Gavin Smith is the People’s Champion

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By Christopher Cosenza

When you’re dubbed the “People’s Champion” it’s considered a compliment by those who name you. Average Joes can relate to you because you seem like one of them, sans the celebrity status and million-dollar paydays, of course. But when it comes to Gavin Smith you really believe he’s just one of your home-game pals tossing a few back and playing cards. He even earned that moniker in a very Average Joe way.

“I thought it was funny,” he said after busting out of the Nov. 28 main event that bears his name at One-Eyed Jacks in Sarasota. “We came up with it some time when we were out drinking. (Sam Minutello) called me that. It’s pretty funny.”

Minutello, the poker room manager at One-Eyed Jacks, and Smith have been close friends since Smith won the World Poker Tour’s Mirage Poker Showdown in 2005. He’s invited Smith to play in Sarasota’s Pros vs. Joes tournament series more than once, and this time Minutello decided Smith deserved a tournament all to himself: The Gavin Smith Invitational.

“I don’t care,” Smith said when asked what it was like to have an event named after him. “It’s cool when you come down here ’cause they’re all really nice to me. The people are really friendly.”

The local players weren’t that friendly, however, as Smith had a bounty on his head for all four tournaments, including a whopper in the main event. Smith says he just played his game.

“I did not adjust at all,” he said. “Maybe I should’ve, I don’t know. I generally just try to play the same way I would normally play. But I think it’s possible I should’ve adjusted. People definitely come after me a little more, especially today because it was a big bounty. It was $1,100. To win $1,100, a lot of these guys got in here on satellites and stuff so if they win $1,100 that’s a big deal to them. So, yeah, I probably should’ve played harder.”
He admits it’s too difficult to focus when he’s playing tournaments with paltry buy-ins (the largest in this series was $800).

“It’s really pathetic how little I care about it,” he said inside the Hungry Jacks Café. “If I do well, I do well; if I don’t then I just play some sit-and-go tournaments or something.”
One time when he did focus came this past October at the WPT’s North American Poker Championships in Ontario. He finished runner-up and won $600K, which really upset him. “Upset him?” you may wonder. Well, you see, Smith hails from Guelph, Ontario.

“It would’ve been very special,” he said. “I had tons of friends and family there so it was a very pro-me crowd and I wanted to win … not to mention the extra $600K I would’ve won. I was playing against a guy (Glen Witmer) that I felt very confident I could easily beat if I had stuck with my plan of playing really small pots.”

But once again his lack of focus reared its ugly head. “All of a sudden I brain-farted. I knew what he had (ace-king) and I had a pair of fives and decided to move in to race with him, which was so stupid. I could’ve just kept plugging away … It was a big f*ck-up.”
It’s a struggle to play his “A” game on a consistent basis, he says, but then he rattles off why it’s so difficult with the ease of someone who’s been asked that question a hundred times a year.

“You’d think you could always come and play your best, but nobody can,” said Smith, who has nearly $5 million in career tournament winnings. “There’s a lot that goes into it. You have to have the right feel; you have to have enough sleep; you have to have a good table dynamic; you have to have a whole lot of things go right to play your very best. And you know your life has to be all right. When things go wrong in your life that really can affect your poker, which is what happened to me during the World Series. If I could play my best all the time I’d be pretty f*cking good.”

Speaking of the Series, many feel the measure of a poker player is judged by how many bracelets he’s won. Don’t say that to Smith, who has yet to put a gold bracelet on his wrist. The former WPT Player of the Year weighs certain events more than others.
“I guess it depends on the bracelet. Winning in Canada would be a huge deal for me. I think (the NAPC)’s probably one of the top four or five tournaments of the year I would want to win. There are some bracelets I would take over it, but for like a little $1,500 thing? I’m not as bracelet-(driven) as a lot of people are, you know? If I get it, I get it. If I don’t, I don’t. I’d rather win the money.”

Does he feel he’s the best player never to have won a bracelet? “There are some pretty good players out there without a bracelet. I think it all depends on which “me” is there. I think when I show up and I’m playing my best, quite possibly I’m the best player out there without a bracelet. But I think when I’m out there and I’m playing the way I played the World Series (in 2008), I don’t think I have any f*cking right to be mentioned in the same breath with the people that deserve that because I can play awful f*cking bad when I want to.”

To know Gavin Smith is to know a person who loves action. He often plays Chinese poker and even hearts with his fellow poker pros. And the stakes are pretty steep.

“Growing up I played a lot of hearts … it’s a lot of fun. Brandon Cantu, Jeff Madsen, Brian Devonshire and Layne Flack, lately we’ve been getting together at my house and playing fairly high-stakes hearts, $100 a point and paying everyone out. So at $100 a point you can win $20K a game, so that’s kinda big. But it’s fun, and I’m better than them. Cantu’s probably a little better than me, but the rest of them I’m much better than.”

But to know Gavin Smith is also to know someone who loves to drink, even more than he loves action. Combining the two is like bliss for Smith, and recently his friends approached him with an offer he couldn’t refuse.

“Going through the World Series I was on life-tilt,” he said, pausing a minute from chatting with poker pro Theo Tran, who Smith says looks like Abu from the movie Aladdin. “I had just broken up with my fiancée. I torpedoed the entire World Series and got drunk every f*cking day and was a complete mess. So every year before the main event we go up to Tahoe on a golf trip. This year we were up there and we were sitting around having dinner and my buddies brought up the fact that I was drinking way too much or whatever and offered to make me a bet. So I ended up that night, on a Saturday night, quitting drinking. It was July 6th and I gave them till Nov. 6th. So my buddies basically did a little intervention and decided to try to help me. I ended up betting a pretty big number, and it really wasn’t even a bet so much as it was a freeroll. They were helping me out. A lot of it was a freeroll. I couldn’t have lost very much. … only about $20K-$30K. They rest was pure win so I did it.”

Four months with no Bacardi and Diet Coke? That must’ve been an eternity, right?
“It wasn’t hard. It’s not hard to not drink. It’s just a helluva lot more fun to drink.”
An “intervention” and a four-month drought might make someone think twice about returning to the bar.

“I’m trying to drink less,” he said, “but it’s a big part of my life. It’s sort of the way I’ve always done things.”

And that’s Gavin Smith in a nutshell. What you see is what you get. He’s not a reflective kind of guy. He’s an Average Joe.

He’s the People’s Champion.