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High-Stakes Poker Pro Dan Smith: "The Bigger The Money, The More Prestige"

American Pro With Nearly $37 Million In Lifetime Earnings Talks Online High Rollers, The Poker Ecosystem And Poker Post-COVID-19

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The COVID-19 pandemic put live poker on pause in mid-March. While live, short-handed cash games are slowly starting return across the country, tournaments don’t have a return date in sight.

The numerous problems that surround hosting a live tournament with the looming threat of a potentially deadly virus have forced even the game’s biggest events to be moved online. The World Series of Poker announced an 85-event schedule split between a 54-event international schedule and a 31-event schedule for Americans that can play online in New Jersey and Nevada.

Even the game’s highest stakes have been moved online as the Super High Roller Bowl hosted a series that wrapped up earlier this month. American pro Dan Smith has been succeeding at poker’s highest level for more than a decade and cashed for more than $1 million over the course of the 28-event series. Smith, who has just shy of $37 million in live tournament earnings, finished third on the series leaderboard with his nine cashes and 780 points.

The New Jersey-native has online success dating back to the pre-Black Friday days of online poker and is well-versed with playing on the virtual felt. But not every American regular playing these stakes live has that kind of track record. In Smith’s view, the two variants don’t have comparable skill sets.

“I agree with the premise that online poker and live poker are very different games,” said Smith. “I view online poker as an acuity test where, for the most part, it’s about trying to play the best strategy that you can and just see how it holds up. I think live poker gives you a lot more wiggle room and the opportunity to be creative.”

The abundance of work with solvers has lessened the edge for many players online, but that wiggle room is where the 31-year-old believes that the best players can gain an edge in the live arena.

“If you ever look at a solver output, it doesn’t take very much change [in the inputs] at all for a hand to go from a pure check to a pure bet,” said Smith. “Sometimes it might even be literally one combo about whether your opponent calls the flop with 5-5 on A-7-3 about whether or not to choose to bluff the river with 4-5.

“I would think in almost all situations, my intuition is worth more than narrowing a range down by one combo. Despite the fact that everyone is getting good, the live element of a face-to-face poker tournament is very much a real thing and sometimes there are just going to be some people who have a knack for guessing right when the money is very big.”

But with the tournaments being played on a computer and not in a casino, the online players must have the edge while the pandemic is weighing down the live poker world.

They might. But Smith thinks that over a few months of online tournaments, there won’t be enough data to deduce who the best player is.

“I don’t think the results of the online games will be that relevant,” he said. “Just because of the sample. If you play a few $10K’s, a few $25K’s. Let’s say over a few months, you play 50 of each. That sample size is going to be really small. If you looked at a variance calculator, the odds of ending up down would be very high. And then you consider the fact that some of these tournaments are very small fields without a very big edge for the best player. The best player could be winning sub-10 percent in some of the games that are going to be running online. The swings are going to be outrageous.”

For the poker world, however, online games allow American poker fans to get a glimpse of some of the best from around the globe. Russia’s Artur Martirosian won just shy of $1.8 million and ran away with the overall leaderboard for the Super High Roller Bowl online series and heralded Swiss pro Linus Loeliger finished fifth.

“[Loeliger] has been playing the biggest games on PokerStars for a few years and he’s transitioned to super high rollers live,” said Smith. “Artur is a great player. Very aggressive. He’s been putting in huge volume and his results have been great.”

Before 2011, the online poker community was vibrant, competitive, and bragging rights were up for grabs with every big series on either of the major sites. Now, not so much. One silver lining to the pandemic could be the return of prestige to some of the bigger online series.

“I think I’m the wrong person to ask about it,” said Smith. “I think I view poker a little bit less romantically than most. In the sense of prestige, winning some tournaments are cool, for sure. But generally, my opinion is that the bigger the money, the more prestige.”

Ultimately, there will always be players willing to gamble for the highest stakes. That was never a real concern about those games dying. The bigger threat is at smaller stakes where many low- and mid-stakes pros who are forced to play online after making a living playing in the brick-and-mortar realm.

In Smith’s limited view of the American online landscape, those players shouldn’t have too much trouble adjusting. After a friend of Smith’s wanted to learn how to play, he began hearing hand histories from $5 tournaments.

“I can honestly say that I was shocked at how bad the play was. I was under the impression that even smaller games had gotten pretty pro filled, but there were many players that were calling all in with like 10-3 offsuit and stuff.”

That being said, he believes that those same players aren’t going to be able to find similar success online at the same stakes they were playing in a casino.

“If you play in a live game that typically plays deep and is really juicy, maybe that skill set won’t carry over,” said Smith. “Let’s say you play $10-$20 at the local casino and it’s a good spot. You might not have a place you could win [at that level online.”

For those pros that are transitioning, having a big enough bankroll to where they aren’t sweating the day-to-day, week-to-week, or even month-to-month swings is going to be key to surviving.

“For a few years, my impression of poker has been that it’s a pretty good spot if you don’t need it for the bills and you’re comfortable,” said the World Poker Tour champion. “If you need low variance money where you are very likely to win, I don’t think those spots exist. But on the other hand, I think the EV [expected value] is quite high. And at higher stakes, that means the best players are making more money.”

Smith doesn’t need to transition. He has beaten the highest stakes both live and online. His win-rate isn’t in jeopardy. For him, it’s a matter of playing whichever variant he enjoys more. It’s not surprising that he enjoys them both.

“Online you get to multi-table. A typical day of live poker means I get to play one tournament,” he said. “A typical day online, I get to play 15. And that does help to smooth out your variance even though the edge might be smaller. And of course, there are benefits to not having to travel the world.”

Sometimes, however, traveling the world is a perk of playing the high roller schedule.

“On the other hand, the tournaments are generally at lovely places and there is something cool about going to Jeju with 40 people you know and competing. You could be playing and competing with someone all day and then just go out for a nice dinner,” said Smith.

At the end of the day, nothing gets Smiths’ juices flowing like a high-stakes live tournament.

“I find the most fun in playing a very big live tournament,” said Smith. “I enjoy the live aspect. I think there is something romantic about having to look at somebody after you make a decision for huge money and then they decide or you decide. I think it’s really cool. I find that I get into more of a flow state [live], as opposed to online where I’m constantly thinking. And live I can sometimes loosen up a bit and just play, though I would say that the tougher the table, the less true that is.”

Despite it being his preferred tournament setting, Smith’s outlook for live tournament poker is grim at best. If the stars align, a vaccine is developed, and the world goes back to normal, then Smith thinks there could be a some huge fields when live tournaments return.

“I don’t know what poker is going to look like in the future,” he said. “I think this pandemic could go on for a while and I think people will be hesitant to open up. But on the other hand, let’s just say that in a year and a half, the world is back to normal. If it’s the first stop in a very long time, I think people will be itching to play.”