On Saturday at 11 am, just as cards are about go into the air for what will be another Millionaire Maker event at the World Series of Poker, an inconspicuous Canadian will be introduced to the crowd to polite applause. Next, he’ll take the microphone and ignite the exalted dreams of thousands of fellow poker players gathered from all over the world who hope to be standing in his place with his bankroll a year from now.
It will be Benny Chen’s first “Shuffle Up and Deal" moment.
Chen, the very first winner of the inaugural $1,500 buy-in Millionaire Maker tournament, which was held a year ago, knows what it’s like to take a seat at the poker table inside a cavernous tournament room alongside thousands of other players with mutual ambition. After all, it’s now a year almost to the day that this 33-year-old (then) aspiring professional poker player who was running a restaurant full-time anonymously arrived at the 2013 WSOP. Less than a week later, not only was his life completely transformed by winning his first gold bracelet along with a whopping $1,199,104 in prize money, but even more important for Chen, the victory provided new opportunities and a newfound sense of freedom to play more poker and enjoy life as it should be lived.
“Winning was incredible, especially with that kind of money attached to it,” Chen recalled. “It’s being able to have more freedom in your life and now being able to do what I want to do. That’s what winning the gold bracelet and more than a million did for me.”
Although talented and certainly dedicated to the game, there wasn’t much on his poker resume to suggest Chen’s life would be altered dramatically when he initially took his seat Event #6. Much like the atmosphere going into this year’s WSOP, the “Millionaire Maker” was looked upon by many as one of the most anticipated tournaments on schedule. Although $1 million was guaranteed to go to the winner (actually $1.2 million was the top prize since attendance exceeded even the most optimistic of projections), such a dream seemed almost unreachable given the enormous size of the field at 6,343 entries, rivaling the size of the $10,000 buy-in Main Event Championship.
Remarkably, Chen almost didn’t make it past the first day. In fact, he lasted only a few hours and soon busted out of the first session, uncertain whether or not to pursue the re-entry option. After being knocked out, Chen returned to his hotel room and took a nap. He woke up late, barely able to make it in time to play in the second session.
“I remember sleeping late,” Chen said. “The second session began at five (pm), and I didn’t make it to registration until like seven.”
Poker certainly isn’t a game of luck, but that was undoubtedly a lucky break for the man who would end up as champion. There were other lucky breaks, as well.
Chen managed to survive Day One, although he ended the night ranked below average in chips. Then during the middle of Day Two, Chen was tossed a miraculous poker lifeline which allowed him to survive. Low on chips, Chen moved all-in preflop holding K-J and was called by an opponent who held pocket aces. Chen flopped a king, giving him life, but then he got no help on the turn. Just as Chen prepared to vacate his seat, another king hit the board, giving Chen trip kings and the modest-sized pot. The winds of change had begun to blow and the storm was about to begin.
In retrospect, catching that king turned out to be a $1.2 million card.
“That was the biggest suck out I can recall,” Chen said. “I did have one more hand like that at the final table. But, for the most part, I didn’t have to get lucky. My luck -- if you call it that -- was getting good table and seat draws most of the way. That really is critical to how you do in any tournament. I was thinking how good my table draws were. I figured I had enough chips to make a deep run if I could just stay focused. That’s when I knew I had a shot.”
Chen had been confident like this on multiple occasions before, but each time he seemed right on the cusp of making a deep run and achieving a potentially career-changing victory, something really bad happened at the wrong time. His WSOP record, dating back to 2006, listed his best previous finish at 54th place in a total of five cashes. That’s certainly nothing to scoff at, but it’s also barely within the same code of the final table, and not even on the same financial and emotional planet as winning a gold bracelet.
“It was huge to make my first WSOP final table,” Chen recalled. “Making it really deep in a tournament of that size doesn’t come along very often. For many people it’s a once-in-a-lifetime chance. I mean, it was outlasting more than 6,000 players. You don’t do that in many poker tournaments. It’s so rare.”
Chen admitted feeling some serious apprehension about playing on the final day. He admitted to being superstitious and even went so far as to repeat the same routine each night afterward and day before, as the tournament progressed.
“I went to the same restaurant and ordered the same thing each time,” Chen said. “I wanted my girlfriend to come and watch the final table with me, but she knew what I was going through and she didn’t want to break my routine. For me, it was a Feng Shui kind of thing.”
Once at the final table, Chen managed to catch a second poker miracle. Once again, a king ended up as his savior. Chen shoved all-in at one point -- showing K-Q. His opponent had A-Q. Chen looked to be in terrible shape. But, once again, a king came at the right time and he doubled up. Looking back on his good fortune today, Chen has a philosophical approach to how things happen in poker.
“Beats are going to happen and you’re going to be on both sides of it,” Chen said. “You just have to accept that and when it’s you who take a beat you hopefully have enough chips to make it through and continue playing.”
Chen’s ultimate moment of glory occurred when he took pocket nines up against Michael Bennington’s pocket threes on what turned out to be the final hand of the poker marathon. Bennington, a commercial pilot from the Dallas area, pocketed $741,902 as a nice consolation prize. Meanwhile, Chen was on the other side of the ESPN television stage being carried around the final table by more than a dozen friends and well-wishers.
“When I won, I looked over at the stands and ran over to my friends,” Chen recalled, still beaming from the happy memory. “They all lifted me in the air. They were even happier for me that I was!”
Flushed with newfound wealth and a bankroll that exceeded $1.2 million, Chen didn’t change the way he viewed money or material things. For one thing, he didn’t rush out and make any large purchases or blow the money, which unfortunately is all-too common for some poker champions. Chen admitted he went out and bought “a nice watch.” However, that was the extent of his celebratory spending spree.
What really mattered to the refreshingly modest Chen, more than big houses and fancy cars, was being able to live life on his own terms. Following his victory, he took a break from his life in Canada operating a restaurant. He moved to Southern California and now spends at least part of the year living closer to his girlfriend in Orange County. Chen also continues to invest in various business interests on the side, but now spends the majority of his time playing poker.
Over the past year, Chen has concentrated mostly on playing cash games. He now plays somewhat higher than before, “but not too high,” he jokes. Chen also noted that he enjoys playing poker more now because there’s less stress involved. Such is one of the many luxuries of winning the Millionaire Maker.
Of all the joys that have come over the past year since Chen’s victory, he’s most fond of two things – both of which are poker-related. Chen parlayed that gold bracelet victory into a cash in last year’s Main Event, coming in a very-respectable 393rd place out of 6,352 players. That reaffirmed a greater sense of confidence, especially about how to manage competing in huge fields. Chen also participated in the $111,111 buy-in One Drop High Roller tournament last year, by far the biggest event he’d ever entered. Even though he didn’t cash, Chen came away with some fond memories making the experience well worth it.
“It was huge for me to play in the One Drop against some really good players,” Chen said. “Not only does it elevate your game and you learn things you didn’t know before, it’s also just a great experience. That was one of the highlights for sure, since I would never have been able to play in such a huge event without having won the million.”
As for advice for this year’s aspiring millionaires, thousands of whom are expected to flood into the Rio starting on May 31st (Saturday) for the chance at a guaranteed million-dollar first prize, Chen offered a straightforward assessment on his recipe for success.
“There are lots of things going on in your head, especially along the way in the field with this size,” Chen advised. “But basically it all comes down to not forcing things. Instead, pick your spots. Be patient. Let things come to you.”
For Chen, that’s a natural poker sermon to preach. Whether in poker or in life, he’s never forced things. He always picks his spots carefully. And most certainly good things have come to him -- very good things indeed, including (now) seven WSOP cashes, $1,253,952 in WSOP winnings, and a well-deserved gold bracelet.
The $1,500 Millionaire Maker event gets underway Saturday. There are two starting flights with a single re-entry option at 11am and 5pm. More information is available on WSOP.com.