ever come across any obstacles as a female poker player?

ST: [I feel like] it’s a double-edged sword. I get a lot of credit at the table because I’m a girl, so I think that helps [my image] a lot. But sometimes, people don’t want to talk to you about poker or whatever [because] you’re a girl. But I think it kind of plays to my advantage in the long run because they just underestimate me all the time.

ES: Do you ever feel sort of a sense of solidarity with the other female poker players going through your same struggle?

ST: Yeah, luckily the female poker players have been really nice, and there’s kind of a good group of us who support each other and we can talk hands, so if the guys don’t want to hear it, I have plenty of good girlfriends who I totally respect and think they’re amazing players. We don’t really need the guys (laughs).

ES: Do you always wear sunglasses and earbuds in live tournaments?

ST: Yeah, I always play with glasses. I like to look at people, you know? And I don’t want them to know when I’m looking at them. I like to have some low music in the background playing, just to kind of keep me in an even pace, keep my mindset the same.

ES: What’s your favorite thing to listen to?

ST: I like to listen to rap music (laughs).

ES: What’s the best poker advice you’ve ever been given?

ST: Variance doesn’t exist. I mean, it exists, but if you’re complaining that you’re running bad, you’re probably playing bad—at least for the tournaments that I play online. Live is very much different, you can play live for months and just break every tournament, but online, I feel like you should be winning every month.

ES: What advice would you give another female player trying to go deep in poker?

ST: Find someone who you can be really honest about your game with. My boyfriend has helped me a lot. Sometimes it’s hard, especially if you play a hand badly, to be like, ‘Alright, I played this hand terribly, here’s how terrible I am’…And after that one person, you know, you can find three other people; run every single hand by all four. Just talk as much poker as you can.