Style, Success and Steinberg

Style, Success and Steinberg

Thursday, 17 October 2013

We catch up with Max to talk about bringing the glamour back to the tables, hero calls gone wrong, and knocking out Phil Ivey.

Poker players are not known for being well-dressed. When you walk into a casino you will most likely be confronted by hordes of homogeneity; hooded sweatshirts and denim abound, and you’d be forgiven for thinking that this is something of a grinders’ uniform. Not so for Max Steinberg, however, whose penchant for sharp attire at tournaments makes him stand out to say the least.

“I was just with my brothers before my final table last summer, when I won my first bracelet,” said Steinberg. “I was thinking, ‘Why don’t I just dress up nice? It’s a big event; why not try and do something fun? So, I dressed up and got a shirt and tie. Then I won.”

Dressing sharply seemed to pay off, and since then making an effort to be well turned-out became a habit. “I’m not superstitious or anything, but I really like the whole thing. Dressing nice, I felt like I stood out. I felt good about myself, dressing nicely. It was fun, from then on, just trying different shirt and tie combos. I guess I’m a little known for looking nice, which is something good. I’m not known for something else, like smelling bad.”

Steinberg is not all style over substance, however. The American pro burst onto the poker scene in 2008 when he came second in an LAPT event for $144,773, and has since made over $1.9 million in live tournament cashes.

The 25-year-old pro may have a list of six-figure scores to his name now, but he recalls a time when things were very different. He began playing poker in his teens after he and his twin brother watched Chris Moneymaker win the WSOP Main Event in 2003. The pair were hooked, and a first brush with online poker came after a rather unusual petition to their father.

“What we said to him was, ‘We want to play online poker. How about instead of giving us a birthday present, put $50 in this account and if we lose it, we’ll just stop playing. We won’t play poker again,’” remembers Steinberg. “He was like, ‘OK. That’s fine’”.

The brothers played on the same account, and as is the fate of many new players, came dangerously close to going broke. The account soon had only $4 remaining in it. Max wanted to play one sit-and-go in hopes of cashing, but Danny overruled him and took control.

“Danny’s like, ‘I’m going to grind $2 buy-in cash games, until I work it back up’ and he did, to like $50. Then after that, we both were winning players and were able to just grow that,” said Steinberg. By the time they left for college, the account had something to the tune of $10,000 in it, which the brothers split in order to open their own separate accounts.

From there, Steinberg steadily ascended up the ranks, playing for increasingly greater sums of money. “It was a really slow steady climb. I’d play $1/$2 and the next year I was playing $3/$6. Then, the next year I was playing $5/$10. After that, I was playing $25/$50,” said Steinberg. Soon after, he began making the transition to tournaments, and in 2008 landed his first big cash coming second in the LAPT $2,500 NLHE event for $144,773.


Consistent success in tournaments since then made him a recognisable face on the circuit, but it wasn’t until a few months ago that Steinberg really hit the headlines. It all happened after he made the final table of the WSOP Circuit National Championship(broadcast on ESPN). Steinberg found himself in a hand with Jonathan Hilton, and the events that followed no doubt made thousands of jaws drop. The hand is detailed in full below:

1. Brock Parker (UTG) raises to 50,000 with Kd Qs.
2. Bob Pantich folds.
3. Max Steinberg (SB) calls with Jh Ts.
4. Jonathan Hilton (BB) calls with 5h 5d.
5. Flop: 9c 6h 5s.
6. Steinberg checks, Hilton checks, Parker checks.
7. Turn: Kc.
8. Steinberg bets 90,000.
9. Hilton calls, Parker calls.
10. River: 9h.
11. Steinberg checks.
12. Hilton bets 335,000.
13. Parker folds.
14. Steinberg calls and mucks.

Every poker player is guilty of making a mistimed hero call at some point in their career. But a hero call with Jack-high, when their opponent has a full house?! The internet exploded, and the general consensus in the poker community was that Steinberg had gone mad. Having said that, however mental it was, there’s no getting away from the fact that it was gutsy – and people loved it.

“Every final table I’ve been at, there’s been a couple people who have made very big bluffs that are out of the ordinary that I didn’t expect,” said Steinberg. “I’ve come to realise that there’s going to be this type of guy that comes to the final table who is going to be very capable of making a big play.”

“Before the tournament, there were two players that I labelled as probably capable of doing that. One was Jonathan [Hilton], and the other was this guy Nicolas [Vaca-Rondon], and I thought they both, maybe later in the final table, would probably try to pull off a big bluff.”

Brooding on the hand, Steinberg concedes that his play may have been affected by fatigue. “If you watch the telecast, I almost just open-fold my hand at the time [on the river]. I was really tired. I think one of the lessons learned here is when you’re really tired, don’t try to make a really big read – because that might be wrong. I just wasn’t really paying attention to people physically enough to make a good read based off of that.”

Having said this, he still stands by much of his thought processes in a spot where 95% of players would toss their hand to the muck without a second thought. “I feel like he could easily have seven-four suited, easily,” said Steinberg. “He could have had a lot of combinations of low clubs that he’d play the same way and I’d felt like he probably felt he could represent that nine.”

But he admits that he made a mistake – just not in the way that you might expect. “I don’t think it was a mistake just because it’s like, ‘Oh, he called a jack-high.’ It’s a mistake because I misread what he was thinking and what he felt like he could represent. If I feel like jack-high is the equivalent of top pair there, then they’re the equivalent and it’s not quite that, but it’s pretty damn close. So, it looks a lot more outrageous. If I had king-two there, it doesn’t make any difference. It just looks like I can’t get away from top pair, but I’d used the exact same logic.”

After this, Steinberg dived headfirst into the WSOP, which gave him some extremely close calls. He managed to make two final tables, including a second place in the $3,000 NLHE Mixed Max for $231,501. If his WSOP had ended there, then that would have been impressive enough. Unbeknownst to Steinberg however, he was about to hit the spotlight once again – when he knocked out the biggest name in poker history.

It all started when Steinberg entered the Main Event. He went into it hopeful and, sure enough, by the end of the first day he had nearly tripled his starting stack. Unfortunately, Day 2 saw his luck change, and a series of events saw him crippled. “I started Day 3 with 39,000 chips,” said Steinberg. “I’ve resigned myself to the fact that I’m probably gone. So, I’m playing in the Brasilia room. I won a couple of hands, doubled up and then just went on this sick run, where I got up to 300,000 chips. Everyone’s making comments like ‘Wow! What the hell just happened?’ Finally, our table breaks and they’re moving me.”

What happened next was fate. Casino staff informed his table that they would all be moving to the Amazon Room, so they all bagged up their chips accordingly and followed the floor person in single file, before being given a randomly selected card with their new table number on it.

Steinberg had no reason to imbue any particular significance to what was a seemingly inconsequential event, but this led to his tournament experience taking a very unusual turn. “We’re in this line and, at the last second, I’m with this guy and I decided to go to the end of the line and let him go ahead of me. Last one to get a card. It’s [Table] 441, or something, and the guy was like, ‘Wait, is that 441?’ and in my head I knew what he was going to say next. He’s like, ‘That’s the feature table,’” said Steinberg.

On the feature table, even if the bright lights and camera crews don’t make you nervous, then the guarantee that you’ll be facing up against a big-time poker celebrity probably will. And in this case, Steinberg was set to go up against the most famous man in the game – Phil Ivey. “I got mic’d up,” Steinberg remembers. “I’ve been to plenty of final tables. I’ve been to televised final tables. A month earlier, I was in New Orleans, at that televised final table. It was just different. I don’t know if it was just the fact that it was unexpected. I wasn’t really prepared for it, but you get under those lights and Phil Ivey’s next to me and the lights are super-hot. So many cameras, it’s the Main Event. It took me an hour to get my bearings. I was super nervous – it was just a crazy experience. It didn’t feel real for a while. Then, I got used to it.”

By coincidence, Steinberg’s roommate James Hudson was at the same table, which may have contributed to him eventually loosening up. Once he felt more relaxed, he began implementing a rather atypical strategy. “Usually, Day 3 of a tourney, everyone’s just raising like mad, basically. I like to make really big raises. I make it 4x, or 3.5x. So, first hand I play at the table, the blinds are 12k/14k and I make it 90k and my roommate, who knows what I do and was just waiting for it, just bursts out laughing, and I start laughing, too,” said Steinberg. “Phil Ivey asks, ‘do you always do this?’ I’m like, ‘Yeah. I always do this.’ He’s like, ‘You’re not just doing this because you’re at the feature table?’ I’m like, ‘No. I always do this.’”

Not long after, Steinberg called a raise from Ivey with pocket tens, only to see the falling of an absolute money flop, A-10-3. “I’m obviously just fist-pumping inside,” laughs Steinberg. He knew it was a great flop, but didn’t realise just how great it was – Ivey held pocket threes, meaning that it was set under set. Second to act in a four-way pot, Ivey bet out 16k, before being raised to 41k by Ola Okelola. Steinberg carefully flatted, only to have Ivey move all-in for 416k. The other two players folded, and Steinberg made the call that would send the Tiger Woods of Poker to the rail.

Steinberg speaks about the reasoning behind his decision to flat call. “I could raise here, but I like to call, because A: I’m in position, B: We’re really deep, so it doesn’t really look like a slow play. It looks like a draw. If I raise, I can’t really represent any bluffs anymore,” said Steinberg. “So, I’m not really sure how the hand is going to play out. It gets back to Ivey and he just jams, which, obviously, everyone at the table is a little shocked by. I’m thinking that he probably has a combo draw, because I felt like that was the only thing that would make sense to play it that way.”

“I’m not super happy, because I think that he probably has a combo-draw, like king-queen suited, king-jack suited, or queen-jack suited, which would mean that I’m basically flipping, which I do not want to do at this point. Day 3, I was stacked, I could make it to the money. In the Main Event, you want to make it to the money, because you’d be getting chips really easily, just by raising every hand and everyone’s folding. So, I call and I say I was dead and he looks so upset, and I realised then, immediately, that he had a set of threes.”

Steinberg ended up making it through the entirety of the next day of the Main Event, before busting in 151st for $50,752. However, the end of the Series also meant another change. Like many other grinders still facing the aftermath of Black Friday, he decided to move to Vancouver so that he would be able to play online.

“I had never been [to Vancouver] before. I’d been to Toronto and played there a little while, but I wasn’t that into Toronto. I really like Northern California. I lived there for three years before Black Friday. I just thought, I have friends in Vancouver. Why don’t I just try it out? I’ve been really enjoying it so far. It’s a really nice place to be,” said Steinberg. “It’s going to be home base until the World Series Europe. I see myself going back there after, but I’m not really sure about the future.”

Tags: Max Steinberg, Phil Ivey, Eve Goodman