By Arnold Warner
On July 1 Andrew Barber and 203 other players ponied up $10,000 each to enter the World Series of Poker’s H.O.R.S.E. Championship. At the end of the day on July 3 Barber had laid claim to the title, the bracelet, and the winner’s share of the prize pool–$517,766.
H.O.R.S.E. is a mixed-games event, where play is rotated between Hold’em, Omaha, Razz, 7-Card Stud, and 7-Card Stud (eight-or-better) and usually draws a lot of top talent. This final table has been described as one of the toughest ever.
Barber said that during the introductions during the bracelet ceremony he couldn’t help but notice how long some of the other players resumes were, “Because the final table had Joe Hachem who won the Main Event, and Scotty Nguyen who won the Main Event and the second $50K, and Frank Kassela who won a 50, and Jared Bleznick who’s one of the biggest winners in PLO online.
“It was just the who’s who of poker. Then I’m just this unknown student from Sacramento and people are sending my pictures during the live stream saying, career World Series cashes $70,000, when every single other person at the table has over a million in career cashes. It was quite the contrast.”
Undaunted, Barber dove right in knowing that if he played well and a few things went his way he could come out on top. “There’s a lot of poker players that are unheard of that the poker community recognizes as being good, they just haven’t done good in the right spots,” he said. “There’s a list of best people to not win a bracelet and then there’s a lot of people that haven’t got lucky. I got lucky at the right time. I think I was known by a lot of people in the poker community. I think a lot of people recognized me as a really good mixed game player and will ask my thoughts on hands and stuff like that.
“I wasn’t known to most people and I think I was kind of seen as this small stakes guy that took occasional shots at the World Series and hadn’t done anything yet. I think until you have that big score it’s hard to receive recognition as a good player, and that’s not the way it should be but that’s just the way it is.”
Originally from Illinois, Barber moved to Sacramento in 2007 for a job that disappeared when the economy took a dive. That led to increasing his poker playing to pay the bills and that is what he has continued to do, even though—as he puts it—“Northern California is a tough place to make a living as a pro.”
“I played online from the end of my time in college in 2006 and between college and getting a job I was playing online, but I wasn’t really serious about it. I really wasn’t serious about it when I left my job and switched to playing poker full-time. I kind of just dove in head first hoping things would work out and not really knowing what I was doing. I learned as I went.
“My hands were kind of tied. I had just moved out there. I didn’t want to move back home. I had established some connections in California. Once you move to California it’s really hard to leave. I’m kind of in love with this place so I don’t see myself leaving unless I absolutely have to.”
He has, however, recently left his Sacramento digs for a place in Santa Cruz where he will pursue a Ph.D. in economics at UC Santa Cruz, cutting way back on his time for poker. He does say he’ll be traveling to San Jose whenever possible on the weekends. “I actually just made my first trip to Bay 101,” he claimed.
For the last five years he’s been playing a pretty full schedule at the WSOP, entering 14 or 15 events this year. “I would have played more,” he said, “but I went deep in like almost everything I played. I think I made something like six or seven Day 3s, which was kind of absurd to make that many.”
His mixed games career began when he randomly stumbled across Omaha Hi/Low while playing online. He started off small and found that he had a knack for it and within a year went from playing $2/4 to $75/150.
“Over the last few years I’ve gotten really bored with Hold’em. I think a lot of people experience this, where you want to play some other stuff and I’m fascinated with the strategy that comes with learning new games, playing new games and trying to figure out the process of learning a new game and figuring it out. I love the five games and the mixed games and the dealer’s choice events. The new games are becoming more popular. The draw games are popular. Badeucy and Badacey are like all the rage now. I love the transition in poker kind of shifting from no-limit Hold’em to the other variants.”
Not surprising was the fact that his experience in the H.O.R.S.E. tournament was full of ups and downs. He was the chip leader entering Day 3 with 20 players remaining. “I went from first in chips to like dead last in chips with like I think two tables left, like 13 or 14 [players] left, and got all-in against Barry Greenstein in roughly a coin flip situation and won that coin flip and then after I won that I skyrocketed to, I think, first or second in chips at the final table and then was kind of hovering around the chip lead.
“I think with like four or five left there was little doubt in my mind that I was going to win because of how the payout structure was. The players were kind of playing really tight to try to get second. They were very content to ladder up and I was able to take advantage of that. It was kind of a … I don’t want to say a cake walk, but it was kind of predetermined that I was going to have an easier time winning.
“You hope to be in spots like this. Whenever you can have a substantial chip lead and the rest of the stacks are somewhat even you can see it in the same way that maybe a chess player sees a few moves ahead. There was this situation where I was being relentlessly re-bet by the person who got second, Viacheslav Zhukov, a very good player–probably the best player at the final table. He was relentlessly re-betting me and when finally I raised and he flat-called I thought it was so weird. Then I’m looking at the stacks and I’m counting with my mind and I realized–oh my god, he doesn’t want to blow the pot and get fourth or fifth. He wants to try to ladder up. Then after that I just punished everyone and raised every pot and tried to win every pot, and it worked out.
“I’ve had my close calls, but before this summer I told myself that it’s okay if you don’t win a bracelet. That’s just not going to happen for a lot of people and I kind of made peace with it. I guess that made it that much sweeter that I dealt with the fact that I was not going to win one and then to finally win one. The emotion in the moment, like I said you don’t really plan for it so I wasn’t sure how I was going to feel, kind of a sense of relief as odd as that is, like it should feel only positive, but it was kind of like weight on my shoulders that I had not done it yet despite working so hard at it. I kind of high-fived my friends and hugged my girlfriend and then I excused myself, went out into the hall and cried like a little girl. I haven’t cried in a decade and I cried, just balled. It was just so … I was just so overwhelmed.
“The immense gravity of the situation finally hits you when you’re handed the bracelet and everyone’s applauding and it’s such a cool accomplishment to be able to say yes, I have a World Series bracelet, like I’m in a select group of people.”
Still, though, he looks back to his roots in the Sacramento area: “I feel like I represent so many groups and I’m so proud to say I grew up in Sacramento cardrooms. I grew up playing small stakes. I grew up playing $4/8 Hold’em at Phoenix and $4/8 Omaha at Phoenix and Capital and Royale, grinding out small no-limit games for years while I was studying the game and trying to improve and working on things. I feel like, to a certain degree, I represent the small stakes guys. I represent the grinders. I represent Sacramento poker and I feel that when I’m talking to people now and when I have opportunities like this.”
Wrapping up, Barber said, “This was intended to be my last hurrah and my transition into academia, but I will never stop playing poker. I enjoy it enough and it’s a skill set that I developed and I cultivated so it would be kind of silly to not play. I’m trying to figure out what I’m going to play at Bay 101. I know there are lots of tournament players in the Bay Area. Even the daily tournaments get lots of people. I think I’m going to play the Bay 101 Open that’s coming up and some other stuff. I won’t be traveling as much. That will be the major change, but I will probably be competing up there on the weekends.”
In the end Barber wanted to stress his recent discovery of the joys of giving back and recommend that everyone check out the organization he has become involved with: “Before I went to the World Series I was reading a book by a guy named Peter Singer, it’s called “The Most Good You Can Do” and basically he makes the argument for us to look at charity in a different way and the argument that he puts forth is as follows: If we accept that we should be giving money to other people that are less fortunate then we should be looking at the effectiveness of the money that we are giving and we should only give to the charities that are doing the most good, and by the most good I mean saving the most lives per dollar, reducing the most suffering per dollar, and this argument just seemed like it had a eureka moment, like, duh, this is so obvious, why are we not doing things this way?
“After I read this book, I went down to the World Series and I found a group of poker players that were applying this philosophy to a charity and the charity is called Raising for Effective Giving. It’s involved some high rollers like Philip Gruissem and a couple of Main Event final tableists–Jorryt van Hoof and the Main Event winner Martin Jacobson are both involved.
“Basically, a lot of poker players are giving a substantial portion of what they make to this charity and to this movement because they believe in it so much. I’m fully on board. I’ve never given money to … I’ve given like a hundred dollars to NPR, that’s the most I’ve ever given a charity and now I’m going to give tens of thousands of dollars to this Raising for Effective Giving.
“It’s something that I’m pushing super hard and I just encourage people to investigate it because honestly if you do give money to charity, if anybody has any kind of extra money that they are looking to give to a cause, I can’t think of a way you could do more good in this world than to give to Effective Altruism.
“They’re like a meta-charity. They decide where the charities are that you should be giving to. For example, in the research they’ve done, the ones they’ve ranked number one and number two: one is the Against Malaria Foundation and they provide money for mosquito nets in areas where malaria is still a problem and they’ve just found immense returns for that.
“The other one is deworming medicine for kids in Africa, because these kids can’t go to school if they have these intestinal worms and these pills are like two cents a pill and the two of these lead to immensely ridiculous returns–returns on the order of a hundred times any charity that we give to in the U.S. You can save a life giving to these charities for about $3,400.
“In the U.S. even the best charity that we give to you can save a life for like $300,000, so you’re getting like a hundred times your value and I’m a nitty guy. I’m a cheap guy. So any time I see a good value like this I feel like it’s an opportunity that I have to seize upon.
“It’s probably going to drive a lot of the decisions I make in my life from how I spend my money to my career path to what I’m going to do with my free time. I’m super stoked about it. I feel so fortunate that I found it at this time and especially living in Santa Cruz, living with a bunch of hippies it’s going to be easy to live that lifestyle.”
For more information, the website for Raising for Effective Giving is www.reg-charity.org.