The water has receded in Tunica and we’re back to business as usual in the poker rooms. The early summer months are historically the slowest of the year for poker in the Mississippi cardrooms. However, with the combination of Black Friday and a month-long flood shutdown we’re busier than ever.
A few of Mississippi’s best-known players are notably absent, though. They packed their bags and took off to Vegas to try their hand at the 42nd annual World Series of Poker.
This year’s inaugural National Circuit Championship $1,000,000 freeroll included several regional pros on the invitation list. Kyle Cartwright of Bartlett, Tenn., who claimed the coveted Harrah’s Tunica title at the February WSOP Circuit stop, Will Souther of Biloxi, Miss., who won an “at-large” bid for a free-roll invitation due to overall points earned on the circuit and Bob Talbot of Tunica, Miss., who secured his spot with his IP Biloxi Casino title, were just a few of the regional all-stars to make the cut. However, it would be a relative newcomer that would make history.
Sam Barnhart of Little Rock, Ark., is the “new kid” of tournament poker. Hardly a “kid” at all, Barnhart is a successful 50-year-old software analyst who has been playing cash poker for more than 15 years. His game of choice is $20-$40 limit at Horseshoe Tunica, where until just recently he was part of a beloved group of regular players. In February he tried his hand at big-league tournament play when he entered the Harrah’s WSOPC main event. His $148,612 first-place victory was celebrated locally, as he endured good- natured ribbing about his “lucky streak.” Just a few short weeks later he cashed fourth in the Gold Strike Delta Gold’s main event for $10,476.
I had the pleasure of sitting behind him during his run at the Delta Gold. It was around 10 p.m., the night of the final table, and the crowds on the rail were sparse and dwindling. I enlisted the support of Louisiana pro Al Theriac to pull up a chair as well, and we settled in to watch Barnhart in action. Aside from being genuinely the nicest guy in poker, Barnhart is absolutely fearless while playing. Even when significantly short-stacked, he never hesitated to put his money in and appeared to always be confident in his move. Obviously, he didn’t win every hand, but he knew when to move and for how much. It was evident then that he has found his calling in tournament poker.
He catapulted quickly from poker-room regular, to local celebrity. Barnhart had only cashed in three tournaments before this breakout run. All three cashes were less than $1,000. Preferring cash play instead he simply didn’t play that many tournaments. His main-event win earned him a bid in the national championship.
At Horseshoe Tunica, pictures of his successes were displayed sending him well wishes in Vegas. I’d like to think our support gave him a bit of luck, though I’m not entirely sure it was necessary. On May 29, Sam won $300,000 and the first gold WSOP bracelet of the season by taking down the title in what is scheduled to be an annual event, putting his name in the history books.
On his win, Barnhart simply said: “This is a wonderful feeling. It’s one of the best feelings I’ve ever had in my life.”
Despite a career where crunching numbers is a necessity, he says he relies less on math and more on “intuition and observation” while playing.
Barnhart made a decision at the start of 2011 to take one year and commit to tournament poker. He said at the end of the year, based on how he’d done, he would decide if he could make a living playing full time. It may be safe to assume that after this year, we’ll be seeing a lot more of Sam.
Of the 59 bracelets up for grabs in Vegas, I hope a few more make their way home to Mississippi. I’m staying glued to the updates and relying on readers to keep me informed during the weeks when I’m not in Vegas. Depending on your perspective, the WSOP may mark the culmination of the season.
For those of us down South, it’s the beginning of a whirlwind of events that make this the greatest state in the nation to play. July through December features the World Poker Open at Gold Strike in Tunica, the Gulf Coast Poker Championship at the Beau Rivage in Biloxi and the WSOP Circuit at the IP in Biloxi. Edging into winter, we have the Magnolia State Classic at Horseshoe Tunica and the Winter Classic at Gold Strike.
In 2010, this region put some of the best players in the country on the map. There’s always room for a few more. I hope to see you all in Mississippi this year, vying for your piece of the pie.
— Jennifer Gay is a poker journalist, poker supervisor and player local to the Mid-South region.She can be contacted at facebook.com/aceofjewels.