Tyler Smith, born and raised in Smithdale, Miss., has put on perhaps the greatest
run in southern tournament poker history. Since January he’s won Beau Rivage’s
Spring Break Poker Classic, Gold Strike’s World Poker Open and he made the final table
of the World Poker Tour’s Southern Poker Championship, all while in his own back yard.
The 23-year-old poker pro says staying close to home is the recipe for his success.
By Christopher Cosenza
If West Lincoln School in Brookhaven, Miss., had a tougher curriculum the poker world might never have seen Tyler Smith.
“It was close to the end of my senior year and there was a class where we really didn’t do anything,” said Smith, 23. “We played hearts and spades in the back of this classroom. One day we got kinda tired of playing those games and somebody said ‘Let’s play hold’em,’ and they taught me how to play. … We were playing for like pennies. We would bring whatever change we had in our vehicles. We’d put it in our pockets before we came into school that day and just played for two or three dollars.”
It’s easy to say those days, though just five years ago, are long behind him. Smith has displayed some of the finest no-limit hold’em tournament play The South has seen, culminating with a victory in Gold Strike’s World Poker Open $5K main event in Tunica, Miss. His $152,529 payday was the biggest of his short career, coming on the heels of his Spring Break Poker Classic main event title ($111K) at the Beau Rivage, where he also made the final table of the WPT Southern Poker Championship in January.
If Southern Poker Player of the Year were a real award he’d have it all sewn up. The Biloxi, Miss., resident (and Smithdale native) said his incredible run over the past nine months is the result of the hard work he’s put in since he was 18.
“It’s not like you can just wake up and you’re born a great poker player. You have to put time into it and work at it just like anything else. You can only get out of it what you put into it, and I’ve put a LOT into it. When I was in college I literally didn’t have a life. I never went out; I never partied; I never did anything. On Friday nights I was in my room playing online poker. I played every day; every minute I had to spare I pretty much played. … I work hard at it.”
Smith went to Mississippi College on a basketball scholarship, having been named all-county and all-state as a senior who averaged 24 points a game. He said poker and basketball served a very similar purpose for him.
“I’ve got an obsessive personality,” said Smith, who won a $1K World Series of Poker circuit ring in New Orleans just months after turning 21. “I get involved with something and I just can’t let go. I really, really loved basketball. I enjoyed it. So I practiced all the time. It was like my poker, but when I was 15, you know? I just played all the time. I guess the love for it just wore off when I found something new. Poker was what it was, and I just ran with it; I didn’t stop. I got my competitive drive through poker.”
So much so that basketball, and college, really didn’t stand a chance.
“I stayed there one semester. That was the first semester out of high school and I wound up transferring back to a community college because, honestly, I was spending too much time playing poker and I didn’t want to play basketball anymore. … I went back to a community college that was close to home and wound up finishing two years there.”
Now he barely can remember the last time he stepped on the hardwood.
“Actually last night someone was asking me about that. I probably haven’t played 10 times since I quit. I can think of one occasion in the past year where I’ve played basketball. That’s something I could work on because I’m not in the best shape of my life, that’s for sure.”
Well, he might not be in the best shape of his life, but his poker game certainly is. If you can’t find him at the Beau (where plays about once a week), you can find him playing online at FeltStars.com, a new site that signed him a year ago.
“Whenever I’m (home) I’m pretty much playing online,” he said. “I play tournaments on Sundays and the rest of the week I’m playing cash. I really only play in main events in live tournaments.”
Indeed, and the WPO was no exception. Smith says smaller buy-ins don’t do it for him, so he just plays in the side cash games until the main event rolls around.
“I would say I’m probably more of a cash-game player actually. I pretty much play anything live. Around here the cash games aren’t that big, but when I go off and I’m playing tournaments I’m usually playing the highest cash games they have.”
But once he sits at the tournament table he’s all business, and business is good. The path to his WPO victory was made a lot easier by a hand with Tennessee’s Frank Kassela, this year’s lone double-bracelet winner at the WSOP.
“It was early on,” Smith said. “I’m pretty aggressive; I guess the word is probably out. I would say me and (WPT Player of the Year) Faraz Jaka are probably the wildest players on the tour. I was opening 80 or 90 percent of the pots and three-betting a lot. Kassela opened and I was down to like 12K, and I think the blinds were 100-200 pre-ante. He made it 500 and I’m in the cutouff with king-jack and made it 1,300. It folds back to him and he called. The flop came king-high (with two diamonds) and he checked. I bet 1,350 and he made it 3K. I made it like 4,900, just 1,900 on top of his 3,000, and he just snapped shoved. I called it off and he had A-Q with no diamonds. … So I doubled up to like 25K and I didn’t look back from there. It was one of those tournaments where my style just worked for me. I opened a ton of pots and people just didn’t have hands; that’s what it boiled down to.”
Sounds simple, doesn’t it? Once he got to the final table the players there gave him little resistance as well. And in the end, when he went heads-up with Tennessee’s Jeremy Drewery, he got a little lucky, which is a lethal combination when you add in Smith’s aggression.
“I actually sucked out on him,” Smith said of the final hand with Drewery. “The flop was Q-J-9. I bet, he raised and I shoved on him. He was pretty short and wound up having Q-8. We got it all-in and I had Q-6. Obviously a lot of cards are going to chop it up for us, but I wound up hitting a six on the turn. Pretty fortunate.”
Drewery took home $80K for second and Smith had another hold’em title on his resumé.
One thing that may surprise you is Smith never has played in a tournament that wasn’t no-limit hold’em. But, then again, given his tremendous success in NLHE events, that odd fact makes perfect sense.
“But I have played PLO,” he said, almost defiantly. “I’m certainly not saying I know what I’m doing because I don’t think I’m very good, but I’ve actually played pretty high online and I’ve done all right. I play cash PLO but that’s about it.”
What about stud or draw games? Surely he sat on someone’s knee as a kid and learned these games, right?
“I wouldn’t even know how to start in a stud game. I wouldn’t even know how the cards are dealt. I did an interview where they were asking me my goals as far as poker goes and I did say I’d like to be a good poker player. Right now I’m just a good hold’em player. I don’t even think I’m a great hold’em player; I’m just good. But I’d like to be a great all-around player and play all the games well. But I have a long way to go. It’s taken me so long to get to where I’m at in hold’em that I don’t know if I want to go through it again really.”
Can the hard work he alluded to really be the only reason for his incredible run? Maybe it’s all that home cooking.
“I do think (being home) makes a difference because I’m so happy here,” he said. “I’m always in a good mood. I go to Vegas every summer and I actually never had a good summer in Vegas. I never had a winning trip, lost a good bit of money over the course of the last three summers. It’s not a good fit for me. I enjoy a change. It’s fun … for a while, but it’s grueling. I don’t enjoy that. It’s just not for me. That’s probably a big reason why I haven’t done well. I’d rather be at home when I’m out there playing poker. You gotta enjoy what you’re doing, you gotta have fun with it, or at least I do. … Out there, I haven’t played well. It’s all my fault that I lost money. It’s not that I ran bad in Las Vegas or other places that I’ve been, I just seem to not play as good as I can whenever I’m away from home.”
If you look up his tournament statistics you’ll see just about every cash he’s had has come in the Gulf states.
“I don’t really enjoying traveling that much. … I’m happy in Mississippi and I love it in Biloxi. It’s a great place. I just like to stick around here so that’s kinda what I do. I just play online, play some cash around here and try to hit some main events. That’s what I enjoy doing.”
Smith’s greatest poker moment not what you think
Tyler Smith won a World Series of Poker circuit ring in New Orleans (good for $87K) when he was 21; he’s taken down the Spring Break Poker Classic Main Event at the Beau Rivage and he just captured the World Poker Open main at the Gold Strike. Yet none of these accomplishments qualifies as his best poker moment.
“When I was 19 I remember being at home and I was playing a ton online. … It was a $100K guarantee tournament and I won (the seat) through reward points. You get into a tournament and you satellite your way into a satellite for the tournament and I won a seat. I was just like so excited at the time. I wound up getting second in this ($100K) tournament and I was the only one at home. I was at my parents’ house and I was in my sister’s room because she had the computer set up in there. … I wound up getting $15K.
“The guy that beat me was (2010 WSOP $25K six-max bracelet-winner) Daniel Kelly (known as DJK123 online), and you know how much older I am than he is. So he was in high school! He got $25K and I got $15K. I remember asking him heads-up if he wanted to chop it up and he was like, ‘No, I’ll just take the $25K.’ He was like leagues ahead of me. I didn’t know what I was doing. I was awful, but I luck-boxed my way to it.
“It would pop up on your screen and say, ‘Congratulations, $15K has been credited to your account!’ and I just fell back on my little sister’s bed with my arms like spread open and I was looking up at the ceiling smiling. I was like, ‘There’s no way this is real. No way.’ I was like, ‘I’m rich. I’m rich. I’m rich!’ And I remember calling my grandpa and was like, ‘Look, I just won $15K, what am I going to do? I’m never gonna have to work again.’ I mean I never had more than $1,000, so I really thought I had struck it big.
“And this is why I don’t have a regard for money. … It didn’t take me long to dump pretty much every penny of it playing $75-$150 limit and $150-$300 limit. So I was near busted pretty shortly after that. … I’ve definitely run up money and lost it all several times over the course of the last few years. There were times where I’d have $60-$70K in my accounts online and at the end of the day I’d have $10K, and that was pretty much all I had.”
— Christopher Cosenza