Why the World Series of Poker Still Has a Pull and How Solvers Made Poker More Fun
Last time we spoke with Unibet Poker professional Dara O’Kearney, he told us about how Unibet are seeking to build a sustainable player base and how the future of online and live poker might be more similar than they were before the pandemic. If you’d like to read Part One then simply click here.
In the second part of our interview, we began speaking with former ultra-marathon runner O’Kearney about the scene of perhaps his greatest triumph at the felt – his second-place finish in the 2015 WSOP event that earned him his biggest live cash.
Leaving and Returning to Las Vegas
Dara O’Kearney’s best live result of his career was the $ 262,502 he won when he came second out of 1,655 entries in the 2015 $1,500 no limit hold’em event which was won by Upeshka De Silva back in the summer of 2015. Has that made O’Kearney yearn for a return to Sin City, or is he happy to wait for a return to Las Vegas?
“I get nostalgic twinges for live events, even in Las Vegas and at the WSOP,” he admits. “I haven’t had that in a year. But as soon as I go back to travelling, I’m going to start thinking about that amazing year when I didn’t have to leave the house and how much fun that was! It’s always like the grass is greener.”
The disparity between those who have just arrived in Las Vegas and those who have been in the neon paradise for six weeks is palpable, as O’Kearney knows only too well.
“I used to say if you want to see a case study in human disillusionment, go to The Rio on the first day of the World Series of Poker where everyone is bouncing around happily with all their friends, saying ‘This is going to be the year I win a bracelet’. Then go during the last week and you’ll see people who are like zombies waiting for a plane.”
O’Kearney is wise enough to know that dichotomy is partly the life of a tournament poker player. Most will have a losing Vegas in most years, but the big results will make up for it.
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A Reason to Go Back to Sin City
“The first year I went out, I felt fairly bright-eyed and optimistic.”
As O’Kearney says, people judge bracelet winners ‘almost like Olympic gold medallists’ and that’s a strong pull for anyone, even someone who seems comfortable in his own skin and with his life at home in a way many haven’t been during lockdown.
“Hypothetically, at a future point where we’re all vaccinated or Coronavirus is a much more minor thing, I’d go back to the World Series.” He decides. “I’ve gone early, I’ve travelled late, I’ve taken a break in the middle, I’m not sure where I stand on that side of it, it’s difficult because of the way it’s structured with the Main Event at the end. Maybe what I’ll do is what Lappin did – go for the last two or three weeks, going into the Main Event not so burned out.”
O’Kearney has done Las Vegas a dozen times and more, playing all seven weeks like the champion marathon runner he was. Aptly, something on his to do list is an autobiographical account of his life at the felt and he may tie that into his trips to Las Vegas and how the capital of gambling has changed over the years.
“The first year I went out, I felt fairly bright-eyed and optimistic. Then there was a period where every year felt less good than the year before. I stayed at home in 2012, the year of the London Olympics. I just wanted to be able to stay home and have a nice summer. Three years later, I got my big result in Vegas. Up to that point in my career, if you looked at me in Vegas, you’d have seen a massive loser. That definitely affected my mentality.”
As O’Kearney explains, that’s the difference – one result changes a player from massive loser to big winner.
“That probably affected my mindset more than it should have,” he admits. “Afterwards, I got a bit more balance. I thought ‘I’m going to go to Las Vegas a number of times in my lifetime. Most of them will be losing trips. But the one big winning trip every so often will make all the difference.’ You just have to accept that you got over there, you do your best and whatever happens, happens.”
Neil Channing and the Pull of the Bracelet
“Who cares what my opinion is? It literally doesn’t matter.”
As O’Kearney describes, Neil Channing – who is also a WSOP runner-up – once told him that it was all about the bracelet, and you have to accept it. O’Kearney is ‘in Channing’s camp on that’ and while it might be a far greater achievement, few observers will ever start a poker player’s obituary by announcing that they had 27 profitable years. Poker has gone through five or six era-defining changes in O’Kearney’s career – something he and his Chip Race co-host David Lappin discussed in regard to Irish players alone.
“We looked at who the top players in Ireland were and then checked three years previous and three years previous and each time, there’s a massive turnover. Sometimes a guy is number one and three years later, he’s gone. Very, very few people achieve longevity.”
In O’Kearney’s poker career, to be able to survive the changes, players have done a variety of things.
“In my time, you read a few books, you started making money, sometimes you’d talk about hands with friends. Then videos arrived and you would get very good, very fast. The solvers arrived and it became very different. Now, almost no-one asks your opinion and the game is solved. Sometimes people ask me about a hand and I tell them I’ll put it into the solvers and get back to them. They ask, ‘But what’s your opinion?” Who cares what my opinion is? It literally doesn’t matter.”
O’Kearney admits that he’s ‘quite a good player’ (fair for a player who has won millions mastering the game of poker better than virtually the entire planet’s population) but he still stands squarely behind the technology, trusting that the solvers are right. It’s a subject that came up during the recent episode of The Lock-In with Doug Polk where Daniel Negreanu’s conqueror discussed solvers.
“He said the difference between him and ‘DNegs’ was that when Negreanu was interviewed after the session, he’d say that he made no mistakes or declare ‘I played so well’. Polk said that was ridiculous and that he made hundreds of mistakes – even elite players do.”
As O’Kearney says, perhaps Kid Poker was hoping that the technology would agree with him rather than the other way around.
“When Negreanu goes off to get a hand solved, it seems like he wanted the solver to tell him that he was right and his intuition was right. Polk was like ‘I have no emotional attachment to being right, I just want the data and to move on.’ That’s the mindset that operates now; the top, elite players aren’t emotionally involved about their talent or intuitions. They just put in the work. They look at all the data that’s out there, assimilate it and execute it well. It’ like an athlete; nobody cares how good anyone is on the first day of training; it’s how good that you want them to be when the race starts – that’s what matters.”
Solving the Problem
“The type of people who excel at [poker] are those who apply themselves more seriously.”
While we love the idea that solvers have improved the game, we at Gamble Online are poker fans and as such, we love the romantic element to the game, the passion, the drama and the luck that when they combine, produce some exciting action.
“I understand that completely,” says O’Kearney. “It happens in sports too. The practitioners are more free-wheeling when it doesn’t have mass-appeal – look at footballers in the 1960s and 1970. They weren’t nearly as fit, but there was a romance to football of that era compared to the modern footballer with his perfect diet and scientifically-honed skill of today.”
Just like in poker, as O’Kearney explains, with science and training, it’s inevitable over time that any activity or sport becomes more involved. The rewards are bigger, so the type of people who excel at it are those who apply themselves more seriously. The great thing in poker is that you don’t have to be the best to win a tournament, you have to run the best, so poker will always have that element.”
The latest episode of The Lock-In, featuring Dan Smith, is an instant classic of its genre:
Talk turns to whether O’Kearney will retire from playing poker or segue into another, if related, different career.
“I think I’ll always play poker to some degree,” he replies. “I love the game so much and it’s like a puzzle where I keep discovering something new and that’s exciting for me. I really enjoy the process of improving and figuring out the puzzle and I’m very naturally competitive. The whole impetus I had transitioning to poker from running was that age didn’t matter. The solvers were a huge thing for me Just the idea that you can have this piece of software that if you program it correctly, it can give you the right answer 100% of the time – that was very reinvigorating.”
That wasn’t always the case. 10 years ago, if O’Kearney had a difficult spot in an EPT Main Event or the like, his tactic was to ask the best five players he knew what they’d do in his situation.
“More often than not I’d get five different answers, so I’d have to decide who I believed or who was the best at arguing. Now I put it into a solver, and I know it’s the right answer. It’s more motivating to put the work in. The last few years, I’ve been working very extensively with the solvers and I actually really enjoy the puzzle now.”
O’Kearney has earned the right to champion the direction poker can go in for players, from learning the game to playing for real money. Over the first six years of his poker career, he didn’t take a single day off and did 10, 12 or 14-hour sessions every day. He was playing 80-90 hours per week for six years. That situation changed when he started playing live.
“Three years ago, I worked it out that I was only playing 40 hours per week. I think it’s gone back to about 65-70 hours per week over the last year. I remember saying to David [Lappin] that the win rates were coming down so much online that it wasn’t worth playing it full-time any more. I was thinking of going part-time, but now its swung back. Solvers have helped my edge and I’m motivated to play again. Maybe in five years, everyone will be a wizard. I’ll always play poker though, because I enjoy it so much.”
The Next Poker Strategy Book
One area that O’Kearney has also become prolific in as well as in poker and podcast terms is the co-authorship of two seminal poker works on strategy along with Barry Carter. His first book, Poker Satellite Strategy, was published in March 2019, with the follow-up, PKO Poker Strategy, going on release mid-pandemic in June 2020.
Thoughts have turned to what the duo will pen next, and it seems that a subject has come into focus by a mixture of happy accident and being ahead of the curve.
“Initially, we started in a GTO direction, but we were getting lots of questions about PKO and I came up with the concept of an ICM dial. In a satellite, it’s extreme, so the dial would be turned up. In a PKO, it goes the other way and in a regular tournament it’s in the middle. The next book is going to be on ICM in tournaments focusing on when it’s big in tournaments, so around the bubble and final tables.”
As O’Kearney reveals to us, for the first time, solvers have become ICM aware. When you ran a spot previously, the solvers assumed it was a cash game, but now solvers like PIO are ICM aware and that plays into the hands of tournament players.
“At the moment, [the information] is in the preserve of people who play the super high rollers. One solver can take a week to set it up and a fortnight to run it, but once the knowledge comes through, it’s huge. Our approach is to look at the vast font of knowledge that is there and explain in the broadest possible terms to as wide an audience as possible. That’s the book we’re working on at the moment; essentially how to play bubbles and final tables.”
We can’t wait to read it, and if you can’t either, then you can buy Dara O’Kearney and Barry Carter’s first two books, Poker Satellite Strategy and PKO Poker Strategy before completing the set.
You can see Dara O’Kearney and David Lappin in the hugely popular YouTube series, The Lock-In. If you’re not already subscribed as a listener to The Chip Race podcast, then you’re missing out and should correct that right away and play against the man himself on Unibet Poker too. After all, if you’re going deep, just like Dara O’Kearney, then you want to be entertained along the way.
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