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A Poker Life: Darren Elias

Elias Scores Back To Back WPT Victories

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The most dangerous opponent at the table is the one you underestimate. With a calm, stoic demeanor, it would be easy to underestimate poker pro Darren Elias. The 27-year-old phenom is almost robotic at the poker table, taking great care with each decision he makes until he inevitably winds up with all of the chips.

Elias cut his teeth playing online poker in college, quickly rising through the ranks and eventually taking his game to the live arena, where he has amassed more than $2.7 million in career tournament earnings. In addition to his time spent in nosebleed cash games, he has also banked more than $3.4 million in online winnings.

All things considered, Elias is probably the best player you’ve never heard of.

Poker Beginnings

Elias was born in Boston, Massachusetts, but moved around often because his father, Bill, was a college football coach for schools such as Eastern Michigan University, Vanderbilt University, and Louisiana State University, before settling down for a while at Gannon University in Erie, Pennsylvania.

“It was fun to go out there and tailgate with the family on game day,” he said. “My dad did everything from being the head coach to the recruiting coordinator, so it was definitely a football household.”

Elias wasn’t quite big enough to star on the football field, so instead, he focused on swimming and water polo in high school, eventually earning a scholarship to the University of Redlands in California.

“Most big time college water polo programs are in California, so that was why I decided to go to school on the West Coast. I studied math and physics, but poker took over pretty quickly.”

Although he always played family cards games like spades or hearts around the kitchen table, the Moneymaker boom brought hold’em into the mix. Soon, Elias was playing for small-stakes with his high school buddies and, later, in his college dorm.

“I didn’t really take it seriously until I started playing online,” he recalled. “I didn’t have much of a bankroll, but then I won the $11 rebuy on PokerStars for about $15,000. After that, everything just snowballed. I put in a lot of volume and started playing for bigger stakes. I wasn’t old enough to play in Las Vegas yet, so I would win satellites online to travel to Europe or Australia and play in some of the bigger buy-in tournaments over there.”

Elias was a bona fide professional poker player, while at the same time working towards his undergraduate degree.

Darren Elias“I would be studying quantum physics, but at the same time taking a trip to play at European Poker Tour Monte Carlo, and I couldn’t keep up,” he admitted. “So I changed my major to creative writing, which was obviously easier and allowed me to work on my own schedule around poker. It was interesting to see how my teachers would react when I told them I’d have to miss a class for a poker tournament. Some of them thought it was really cool, but others were convinced that I was going to lose all my money. You never know what people are going to think when you tell them you play poker for a living.”

Growing Pains

Elias graduated in 2008 with his degree in creative writing, which just gave him more time to hit the tournament circuit. That decision didn’t sit well with his parents, who didn’t support his poker career at first.

“My family was very against me playing poker for a living. My dad is kind of straight edge guy and he didn’t really know much about poker. He thought I was wasting my time and money and couldn’t really differentiate between poker and other forms of gambling. I really had to earn it with him. I had to put up some results before he took me seriously.”

Elias was putting up solid numbers online, but had some growing pains when it came to his live game.

“I had played some small-stakes cash games before, but I struggled with the initial transition to big buy-in live tournaments,” he admitted. “I was young and intimidated by all of these guys I had seen on television. I remember when I turned 21, I played in a $10,000 event at the Wynn Classic at the same table with Mike Matusow. I was scared money and got lucky to min-cash, but I’ll always remember that experience.”

He also had to come to the realization that he didn’t have to play every single tournament on the circuit.

“It took me a while to learn proper bankroll management,” he said. “In college, I didn’t have any backers and almost never sold any pieces, keeping all of my own action. That sounds crazy today, but I didn’t know any better at the time. It got to the point where, even if I didn’t win a package online, I was still traveling and putting up the buy-ins and travel expenses just to play.”

Putting Up Results

Elias picked up his first six-figure score in February of 2009 when he won his first Full Tilt Online Poker Series (FTOPS) event for $126,544. He continued to win online and, in 2010, took second place in the Venetian Deep Stack Extravaganza main event, banking $195,335. Later that year, he took sixth in the World Championship of Online Poker (WCOOP) main event for $396,987 and then final tabled the PokerStars Sunday Million for another $114,570.

In 2011, he stepped up his live tournament game by taking second in the $25,000 buy-in high roller event at Commerce Casino for $153,975 and third in the $10,000 buy-in six-max event at the PokerStars Caribbean Adventure for $98,940.

In September, Elias finished fifth in the WPT Borgata Poker Open main event for $230,610. The next summer, he made his second WPT final table with a third-place showing in Jacksonville for $147,850.

Black Friday made playing online more difficult for Elias, but he continued to make the trip abroad to get his hands in. In 2012, he won the $10,000 buy-in WCOOP high roller event for a whopping $574,695 payday. That stood as the biggest score of his career until September of 2014, when he returned to the Borgata Poker Open and took it down for $843,744.

Staying Calm Under Pressure

At one point during his most recent run at the Borgata, Elias found himself all in for a massive pot with pocket kings against Jean Gaspard and his pocket aces. Elias managed to hit his two-outer, but never flinched, despite the dramatic reversal in fortune.

“I’m pretty even-keeled, no matter what. My wife always says that I could win or lose half a million dollars in the same day and still be on the same level. I think that’s how you have to be in order to play poker for a living. I don’t ever want my emotions to affect how I’m playing, so whether I take a really bad beat or I dish one out, I’m not affected.”

That’s not to say that he’s always been so level-headed at the tables.

“When I first started playing, I was a mess,” he said. “I would fist pump if I won a big pot or yell at the screen if I lost. I got it out of my system. Nowadays, if I take a bad beat and I’m playing online by myself, you might get me to shake my head, but that’s it. I know guys who smash their laptops, but not me.”

The grace under fire mentality serves Elias especially well now that he spends a lot of his poker time playing high-stakes cash games. He put in many days of work this summer at the $200-$400 no-limit deuce-to-seven games at Bellagio and Aria, competing with some of the best in the world.

“I’ve worked my way up over the years, playing a lot of live cash games. When I was coming up, I played $5-$10, $10-$20 and, nowadays, I’ll play $10-$25 up to $50-$100 no-limit. But in deuce-to-seven, there’s really no other option but Billy Baxter’s big game.”

Moving Forward

Elias has more than $6 million in combined live and online tournament winnings, along with untold sums won in cash games, but he says having more money doesn’t really affect him.

“The money makes me more comfortable, but it doesn’t change a whole lot. I might have more of myself in some of the bigger $25,000 tournaments that I play in, but I’m not a different person.”

Now married to his wife, Judi, for more than a year, Elias is happy with where he is at this point in his life.

“It takes the right kind of woman to make a marriage to a poker player work. I give my wife a lot of credit for being able to handle the lifestyle that I’ve chosen. I’m on the road a lot and sometimes gone for months at a time, but she gets it.”

When asked how long he intends to play poker for a living, Elias wasn’t comfortable with looking too far into the future. He wants to play for at least the next few years and perhaps finish a novel he’s been working on, a Stu Ungar-esque story about a card player. ♠