The WSOP Circuit just wrapped up its annual autumn visit to Harrah’s Cherokee, a property that hosts multiple stops per season. The venue is one of the East Coast’s gems, boasting a cavernous ballroom and plenty of amenities for the discerning grinder.

As is usually the case, the festival was well attended by players from the region and abroad. The 12 events generated a total of 8,484 entries and awarded nearly $3.9 million in prize money.

Twelve gold rings were handed out during this trip to the mountains of North Carolina, with five of them going to previous Circuit winners.

 TJ Shulman is one of them, and he started the series off with a bang. The 50-year-old Florida pro won the opening re-entry event, outlasting a field of 2,397 entries to collect the top prize of more than $100,000. His first victory came last season in West Palm Beach, and he claimed this second ring in Cherokee almost exactly one year later. The payout moved him over $750,000 in career tournament earnings.

Janet Fitzgerald already had two Circuit rings when she arrived, and she, too, added another to her total. Fitzgerald, also from Florida, took down the Monster Stack and its big field of 1,297 entries. That was the second-largest crowd of the series, and the win gave Fitzgerald her third ring and the top prize of $68,746. It’s her largest cash on record.

Curiously, the same night Fitzgerald won her third, another Florida pro matched that feat.

At just 23 years old, Orlando’s Jeff Trudeau is already an accomplished tournament pro. His previous results included Circuit wins in New Orleans and Choctaw, with the latter coming just a couple weeks ago.

Trudeau is a High-Roller-caliber player, and he was among the 106-entry field for the $2,200 event at Hararah’s Cherokee. It was the series’ biggest buy-in, and it ended with Trudeau posing for photos as he clutched his third gold ring. This one came with a payout of close to $64,000, bringing his career total across the $700,000 mark.

Bryan Carter and Steven Ruighaver were the other two ring winners who added to their collections over the course of the 12-day run in Cherokee.

David Jackson was not a ring winner when he showed up in Cherokee, but he was by the time he left. And he picked up the title of Casino Champion along the way, too. Jackson arrived a couple days late, and he didn’t wait long to make his mark.

Event #3 was the series’ only $580 event, and it drew a field of 363 entries. Jackson beat them all, outlasting a tough final table to pick up his first piece of jewelry. The win came just weeks after the birth of his second child, and the champ attributed the victory to a little “baby run-good.”

He wasn’t done, though. Jackson picked up a small cash in the eight-handed event a couple days later, which led right into the Main Event.

The $1,675 event ended up with 957 entries, creating a prizepool worth $1,435,500. Jackson ended Day 1 second in chips, and he finished Day 2 in fourth place with 16 players remaining.

By that point, there was just one ring left in the locked cabinet in the corner of the room, and it was the diamond-crusted one that everyone wants to get their hands on. The Main Event winner was set to collect more than a quarter of a million dollars, too, so there was a lot to play for on the final two days of the series.

As so often happens, the Casino Champion race came down to that final day, as well.

Ring winner Mike Notarianni entered the day with a small lead, but he had to fade final table appearances by Jackson and Tyler Phillips, who were both among the final 16 in the Main Event.

Phillips is the brother of two-time bracelet winner Carter Phillips, and he had a particularly profitable series. He cashed four times and made two final tables, including a near-miss in the High Roller.

Phillips dropped out of the Casino Champion race with his 14th-place exit in the Main Event, though, leaving just Jackson and Notarianni in contention.

The former needed a finish of eighth or better to seal the deal, and he got it. Although Jackson had his kings cracked by queens to exit in seventh place, his frustration was mitigated by the announcement that he’d earned Casino Champion honors. He finished with a total of 85 points and $83,025 in earnings.

The final six players battled on for several more hours, with two-time ring winner Krzysztof Stybaniewicz riding the short stack until his exit in fifth place. Edwin Yancey and John Whitlow fell in fourth and third, respectively, setting up the final showdown between James Moon and Charles Johnson.

Johnson began the match with the chip lead, and the battle was mostly lopsided in his favor. Around 10 p.m. on Monday, the final hand played out in a dramatic coin flip for the rest of Moon’s shortening stack. Johnson held jack-ten against Moon’s pocket nines, and the former rivered a two-out straight to notch a breakout victory.

Johnson is a 37-year-old recreational player, and he spoke about the talented poker community with which he rubs shoulders at home in Atlanta. He credited some of his ring-winning friends, like Bubba Dukes and David Aker, for helping to shape his game. The $272,744 payout was by far the largest of his part-time career, and the champ was nearly overcome with emotion as he sat through the photo session with his first piece of WSOP hardware.

More information about each of the 12 ring winners can be found below.

As is the case for all stops on the WSOP Circuit, there were two seats for the Global Casino Championship up for grabs at Harrah’s Cherokee. Johnson claimed one with his Main Event victory, and Jackson took the other by winning the series-long points race and the title of Casino Champion.

All players who cashed in ring events earned points that apply toward the season-long race to claim one of the limited at-large bids, as well.

Ring Winners


Event #1: $365 No-Limit Hold'em Re-entry
Winner: TJ Shulman ($102,398)
Results | Official Report | Winner's Photo

Event #2: $365 No-Limit Hold'em Turbo
Winner: Matt Smith ($33,224)
Results | Official Report | Winner's Photo

Event #3: $580 No-Limit Hold'em
Winner: David Jackson ($39,938)
Results | Official Report | Winner's Photo

Event #4: $365 No-Limit Hold'em 6-Handed
Winner: Steven Ruighaver ($36,346)
Results | Official Report | Winner's Photo

Event #5: $365 Pot-Limit Omaha
Winner: Yoon Kim ($20,089)
Results | Official Report | Winner's Photo

Event #6: $365 No-Limit Hold'em 8-Handed
Winner: Mike Notarianni ($39,063)
Results | Official Report | Winner's Photo

Event #7: $365 Monster Stack
Winner: Janet Fitzgerald ($68,746)
Results | Official Report | Winner's Photo

Event #8: $365 No-Limit Hold'em
Winner: Jett Schencker ($30,445)
Results | Official Report | Winner's Photo

Event #9: $2,200 High Roller
Winner: Jeff Trudeau ($63,599)
Results | Official Report | Winner's Photo

Event #10: $1,675 MAIN EVENT

Winner: Charles Johnson ($272,744)
Results | Official Report | Winner's Photo

Event #11: $365 No-Limit Hold'em Turbo
Winner: Bryan Carter ($27,332)
Results | Official Report | Winner's Photo

Event #12: $365 No-Limit Hold'em Double Stack Turbo
Winner: Ricky Robinson Jr. ($31,665)
Results | Official Report | Winner's Photo

About the Winners


TJ Shulman

Event #1: TJ Sulman ($102,398)

Shulman, 50, is a professional poker player who makes his home in South Florida. He’s been around this game and others like it since he was a kid, learning the ropes from his late father.

“He played every Friday night in the game,” Shulman recalled. “I’d run around and get drinks for everybody for tips.”

The affinity for card games set him down the path of a full-time player, though he did move into the mainstream workforce for a while.

After college, Shulman became the director of operations for a large automobile chain, overseeing more than 50 dealerships. As the single parent of a young son, though, he realized an early retirement might be a possibility.

“When my son was three, I got tired of coming home at midnight,” Shulman said. “I just asked myself how much I needed. And I had my number.”

Shulman did retire, and now he gets to play the game full time and set his own schedule. As it has for the last 20 years, though, his calendar still revolves around his son. Brandon, 20, is a college hockey player, and Shulman prioritizes cheerleading over poker when the opportunity arises.

This result, the second-largest of his career, moves him across the $750,000 mark in total earnings.


Matt Smith

Event #2: Matt Smith ($32,224)

Smith, 45, is an OB-GYN doctor from Dalton, Georgia. The father of three has been playing the game for close to a quarter of a century, and he spent several years grinding online before Black Friday. During that span, he says he had more than one six-figure score, but this result represents his largest in the brick-and-mortar realm.

“I think I played well all day,” he said of his performance. “I took a couple bad beats, but I was able to keep accumulating chips.” The latter is a key component of profitable tournament play, but Smith realized there were some other forces at work, too. “Caught lucky one or twice,” he admitted. “Won a few flips.”

Because of his work schedule, Smith mostly plays cash games. He made the weekend trip to Cherokee to play at the Pot-Limit Omaha tables, and he quickly ran up “a few thousand dollars” in profit. He decided to lock in the win and spend the rest of the day splashing around in a tournament, and the one-day Turbo was the perfect fit.

It ended up being quite the profitable decision, too. Smith turned a few thousand bucks into more than 33 thousand of them by the end of the night.


David Jackson

Event #3: David Jackson ($39,938)

Jackson, 30, is a professional poker player from Jacksonville, Florida. He’s only been playing the game full time for about five years, and he’s already racked up seven figures in earnings.

“I used to play online,” he said of his background in the game. “I did well, but I went broke like four times straight. I’d make a little bit of money, quit my job, and then lose it. Then I’d go back to work and make a little more money.”

Jackson finally got one of his shots to stick, and he hasn’t looked back since. This most recent result moves him over $1.2 million in career earnings, including a six-figure score at the 2014 WSOP.

He was a few days late arriving in Cherokee, but Jackson got right to work in Event #3. He ended Day 1 in 18th place with 32 players left, and he was nursing a short stack by the time the final 10 players combined around one table. Things turned around quickly from there, though, and he went on to defeat Michael Cooper in the heads-up match to secure the win.

Although the poker accolades were well worth discussing, Jackson spent most of the winner’s interview talking about his family. “Make sure you give my wife, Gloria, a shoutout,” he said. “Without her, I wouldn’t be here.”

He also gives partial credit to his infant child for the way things ended up. “Baby run-good,” he laughed.


Steven Rugihaver

Event #4: Steven Ruighaver ($36,346)

Ruighaver, 29, is the owner of his own construction company in Sumpter, South Carolina. He’s married with two children, an 11-year-old son and a 6-year-old daughter.

“I told ‘em I was taking it home to the wife and kids,” he said after the last river card landed. “Told ‘em I was bringing the money home.”

This property represents the closest casino in which Ruighaver can play live poker, and he’s certainly made the most of his recent trips. He’s brought the money (and the ring) home twice in recent months.

“I was running hot,” Ruighaver ran through the two-day event in his head. “I couldn’t miss a hand.”

The victory is his second at Harrah's Cherokee, with the first coming just a few months ago in the Circuit's previous trip to the venue.


Yoon Kim

Event #5: Yoon Kim ($20,089)

Kim, 49, is a small business owner from Dacula, Georgia. He was born in South Korea, where he first started playing cards as an adolescent. “I never knew about hold’em and PLO,” he said. “We played seven-card stud back then.” He learned the more mainstream games after arriving in the US.

As tends to happen in PLO, the tournament was a swingy one for Kim. He started Day 2 with 22 big blinds, and he had worked his way into third place by the time he reached the final table.

Things started to unravel a bit, though, and Kim’s stack took a few big hits as the table shrank. According to Kim, though, it turned around with a quickness. “All of the sudden, it just came back,” he said. “It all just kept coming. So fast!”

Kim was heads-up with Tyler Joyner in no time, but the two battled hard for the ring. The chips moved Kim’s way over time, though, and the last hand saw him flop top set of tens to end Joyner’s run.

Because of work and family obligations, poker is just a part-time pleasure for Kim. He’s married with two children, ages 5 and 14. “Poker is just one of my favorite hobbies,” he said. “Golf and poker, that’s it.”

This win seemed to provide Kim with some validation that his time on the felt has been well spent. “I’m just glad that I have this ring to show my wife,” he beamed. “I wanted to prove to her that I could do this.” 

Mike Notarianni

Event #6: Mike Notarianni ($39,038)

Notarianni, 43, is a sales rep from Charlotte, North Carolina. The game of poker is really nothing more than a casual hobby for him. “Amateur player,” he described himself. “But I’ve been playing for years and years. Mostly home games, but I come to Cherokee once in a while.”

Despite his modest record, Notarianni has notched cashes at Cherokee in each of the last four years dating back to 2013. This one is by far the largest, though, increasing his total career earnings nearly tenfold. He even took a shot at the WSOP Main Event one year, making it to Day 3 but ultimately falling short of the money.

He didn’t fall short of anything this time.

Notarianni’s Event #6 got off to a bit of a rough start, though, and he was forced to rebuild after losing about two-thirds of the starting stack during the opening levels.

Rebuild he did. By the time the field was reduced to the final table, Notarianni was essentially tied for the chip lead with Michael Casey. The table contained three previous ring winners, too, including six-timer Mark “Pegasus” Smith.

Notarianni outlasted them all, though, defeating Charlie Dawson in the heads-up match to seal the victory around 4 o’clock on Wednesday morning.


Janet Fitzgerald

Event #7: Janet Fitzgerald ($68,746)

Fitzgerald is a former construction professional from West Palm Beach, Florida. It was there, upon her retirement, that she picked up the game of poker in a serious way.

“I just used to play at the track,” she said. “It wasn’t until three or four years ago that I started to think…,” she trailed off.

In 2015, Fitzgerald finished in fourth place in a ring event at the kennel club, and the five-figure payout was the first of her Circuit career.

She found a backer to help mitigate the expenses of a traveling tournament pro, and she’s gone on to make some good money for both her and her financial supporters. Two years later, she’s already approaching $200,000 in career tournament earnings, with nearly all of that coming on the WSOP Circuit.

This run was a slow burn that kept getting hotter as the event progressed. After a sluggish start, she rallied to end Day 1 in 28th place with 85 players remaining. By the time the field reached the final table, she was fifth of ten, still hovering near the middle of the pack.

The rest of the day belonged to Fitzgerald, though, outlasting a tough group that included five-time ring winner Cody Pack. The only lady at the final table was too much for the guys to handle, and she stormed her way to the title right around midnight local time.


Jett Schencker

Event #8: Jett Schencker ($30,445)

Schencker, 30, is a newly minted full-time grinder from Birmingham, Alabama. As a part-time player, he found himself at the final table of a $5,000 event this past summer, where he faced off against the likes of Alex Foxen and Yevgeniy Timoshenko. Schencker made it all the way to heads-up play before falling to British standout Christopher Brammer.

After the near-miss, he decided to take some time away from his shipping fulfillment business to grind the Circuit. “I’m essentially a poker player now,” Schencker described himself. “I’ve played local cash games for a long time. But I quit doing that and started traveling this year. And I’ve had a pretty good run.”

It’s about time to drop the “essentially” part of his job title. These last few months have continued to be profitable for the new pro, and this result is his second five-figure cash this fall. This one comes with a gold ring and a significant boost to the bankroll.

Curiously, Schencker’s WSOP runner-up finish and his win at Cherokee both came in events with 30-minute structures. He’d also made the final table of last season’s Harrah’s New Orleans Main Event prior to his deep run in Vegas.


Jeff Trudeau

Event #9: Jeff Trudeau ($63,599)

Trudeau, 23, is a professional poker player from Orlando, Florida. He started posting tournament cashes at the local dog track shortly after his 18th birthday, and his accomplishments are starting to pile up now that he has access to the 21-and-over casinos.

Harrah’s Cherokee is one of those venues in which he’s come of age to play, and this is about as far north as he ventures. His previous Circuit wins were earned in New Orleans and Choctaw, with the latter coming less than a month ago.

Trudeau’s stack increased steadily throughout the early stages of this event, and he was contending for the chip lead by the time the field reached the final two tables. He eliminated Jim Burns on the bubble in 13th place, then Salmaan Toor in 10th to shrink the field to one table of nine.

At that point, Trudeau was fourth in chips, and he played mostly small pots from there until the heads-up match against Chun Law. With the expedited structure, the final duel was short and volatile, with each of the two men holding large leads at one point or another, though.

Trudeau was too much in the end, though, defeating Law to collect the ring just before 3 a.m. on Friday morning. The win moves him over $700,000 in career tournament earnings.


Charles Johnson

Event #10: Charles Johnson ($242,744)

Johnson, 37, is the manager of a contact center in Atlanta, Georgia. That’s just his day job, though. By night, he’s a poker player. He’s new to the game, having only discovered it within the last four years.

Atlanta is home to a thriving and talented community of poker players, and Johnson has embedded himself into it. He plays in charity tournaments at the American Legion several times a week, facing off against a rotating cast of characters that includes ring winners Hamid Izadi, Cody Pack, David Aker, and Bubba Dukes. It’s not your typical home game.

Johnson credits that group (and Dukes in particular) for helping shape his own strategy over the past four years. “I feel like that got me ready to be here tonight,” he said after his win. “I’m a pretty decent player, but there’s something about the experience those guys have.”

As Johnson tells it, this breakout came on the heels of one of the worst downswings he’s experienced as a poker player. He recounted some of his recent results: “I went to Tampa. I was the chip leader late in Day 2. Dumped off my chips. Went to Jacksonville. Ran it up, dumped off my chips. You see the pattern here?”

The trip to Cherokee started off pretty poorly, too. Johnson bricked everything he played early in the series, and he decided to leave town and head back home to get his head straight. He almost skipped the Main Event entirely.

“It just wasn’t happening for me,” he explained. “I’m like, I’m done. I had to get my shit right.”

After playing at the Legion on Thursday night, Johnson decided to make the drive back to Cherokee to try to satellite into the Main. “Ended up getting a seat, and that’s all she wrote,” he beamed.


Bryan Carter

Event #11: Bryan Carter ($27,332)

Carter, 32, is a professional poker player from Black Mountain, North Carolina. His poker background coincides with the property’s transition from digital poker to live card games.

“Been playing here since Day 1,” he said. “Going on eight years now.” He’s certainly made good use of his home-field advantage.

Carter’s victory in April came in the opening re-entry event, where he topped a record-setting field of almost 3,200 entries. That event remains the largest tournament in North Carolina’s brief poker history, and it earned him a career-best six-figure score.

This victory wasn’t quite as massive as the first, but the second ring provides some good validation.

“I was short-stacked the whole way until we got six-handed,” Carter reflected on his day of poker. “Less than 15 big blinds all day.”

It’s hard for anyone to avoid being short-stacked in an event with 20-minute levels, really, and Carter had just 13 big blinds when he reached the final table.

As he said, though, he turned on the jets as the table continued to shrink, ending up heads-up against Rohit Kwatra for the ring. Carter beat him, ending the match in the wee hours of the morning to secure ring number two.

This one brings his total career earrings across the $200,000 mark.


Ricky Robinson Jr.

Event #12: Ricky Robinson Jr. ($31,665)

Robinson, 27, is a retail salesman from Mebane, North Carolina, located in the Piedmont region of the state. Despite his work schedule, he makes it a point to carve out time to play tournaments when the Circuit comes to town. “I always take off and come play at Cherokee,” he said.

He’s been playing poker for most of his adult life, turned onto the idea by a few of his friends. “They were like, 'I know how we can get rich and make a ton of money easily,’” he said. “And, boy, were they stupid.”

Robinson eventually realized that poker was not going to be a get-rich-quick scheme, but he’s settled into the life of a grinder just fine. It’s taken a lot of work to make it happen, though, as he explained: “You practice a lot. You get to a point where you get better, and then… here you are.”

Here he is.

Robinson made his first Circuit final table in August in the big re-entry event, bowing out in seventh place for what was, at the time, the largest payday of his career. He’s bested it this time with another five-figure score.

“I bubbled six tournaments this time around,” he looked back on his record after his win. “Hadn’t cashed in anything. I decided yesterday that I’d stay to play today. I’m glad I did.”

When he’s not at the poker tables or working, Robinson is probably playing video games. He says he’s ranked inside the worldwide top 500 for Overwatch, a popular first-person shooter.