Young British poker star Sam Holden has enjoyed an incredible rise to fame after only turning professional a little over 12 months ago, with his qualification for the November Nine of the World Series of Poker (WSOP) main event of 2011 the undoubted highlight of his burgeoning pro career – so far.
The final gold bracelet event at this summer’s Las Vegas tournament will not be decided until three days in early November, but 22-year-old Sam Holden will most certainly have his eyes on the biggest prize in poker, as well as the $8,711,956 (approximately £5.3 million or €6 million) that goes with the crown.
Canterbury-born Sam might be the short stack among the nine players who will return to the Rio All-Suite Hotel & Casino on November 5 for the $10,000 No-Limit Hold’em Championship, but he pointed out that he’s not had much time to think about how well he’s done in making it just this far.
The online poker specialist spoke with BBC Radio 1’s Newsbeat show about his time in Vegas, saying that “it’s going to be very weird (as) up until this point I’ve managed to take it hand by hand and it’s all happened very quickly” – mainly because “you’re playing for 10 hours a day and the rest of the time you’re sleeping and eating”.
However, Sam – who started by “just playing a little bit online for free, just to learn the game” – now has “three months to think about it (the main event), so sitting down for the first time will be very interesting”.
He’s come a very long way in an incredibly short time, though, probably because he found poker “interesting” – and, “as I went to university, I played a lot more, started playing for real money, just small amounts, and started to build my way up”.
As anyone who saw him battle bravely when under considerable pressure in the Amazon Room of the Rio will testify, Sam has all the makings of a world star to challenge the likes of Phil Hellmuth and Phil Ivey.
But becoming a pro was something he more or less stumbled into as he played the game “through university and in the summer breaks…instead of (taking) a part-time job” he continued playing poker so that he “was sort of supporting” himself that way.
Ultimately, Sam “turned professional when I graduated last June” after studying for a degree in forensic science at the University of Kent “and decided to give it a go for at least a year just to see how it went…it’s gone pretty well so far”.
That might be the understatement of the year, mate. Even if he doesn’t win the main event, Sam’s life is going to be changed forever after the ESPN cameras record every move, twitch, expression, glimmer of hope, stumble, successful bluff – and failed attempt – as well as each pot won when the November Nine get together for what should be a thrilling climax to an unforgettable tournament.
Of course, even if Sam – who will be ensconced in Seat 6 at the final table – is the first out when the players regroup in Sin City in just over three months’ time, he’ll still return home to England with a cheque for $782,115 (about £477,000/€540,000) – although he won’t actually be able to bank the majority of that rather tidy no-so-little sum for himself.
Now living in Eastbourne in the south-east of England, Sam – for his first WSOP main event – attracted some backers to help him with the buy-in, so won’t even pick up 50% of his winnings, no matter the outcome.
Not that he’s particularly unhappy about that as he “wouldn’t have been able to play otherwise”, with his backers leaving him with “about 39% of myself”.
It’s something of a wonder that Sam even made it through Day 6 of the main event because he struggled to remain in contention as one of the short stacks – and had to display even greater persistence on Days 7 and 8 to make the final nine from a starting field of 6,865 competitors.
That he did was undeniably a cause for great celebration among his “several backers – 11 guys who have all got varying pieces of my action and they’ll all obviously be delighted, as well”.
However, Sam – who learned to play cards under the tutelage of his late grandmother Marylin – does have a life-changing plan in mind if he manages to outlast Eoghan O’Dea, chip leader Martin Staszko, Badih Bounahra, Phil Collins, Ben Lamb, Matt Giannetti, Pius Heinz and Anton Makievskyi.
The young Englishman says he will “definitely” buy a “flat in London” with his winnings – if he lifts the gold bracelet and takes the big bucks – as he and his girlfriend “have been hoping to move to London for a while, so I guess we could buy a pretty nice place with that kind of money”. Indeed, Sam, you most certainly could.
Whether Sam – as well as any of the other eight finalists, for that matter – wins the tournament will come down to skill and more than a little luck, but stamina and concentration are also vital ingredients in a poker champion’s arsenal as “we’ve played for, I think, over 80 hours now”.
That is an energy-sapping experience, without a doubt, as Sam pointed out when saying “it’s a very long tournament – probably the longest structure in the world”, although he would expect nothing less because “it’s the big, main event, so it’s taken a long time…but it’s a fantastic tournament”.
As mentioned several times above, Sam has displayed great patience and an ice-cool temperament throughout the main event, and recognises that his greatest attribute might be his ability to stay “calm – treating it like any other game of poker and just relying on the knowledge I’ve built up over the years”, while also attempting to “concentrate on the cards, the players and the chips”.
That self-assurance will most certainly be crucial if he is to take down the world’s biggest poker event. But what he is also certain of is that those elements to his game are “all you need to think about” and definitely not the massive cash prize that is well within his reach.
Finally, Sam dismissed the presumption by many that poker is predominantly a game of good fortune, although he did admit that “there’s an aspect of luck and skill in it”, while also pointing out that, “in the long run, it’s undoubtedly a very skilful game”.
With a player such as Hellmuth having collected a record 11 WSOP gold bracelets, as well as numerous in-the-money finishes at the world-famous series, it is obvious to Sam that “you can’t have sustained results without being very good at the game”.
He is, of course, absolutely correct in his belief, although he confessed that he believes he has been “very lucky…to get this deep” in the main event when “some very good players haven’t made the final nine”.
Sam might well be playing down his mastery of poker, but in 100 days or so we’ll know just how fortunate – and skilful – he has been when the latest winner of the $10,000 No-Limit Hold’em Championship is revealed.
Good luck, Sam…not that you’ll need it!