Bluff European Player of the Year 2013 Steve O’Dwyer

Bluff European Player of the Year 2013 Steve O’Dwyer

Monday, 10 February 2014

Eve Goodman catches up with the 'Hairy Beast'.

Steve O’Dwyer is not an easy man to pin down. After a few weeks of playing telephone tennis with the man known affectionately as the Hairy Beast, I was beginning to lose hope that I’d ever get an interview with him. This would be a shame – the vaguely enigmatic, scruffy-round-the-edges millionaire is arguably one of the best in the game at the moment, and I was keen to talk to him. Fortunately, my fears were unfounded, and a few days later, I was awoken by the buzzing of a Skype message. It was Steve – he’d just got back from a night out, and was ready to chat if I was.

Bleary-eyed and pyjama-clad, I stumbled out of bed and quickly got everything set up. Like almost every other big pro, Steve was at Atlantis, Paradise Island, in the Bahamas for the PokerStars Caribbean Adventure and its intoxicating promise of million-dollar prize money. The time there was almost 4am. “I’m actually a little drunk,” Steve confessed. “I don’t normally drink, but I ran into a lot of the old school nerds – old friends of mine, and they kept buying me drinks.”

As O’Dwyer dryly acknowledges, it’s probably lucky that he wasn’t the one getting the rounds in – Atlantis has a reputation for being abysmally expensive, and even a simple salad can set you back upwards of $20. Having said that, the amount of cash you have to shell out for a colourful Tiki cocktail, even a really overpriced one, pales into insignificance next to some of the PCA’s more costly tournament buy-ins. Steve had already played the $100,000 buy-in Super High Roller event, but failed to find any luck; this night’s drinking session was off the back of a rather cheaper side event.

Unfortunately it seemed that this one didn’t quite go to plan either. “I made a horrific bluff that didn’t work out,” he groans. “My friend Dani [Stern, of 2 Months to Two Million fame] was at the table as well, and he’s been laughing at me all night.”

It soon emerges that the bluff in question was against Allyn Shulman, the wife of CardPlayer magazine owner Barry Shulman. “The last time I played with her, she was quite crazy and aggro – but I hadn’t played with her in several years, so I thought maybe she wouldn’t remember me, or know that I knew who she was,” he explains. “I raised to 1,400 with A-3o and she three-bet in the cut-off to 4,500, which is pretty big – this should have been my first clue to fold, but… I didn’t. This is just an insane assumption, but she had more chips than me, and more than the table average, so I thought she thought she could get away with a bluff early on. So I called and the flop came T-5-4 with two clubs, and I had the ace of clubs and a three. I checked, and she bet like 80% of the pot. I only had 18,000 left so I could only min-raise all-in.”

It was then that his voice takes on a tortured tone. “I was thinking about folding. I was! But then she had fruit on a Styrofoam plate… she started cutting off a slice of the apple with a plastic knife and it triggered an event in my mind from last year’s PCA Main Event, where some Dutch kid bluffed me in a really really, really big pot on the river on Day 2. As I was tanking, he started eating a giant fruit salad. He was so casual about it! I think seeing her with the apple triggered an emotional flashback in my mind and it caused me to just instantly move all-in. Sadly, she snap-called and she had top set so I felt really stupid.”


Testing Tilt

Fruity anecdotes aside, nowadays O’Dwyer has amassed over $5.4m in live tournament winnings and probably been at more EPT final tables than you’ve had hot dinners – but he wasn’t always the seasoned pro that you see today. The story of his first brush with poker is similar to that of many other long-time pros, having been initially introduced to the game when he saw ESPN coverage of Chris Moneymaker spectacularly winning the World Series of Poker Main Event in 2003. He and his roommates soon began regularly watching poker shows on television, and before long they had set up a weekly $5 buy-in home game that Steve frequently excelled at.

His interest soon outstripped that of his friends, most of whom weren’t interested in poker beyond its function as a social activity. He began scouring the internet in attempts to learn more. “I started to want to play more often than once a week, and around 2004 I saw a messageboard post about a new website were was looking for beta testers for their poker software,” he recalls. The name of the website? Full Tilt Poker.

“The big draw was you could play play-money with famous poker players, while getting to try the software, and that was really exciting to me,” he remembers. “The very first day I tested the software I got to play with Chris Ferguson. It was really exciting! I ended up playing play money on Full Tilt for about five to six months. I also got given loads of freeroll entries in exchange for being a beta tester, and ended up winning one for $7. The very first night that Full Tilt was open for real money, around early July 2004, I started playing – I think I lost that $7 in the first hour the website was open! I was, like, well, I guess I better put more money on. So the next six months I would deposit $50, lose it, and just rinse and repeat those actions countless times. By early 2005 I made another deposit, and managed to start building it up.”

So what was it that changed for O’Dwyer, that enabled to him to gradually become a winning player? According to him, it was all down to chance friendships that blossomed online. “I wanted to learn the game at a deeper level, so I started seeking out like-minded people on the internet, and got really lucky with the first people I came into contact with… they were Jason Somerville, Vivek Rajkumar, and Leo Wolpert.”

Each of these players have since racked up millions in live tournament cashes. Flourishing within this fateful network, O’Dwyer soon began to slowly grow his bankroll, recording his first live cash at the PokerStars Caribbean Adventure seven years ago in 2007. After that, the cashes started coming thick and fast. 2009 saw O’Dwyer bank over $300k after final-tabling events at both the WSOP and the WPT, and a steady stream of wins continued to follow.

Too Much Make-up

Despite this apparent success, Steve was in deep makeup. He was being staked in most tournaments by close friends Ike Haxton, Scott Seiver and Justin Bonomo, and he had unhappily fallen into a large hole of debt that he was working hard to pay off. “I was in makeup for almost two full years with Ike and Scott. It was pretty brutal. I had been cashing regularly, but didn’t have any really big scores for a while, and I had been playing quite high stakes. It was very frustrating.”

While his situation was already difficult, O’Dwyer had no way of knowing that it was about to get a lot worse. On the 9th April, he made the final table of NAPT Uncasville, but things didn’t pan out as he’d hoped. “I just lost a very big pot to Vanessa Selbst on the very first hand of the final table,” he recounts. “She went on to win the tournament, and I finished 8th. It was hugely frustrating for me at the time – I was in such deep makeup and it would’ve been such a good opportunity for me to win the tourney and get out of that, but it just didn’t happen.”

He travelled back to North Carolina, resolving to take a day or two off to recover from the disappointment before getting back to the grind online. But what he hadn’t reckoned on was an event that would drastically change the lives of countless poker players forever. Two days after his return, it was Black Friday.

“I remember it very clearly. I woke up that Friday morning, did my normal North Carolina routine, went for a walk in the park, stopped by a sandwich shop to pick up some pizza, had a snack and a few drinks. I got back to my apartment, and I’d only been gone for like 45 minutes. I’d left my laptop on, so when I got back I moved my mouse to get rid of the screensaver, and my Twitter page was open, saying something like “you have 350 new tweets”. I was like wait a second – it’s Friday afternoon! Was there a nuclear explosion I didn’t notice? Is it the start of World War III? So I loaded up the tweets and was like, oh wow… life is over.”

In the following days after the news hit that PokerStars, Full Tilt Poker and Absolute Poker had been indicted, panic and confusion abounded. Nobody seemed to know the extent of the damage, or what it meant for the future of the poker industry and the livelihoods of thousands of US grinders. O’Dwyer, however, quickly realised the full gravity of the situation. “I had almost my whole bankroll on Full Tilt at the time. I just instantly knew that I had to go in a completely different direction with my life.”


Irish blood

Luckily, he had one thing in his favour – something he refers to wryly as his backdoor outs. Although O’Dwyer was born and raised in America, his grandparents had emigrated from Ireland years ago, giving him dual nationality. “Within a few hours I was trying to figure out the logistics of getting my Irish citizenship, and how to get a passport,” he says. “A lot of my friends were – I wouldn’t say jealous – but they wish they had the same good fortune as me. It was just lucky that my grandparents came from a country that allows you to go back two generations to get a passport. There are a lot of people that emigrated to the United States and their nationalities only allow you to go back one generation.”

The process to claim an Irish passport was a lengthy, and with almost all of his money locked up online, O’Dwyer fell on hard times. For the next three months he stayed on an air mattress on the floor of Scott Seiver’s Vegas home. I don’t think most people could’ve handled living with Scott,” chuckles Steve. “But we’re on the same wavelength somewhere. It’s hard to pinpoint why he’d be difficult for others, but I sense he would be. I can’t really describe it. I met him in 2007, around the time when I first moved to Vegas, and we have a really good relationship. For some reason I get along with him much better than most people do. I discuss hands with him all the time. He’s one of the few people I really trust to get an honest answer from.”

During this stint, it might have been easy for O’Dwyer to lose hope. But he didn’t give up. He played live whenever he could, and by the beginning of 2012 his Irish passport was finally approved. “At that point I just started running really hot,” he says with a smile in his voice. You can say that again. From an observer’s perspective, he was on a tear – September 2011 saw him bink his biggest ever cash of $726k when he chopped UKIPT London heads-up with Benny Spindler, and from then on the wins just wouldn’t stop coming. He scooped massive scores in EPT, WPT and WSOPE events. Everywhere you looked, Steve O’Dwyer would be on a final table.

It wasn’t until May 2013 that he encountered what was possibly the biggest moment of his career, when he made the final table of the EPT Grand Final in Monte Carlo. Running this deep was nothing unusual to O’Dwyer at this point, but this wasn’t just any final table. The line-up was almost completely made up of some of the most successful and decorated pros in the world, including Daniel Negreanu, Jake Cody, Johnny Lodden and Jason Mercier. It was possibly the toughest final table ever seen at an EPT event, and people looked on in awe. This didn’t stop O’Dwyer, however, and after dispatching Andrew Pantling heads-up in a dramatic hand where he hit quads on the river, he collected a staggering $1,604,972 and his first EPT trophy.

The Big Time

Looking back over his career, Steve is definitely not your typical player. Such incredible success naturally attracts attention, but unlike many pros, he has never courted celebrity. It is clear that he’s much more comfortable behind the camera or the microphone rather than thrust in front of it, having gone to college to study broadcasting before he discovered poker. “I’m having a really hard time adjusting to this whole ‘having people meeting me and knowing who I am thing’,” he admits. “It first started happening right after Monte Carlo. Before that, every once in a while – like once every six months – someone would recognise me. But right after Monte Carlo, that’s when I started to have people actually stopping me on the street, and it’s really started to freak me out.”

Naturally this presents a whole new set of problems at the poker table – does his newfound fame affect the way people play against him? “It’s hard to pick out the people that know you are and the people you think don’t know who you are, you just have to make guesses,” he says ruefully. “It’s impossible for me to remember all the people that I’ve met personally, so sometimes I’m playing with people that I may have met in a social situation, but I don’t remember. I get into a lot of awkward situations where they know me and I don’t know how to act because I don’t know who they are – they could have seen me on TV or I could’ve met them in a social situation and just forgotten! If it’s someone I vaguely recognise it’s tough because I have to try and remember if I’ve played with them and what they’ve seen me do.”

Steve may be treading entirely new territory now he’s in the gleam of the media spotlight, but it’s almost certain that the future will remain bright for him. Curious about his recipe for success? From what I gather, it simply comes down hard work, humility and above all the support of friends – in the best of times, but especially in the worst of times.
“After Black Friday, it’s true I was really frustrated with my situation. I felt like I had done better for myself and then it all collapsed. But the people who had confidence in me made sure I kept confidence in myself. It’s hard to think about giving up when people like Ike Haxton, Justin Bonomo, Scott Seiver are telling you ‘don’t worry about it, keep playing, we believe in you’. For that reason, I never lost confidence in myself. I somehow always knew that I could get to where I am now.”

Tags: Steve O'Dwyer, Eve Goodman, interviews