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A Poker Life -- Matt Hawrilenko

The Nicest Cutthroat Player in the Game


Matt HawrilenkoIn high-stakes cash games, the best players are constantly pushing the tiniest of edges and wagering hundreds of thousands of dollars in the hopes that, with the cooperation of the cards and the effective use of a learned skill set, they will proverbially “crush their opponent’s soul.”

Bringing a player to his knees is the goal. Frustrate, fool, out-think, and devastate them. Traditionally admired characteristics like sympathy, generosity, and compassion have no place at the poker table, as it can cost a player his bottom line. Instead, greed, ruthlessness, and the ability to deceive are traits that are absolutely necessary to reach the top. In a game that is so cutthroat, it’s hard to imagine a nicer, more down to earth and talented player than Matt Hawrilenko.

He’s not the most recognizable poker player around, but he’s invariably one of the most respected. Hawrilenko rarely plays tournaments other than the World Series of Poker, but he has accumulated almost $1.9 million in winnings. Instead, he grinds cash games online under the screen name “Hoss_TBF,” and is widely considered the best limit hold’em player in the world.

Defying Odds

Hawrilenko was somewhat of an improbability from the start. His parents attempted for years to have a child until finally their doctor sadly admitted that the chances of a biological child were slim, and that they should look into adoption. Just as the Hawrilenkos gave up and began the adoption process, Matt was conceived. He grew up as an only child in Hanover, Massachusetts, a small town 20 miles south of Boston, where his parents still live.

Matt HawrilenkoIt quickly became evident that Hawrilenko was a bright kid. During the first week of first grade, Hawrilenko was given his year-long math workbook. He blew through the entire book in three days. Not only did school come easily, but sports did as well. He says that his competitive nature was fostered by his father. Throughout elementary and middle school, Hawrilenko played baseball, soccer, and basketball. Hawrilenko also studied Kung Fu, and earned a black belt by his sophomore year of high school.

When he was cut from the basketball team as a junior, he gave wrestling a shot. He was a natural. As a nimble, quick, and strategic wrestler, he placed second in his weight class of 215 pounds at the state championships in his senior year. Though he acquired impeccable grades and notches on his letterman jacket and black belt fairly effortlessly, social situations were a different story.

“I was so awkward,” says Hawrilenko with a bashful, honest laugh. “I was always trying to fit in, but never really did. I had a ton of acne, and I had a hard time talking to girls. I kind of came into my own my junior or senior year, but high school was pretty painful for me, to be honest.” Matt Hawrilenko

His grades and impressive SAT scores were high enough to gain acceptance into his first school of choice, Princeton University. Hawrilenko set off for college to study public policy, and also joined the wrestling team. His freshman year, while getting acquainted with the prestigious campus, a tall, slender gal running on the school track caught his eye, a girl who he’d later find again in his French class. Her name was Emily, and she was the top cross-country recruit in the country.

“Again, I was struggling through the awkward-with-girls thing, but one place I felt I really excelled was on AOL Instant Messenger. When I got her screen name, it was just a matter of time. Once again, the Internet is a more comfortable environment for both poker and talking to girls.”

With a flourishing relationship in the works, Hawrilenko excelled both in class and on the wrestling mat. He breezed through his time at Princeton and worked in the dining hall to help make up for some of the costs financial aid wouldn’t cover. That was until he was introduced to poker.

The Safer Choice

Matt HawrilenkoAt the end of his junior year in college, Hawrilenko and his friends started playing a small home poker game. It was a fun, laid-back game, until he spotted one of his friends with a poker book. Not wanting to compete disadvantaged, Hawrilenko began reading poker books, as well, giving him a new respect for the game.

The summer before his senior year, Hawrilenko took an internship in Washington, D.C., with a friend. Having procrastinated until just hours before the two headed to the nation’s capital, they had to call around last minute to find a place to live. They locked up the first cheap place they found, but unfortunately, it was in a bad area.

“In one week, there were five shootings. We were afraid to go out after dark, so we stayed in the house and played online. I deposited $100, rolled it up, and haven’t looked back since.”

Despite doing quite well playing cash games online during his senior year, Hawrilenko wasn’t ready to forgo a traditional career for poker, so he accepted a job at Susquehanna International Group, an options-trading firm. While finishing up his last year, Hawrilenko continued to play poker and won a seat into the World Series of Poker main event.

“It got back to the company that I was going to play in the main event, and at Susquehanna, poker is actually really big. They teach you to play poker to train you how to trade well, because there is a lot of overlap. I ended up getting a call from the COO, who said that Jeff Yass, one of the founding partners, was taking his plane to Vegas and he wanted to know if I wanted to tag along.”

As a college senior, Hawrilenko boarded a private jet to play in the biggest tournament in the world. Previous to that, the biggest buy-in tournament he’d ever competed in was $200. Joining him on the plane were two other coworkers, Bill Chen and Jerrod Ankenman. Hawrilenko’s first go at the WSOP was a fun experience, but a fiscally unsuccessful one. He went home empty-handed, but with a yearn to grow as a player. Matt Hawrilenko

Hawrilenko says that Chen and Ankenman helped him learn how to think about the game, and attributes much of his success to the two players. The next year, Hawrilenko was much more prepared for the WSOP. He cashed four times and placed fourth in the $3,000 limit hold’em event for $67,000.

During his time as Susquehanna, Hawrilenko rocketed up the stakes. He moved from $5-$10 to $500-$1,000 as his regular game in a little over a year, playing mostly heads-up limit hold’em. After two years at Susquehanna, it was clear that he wanted to leave in order to play poker professionally. He says that if it had been any other company, he would have left much earlier.

Life As A Poker Pro

Hawrilenko quickly adjusted to the unconventional life of a professional poker player. He continued traveling to Las Vegas every summer for the WSOP, and playing cash games online. Part of what separates the talented from the upper crust of elite players is how well they deal with the lows that are an inevitable part of the game. When Hawrilenko hit his biggest downswing, it was a clear testament as to why he so highly regarded by his peers.

“The worst downswing I’ve ever had was about $1 million, which was a little under half of my bankroll. It really sucked, but I reevaluated, made some changes, played a little smaller, took edgier spots, and went from there. That’s the way it is. You have to expect downswings, and when they come, you have to be able to look at them in context.”

Matt HawrilenkoHis success in cash games online was so great that he began gaining attention from railbirds, especially when he had epic heads-up matches playing limit hold’em against Phil Hellmuth. His name and online moniker spread like wildfire throughout the forums, and players began lining up to watch Hawrilenko decimate opponents online.

It wasn’t until this past summer’s WSOP that he really had a breakout in tournaments. He began the series by cashing in the $10,000 world championship mixed event and placing eighth in the $3,000 H.O.R.S.E. event. He then finished fifth in the $10,000 world championship limit hold’em event for more than $100,000 and followed it with a small cash in the $2,500 seven-card razz event. Hawrilenko finished the summer by winning his first WSOP bracelet in the $5,000 no-limit hold’em six-handed event. He defeated 927 players to win the more than $1 million top prize.

“I always make fun of the people who say the bracelet is more important, so I can’t say that, but it was certainly nice to get some of that recognition. I can say intellectually that’s kind of silly, because I was the same player the day before I won as I was the day after. It was still a pretty big relief to win one.”

Poker players can be known for being extravagant, especially when it comes to post-win celebrations, but Hawrilenko is far from the extravagant type. He took the party straight to Tropical Smoothie, where he and his friends, including Ankenman and Chen, hung out and reflected on his incredible accomplishment.

Perhaps still hungry for more WSOP glory, Hawrilenko made a rare poker trip to compete in the World Series of Poker Europe main event in London this fall. He made the final table and finished eight for $137,000.

When asked about his poker success, his modest answer is all about hard work.

“I think a lot about how I approach poker, and a lot of it comes from how I approach Kung Fu and martial arts. Basically, there’s no substitute for hard work. Reading online, a lot of people think I’m just a super-smart guy. I don’t think that’s really the case. At least, I don’t think that’s why I’ve succeeded in poker. I think I try to work harder than the next guy. If you want to be on top, that always has to be your attitude. You have to outwork everyone else. That’s it.”

Healthy Living

Not only does he advocate hard work in poker, but he also applies the principle to nearly every other aspect of his life. Staying healthy and balancing life with poker has always been a top priority. Hawrilenko says he plays an average of three hours, which comes in waves, typically whenever the highest limit or mixed games are running. He currently resides in Boston with his now wife, Matt Hawrilenko and his wife EmilyEmily. The two married last summer, and he says that she’s been an integral part of the process throughout his poker career.

“Really, I hang out with my wife/best friend all day, play some poker, work out, maybe read, and try to use my brain for something besides poker. It might sound boring, but it’s a pretty awesome life, to be honest.”

Hawrilenko may make his living capitalizing and exploiting others’ weaknesses at the poker table, but it’s his sincere and genuine character that make him one of a kind.



12 years ago

I'm a fan of Matt's (or more known as Hoss_tbf). Thanks for the story.