Young Guns of Tournament Poker

By Gerald Hanks | February 23, 2010

“The Kids Are Alright” or “Teenage Wasteland”?

In 1989, Phil Hellmuth set the record for the youngest winner of the World Series of Poker Main Event at the age of twenty-four. His record lasted for nineteen years, until Danish pro Peter Eastgate won the 2008 Main Event title at twenty-two years of age. Eastgate’s mark barely lasted twelve months when Joe Cada won the 2009 Main Event a week before he celebrated his twenty-second birthday.

While Cada holds the record for the WSOP Main Event (for now), he is still not the youngest player to win a major tournament. Many younger players take advantage of the opportunity to play in tournaments overseas, where the legal gambling age is eighteen. In September 2007, Annette Obrestad won the first World Series of Poker Europe Main Event the day before her nineteenth birthday and took home GBP 1 million. In December, Harrison Gimbel won the PokerStars Caribbean Adventure and earned US$2.2 million at the ripe old age of nineteen.

With the success of so many players who are barely old enough to legally drink their celebratory champagne, what does this say about many of the veterans and legends of the game? Has the game passed by the greats like TJ Cloutier and Doyle Brunson? Should the “young veterans” like Daniel Negreanu and Phil Ivey be though of as dinosaurs lumbering towards extinction at the hands of these youngsters? Or do these “old dogs” still have some new tricks?

In this piece, we’ll look at some of the advantages that these teens and twenty-somethings have over their elders, as well as some of the pitfalls that can come with their sudden success.

Go long or go home

Many major tournaments may last up to five days; the WSOP Main Event stretches for nearly two weeks. Each day, players sit at the table for up to sixteen hours, faced with life-or-death decisions on a constant basis. The level of physical and mental stamina required to stay alert for such long periods can be compared to that of a marathon runner. Younger bodies and brains are much better equipped to deal with the stresses involved in such a grueling contest.

Information Overload

The young poker player of today has so many more advantages of those of years past when it comes to information on the game. Instead of spending hundreds of hours and thousands of dollars learning the game by trial and error, players today have access to books, videos and websites that teach the finer points of many different varieties of poker.

Practice makes (nearly) perfect

One of the biggest contributing factors to the success of younger players is their access to online poker sites. With both tournaments and cash games available around the clock, many players get much of the practice they need before they ever darken the door of a live cardroom. Also, the ability to play multiple cash-game tables and tournaments simultaneously (with some online players reportedly playing as many as sixty tables at once) allows players to see numerous scenarios against different types of opponents in a much shorter time, shortening the game’s learning curve by several years.

No strings attached

For many of these young players, life on the poker tournament circuit is a grand adventure: traveling to exotic destinations, staying at the finest hotels, and playing cards for a living. Most of them are not concerned with paying a mortgage, providing for children or maintaining a marriage. Without many of the same concerns as older players, their minds are free to focus on hoe they can improve their skills and grow their bankrolls.

Do all of these advantages mean that every poker player over twenty-five should take up bridge? Not yet, at least. The codgers and curmudgeons of the game can still exploit some of the weaknesses of younger players.

Be cool

Experienced players are often much less prone to “tilt” or give in to emotional impulses than youngsters. When you see an opponent hit a one-outer on the river for the first time, it feels like he’s reached across the table and ripped your heart out of your chest. When it happens for the hundredth time, you shrug and wait for the next hand. While the older poker players may not have the physical endurance of the younger generation, they frequently possess the emotional maturity and self-control required for a successful poker career (unless their last name is either Hellmuth or Matusow).

Money talks

In the case of younger players, their money usually says, “Use me to buy that new car! Spend me to get a big-screen TV! I’ll get you that new video game system!” With experienced players, it frequently says, “Invest me in things that will give you a solid rate of return. Save me for when you start to run bad. Let me help you make more of me.” Since many older players have weathered the bad times, they know better how to survive them when they (inevitably) arrive.

Shooting stars burn out

Between their accelerated learning curve and their spendthrift habits, many young players who experience their success early often succumb to burnout. Also, when the cards start to turn against them, they start to panic and may consider leaving the game for good. Veteran players understand the variance is part of the game and that the “long run” is long than most young players realize.

Running a high (attention) deficit

One drawback that comes from the young player’s experience of playing multiple tables at once is that they often neglect to pay attention to what a player at a single table does that can change the complexion of the game. The advent of Rush Poker on Full Tilt Poker is most clear example of “Attention Deficit Poker”. Experienced players, even those who play online, understand that poker is a game of people played with cards, not the other way around.

Without question, these young online poker phenoms are changing the game, just as players like Negreanu and Ivey changed it before them, and just as Doyle, Slim and Puggy changed it before them. In a few years, another generation, brought up on the latest technology, will change it yet again. The famous saying goes that poker takes “a minute to learn and a lifetime to master”. As the game continues to evolve, only one lifetime may not be enough.

By Gerald Hanks

Gerald Hanks is from Houston Texas, and has been playing poker since 2002. He has played cash games and no-limit hold’em tournaments at live venues all over the United States.


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