Wednesday, 6 May 2015
High stakes and humility.
This past year or so, some of you who have been following the high stakes world will have been introduced to Ryan Fee and his friends Jason Mo and Doug "WCGRider" Polk, along with their somewhat unique outlook on their fellow high stakes peers and their spat with Vanessa Selbst last summer. When Bluff Europe spoke to her, she said it was a disservice to poker to even mention their names. We were expecting Mr Fee would have no problem mentioning her name however. And maybe some others too.
“I was talking to a well known MTT pro who asked me my views on Vanessa Selbst’s game. I told him that Vanessa’s plays are like something from a ‘how not to play poker book.’ I don’t think she’s good at all. I have no idea why the fuck people find her so interesting, I don’t think she’s that cool. She never says anything funny or witty. I think she’s just a girl who has fairly decent results at poker”.
Selbst and her PokerStars team pros are closely guarded by a PR team as large (and as efficient) as that of a small country. It's rare that negative feedback drips out either way. To be fair to Stars, their roster of pros are typically exceptional ambassadors and very well behaved. And very, very good at the pokers. But, for the first time since Luke “Fullflush_1” Schwartz, we’re starting to once again see some of the world’s top poker players have a bit of bark, some of which has been directed at some of their top guns.
A few years back, the poker world was excited by the emergence of players like Viktor Blom challenging the world online like no other before - but Viktor and co always shied away from the publicity and their legend would always have a ceiling due to this. We’ve been left with a boys' club of high rollers, who happily pay rake to swap mansions back and forth while trading the ‘hookers and blow’ for yoga, a vegan diet and in some cases trying to recruit their peers, and us too, to organisations that our lawyers would probably prefer we didn’t refer to as ‘cults’.
This, however isn't an article where Ryan has decided it would be a good spot just to talk shit about other players. In fact it's the opposite; several times in our chat which will last well over an hour, Ryan will start on a tangent with the caveat "you can't put this in". Usually, this would tend to mean that someone was about to destroy another's character or berate their game, but typically Ryan just doesn't seem interested in discussing anyone in a negative light at all. This isn’t through fear of a backlash on his part or perhaps stating incorrect facts about someone, It’s just that mostly he just doesn't want to be a dick. And also, he understands why we're here. We're not here to talk about other people, we're here to talk about him.
Ryan Fee, or “fees’ as the online world knows him, has been around a long time. Long enough to see the Dwans, Friedmans and Schwartzes of the world come, make a big fuss and then just burn out. He’s also borne witness to the success of his close friends Jason Mo and Doug Polk, the latter of whom is widely regarded to be the best heads up player in the world. Famed for his honesty, and at times brutal critique, we were pretty excited to sit down and get his thoughts.
From the get-go, it's hard not to like Ryan. He has that level of confidence (and success to back it up) that would pique any poker fan's interest. But he also has the grace and humility, along with a genuine interest for other things, which makes you want to test the way he approaches everyday competitive projects.
Playing at the highest stakes - or at any stakes in fairness - requires not just skill, but also the ability to manage both your mindset and your ego and realise when you might be unmatched. “I’m in complete control of my ego," says Fee. "I’m very realistic; I’ll talk a bunch of trash - but I know my place. I know who’s better than me. It’s not a big deal for me to recognise that someone is better than me”.
It’s a unique outlook for someone famed for such scathing critiques, which in some circumstances could be considered as bordering on spite, to show such humility. But Fee suggests it’s the humility that is the secret to his success, explaining: “I got good at poker by finding the people who are the best and then learning from them. It blows my mind that people who potentially have access to me never try to hit me up for advice. If I was a $5/$10 player and ended up at dinner with Ike (Haxton), I’d be totally all over him asking questions”.
It's no secret that our in-house team at Bluff Europe are pretty deece at computer games, namely FIFA. To get a better idea of his mindset, we asked Ryan how he would approach getting better at FIFA after a whipping from us, and how he would take to us mere mortals who can just about beat 5nl being better at him than something:
"I enjoy being around people that are good at things. I like to watch the things they do that give them the edge, as I learn I can see then start to see where their skill is getting capped and where they are starting to make mistakes - then that’s what I take advantage of to beat them”.
Developing poker skills, just like gaming skills, is greatly helped by surrounding yourself by those who are already doing well. It’s not exactly news to highlight that players who form close bonds with other players typically see a sharp rise in their game. The hours discussing hands, spots and thoughts on opponents' styles will almost always see some form of positive return. Fee got involved in this from the start.
“I started playing in Philadelphia. There was a guy who plays online as ‘UMDTennis’, who I met in real life, and we would just help each other to get better - that was a huge influence. That summer I went to Vegas even though I was only 19. I just wanted to surround myself with great players.
It’s something that Fee has tried to pass on to keen up and comers, whether it be coaching, staking or a variety of both. “The most important thing to me is whether I like them and do I think they deserve this”.
Fee resides in Las Vegas, opting to stay and play local games rather than relocate to play online. A recent fixture is regular tournaments organised by “One Drop” regular, Cary Katz.
“Cary is the fucking man, I’m just a soldier for Cary," Fee says of the College Loan Corporation founder.
"He’s the perfect hybrid of being an amateur, but loving poker. He just wants to put on these tournaments every month in Vegas. It’s great ‘cos I live here, there is less travelling, the guys are great, the venue is great - the whole thing is awesome”.
Fee took down one of these ‘Cary Katz Invitationals’ early this year, but as it was just a $10k buyin the win was bittersweet.
“It’s so tilting," he reveals. "I’ve played all of these since March last year - $100ks, $50ks, $25ks and I’ve been destroyed, but then the smallest buyin comes along and that’s the one I win!”
The high rollers don’t get much publicity; they’re not the $100k Super High Rollers you see on EPT stops and presumably they would have fewer spots - so what's the appeal? Why not chase fame and a better ROI on the EPT circuit?
“Playing poker is about happiness. The EPT events just aren’t cool. The players are quiet and there’s no banter at the table. They don’t engage the recreational players at the table. I’m all about making sure all the recreational players at the table have a good time. The experience is kinda shitty. Do I really need the money? What am I going to do with the money? I’d rather enjoy my life”.
Experiencing life is so important to Fee, that he recently opted to step away from poker for a while. “I actually tried to quit poker at the end of 2013. I moved to Los Angeles and didn’t play for four months. It was good, but not playing poker wasn’t really going anywhere and eventually I came back to the game when LAPC was on. But since then I’ve kept the mindset that now playing poker is only about happiness.
"The reason I had so much anxiety and was depressed was that I was playing poker for money. Now, I’m so happy with poker and everything else is really awesome, my life is just basically perfect. If I would pinpoint it to one thing it would be that now I play poker for enjoyment. I don’t sweat it - I just have a good time. The people who get the most out of the game are the people who enjoy it the most.”
It’s an ongoing theme during our conversation. When you typically talk to a high stakes player, they’ll tell about the next step; how they want to go further, higher. They’ll speak of the wish that Super High Rollers were the norm and how there is no limit to the amount of money they’d like to win. “I’ve done pretty well, but after a certain point you pass how much money you really need. So after that, more money doesn’t change anything”.
It’s not that Ryan doesn’t travel - he does, a lot. But it’s Fee’s decision making when deciding which tournaments to go to is almost unique amongst poker’s elite “I had a journey, which helped me realise life is all about experiences. For instance I think Melbourne is a much better experience than the Bahamas, so I went to Aussie Millions instead of PCA”.
It’s great to get an insight into the type of decisions players make about choosing tournaments. Fee breaks down tournaments in two different categories “The first are glory/not glory. So, glory would be like EPT, WPT, WSOP. The Aria tournaments are a good example of those being off the radar, super high buy-in tournaments with no coverage, almost”.
One of the things Fee enjoys most is the camaraderie/ almost home game feeling amongst the small group of players. “I don’t really enjoy the low stakes tournaments because the experience isn’t as good. It has nothing to do with the money, it’s just the enjoyment. I spoke to the WPT about why they introduced the ‘Alpha 8’ tournaments and they said ‘we looked at these tournaments and they were just a party’ - and they were right. We just bullshit and gamble. Mike McDonald is doing push ups and air squats (McDonald had a bet with Bill Perkins on the amount he could do in an hour). No one gets upset about bad beats or any of that shit, everyone is cool - it’s just a good time”
“In high profile tournaments, people end up being way too serious. I think that people just want to be on TV. It’s definitely exciting and there are some cool things about it. I don’t mind the attention. I’m very contrarian to the way a lot of people in these things are. I’m obviously very outspoken. Honestly though, my preference would be to play $10k’s at the Aria, rather than play WPTs”.
You may be of the opinion that Super High Rollers are a fad. That they're detrimental to the game; taking such huge amounts of money out of the poker ecology to distribute amongst such a small number of players. You might think that the allure and attention given to these players is counter-intuitive to the "everyman" story of victory that got you and thousands others hooked on the game. The fact is, at this moment in time, The WSOP is only once a year and there's seemingly an event on a major tour every other week. Standard tournament poker is losing popularity amongst the lay TV audience and we need these high buy-ins to help gain interest and new players.
One thing's for sure, the high rollers are here to stay. And as long as the he is still having fun and getting to do things his way, Ryan Fee will be there too.