British derivatives trader finishes runner-up in his last WSOP event, turning to teaching in honor of his late son

June 25, 2017 (Las Vegas, NV) - Getting carried off the field on his teammates’ shoulders after a championship win. That’s how most athletes dream of ending their career – riding off into the sunset on top of the game.

Howard Smith was on the verge of the poker equivalent last week in the $1,500 Mixed Omaha Hi-Lo event.

The Bedford, England native was heads-up with the chip lead against Vladimir Shchemelev, but ultimately, couldn’t overcome the Russian bracelet winner. He finished second for $119,524.

It was the 49-year-old’s seventh career cash and his first final table. It will also be his last cash and last final table at the WSOP.

Smith was a derivatives trader and would find time to come out to the Rio every year and battle with the game’s best. After decades of success as a trader, he’s leaving that industry to become a math teacher in England.

“In the U.K., a famous journalist was leaving her career in the city and training as a math teacher because it was important,” said Smith. “She was inviting others like us that have had a career to do that. It really spoke to me. I looked into it, found out more about it and it was persuasive to me.”

In America, the WSOP schedule is set up perfectly to play while their students are on summer vacation. The British school system, however, is not on the same schedule and the school year runs throughout the WSOP.

“On the face of it, I won’t be able to play the WSOP again since the U.K. high school term finishes late July,” said Smith.

It might sound crazy to some, leaving a successful trading career that allowed him the time to play some of the most prestigious poker tournaments on the planet, but Smith had two very good reasons. He began losing the passion for trading that he once had and he also wanted to make his son proud, who passed away at the end of last year.

“My son, Matt, died suddenly and unexpectedly last December at the age of 21,” said Smith. “Matt believed in living life to the full and that anything was possible.”

Having lost his son, he decided he wanted to make a positive impact and help shape England’s young minds.

“It’s all about making a difference for the kids, right?” said Smith. “So that’s what it’s got to be about. How they get on. It’s clearly important.”

He wanted to make one last run at poker glory this summer before switching careers full time, channeling his late son’s belief in living life to the fullest. It didn’t seem possible at first, but Smith was able to find a break in his schedule and booked the 15-hour flight to Vegas just three days before the scheduled departure.

“I was definitely following [Matt’s] lead when I found a way to squeeze in one last trip to the WSOP this year,” said Smith.

By any measure, Smith’s final summer at the Rio was a success.

Smith cashed in 54th place in the $2,500 no-limit hold’em event for $7,726 and immediately jumped into the mixed Omaha hi-lo event en route to his best finish of his poker career in a game that he has very little experience in.

“I got out here and registered the no-limit $2,500 and I cashed it and busted with 30 minutes to register this event,” said Smith. “So, I hopped in. I learned the games. I’ve never played a tournament in these games, but I have played mixed games a little bit.”  

Throughout the three days of, he wore his son’s memorial bracelet. He wore it inside out so that he wouldn’t cause a distraction to himself at the table and it was only fitting that he got to play his only WSOP final table on Father’s Day, almost six months to the day after the passing of Matt.

“Of course, to play the final day on Father’s Day was really emotional,” said Smith. “I wanted to turn Matt’s memorial bracelet into gold, but I still think he would be proud of me.”

Less than 12 hours after his first final table at the WSOP, Smith hopped on a plane back to England. For most players, an extra $127,000 in their pocket would change their plans. They might stay a while longer and try and play a few more events, but Smith needed to get back to England because he had a final interview with a prospective school to teach math in.

There is still some hurdles to clear in the process of obtaining the job, but he’s pretty confident that he knows where he is going to be teaching.

“I basically have my place,” said Smith. “But I have to actually get back for final interviews. But it’s basically done.”

Teaching math should come easily for Smith. He’s got a background in trading, a degree in math and is forced to constantly think about odds and probability when he’s at the table. But when it comes to the classroom, Smith is torn about whether or not he should use gambling examples to help convey math principles.

“That is a tough one because I think it’s really interesting and really relevant,” said Smith. “Some of the other guys were talking about this at the table, but it’s a little bit frowned upon, you know? We’ll have to see what the principal thinks about that.”

Assuming Smith’s plan comes to fruition, it’s most likely that he left the WSOP for the last time in 2017. It’s bittersweet for him, coming up just shy of a win, but it’s the end of an experience that started in 2009, and showed the progression of his game.

“I said this before, the very first time I ever cashed I thought ‘Well, there’s no way I can do better than this,’” said Smith. “And then I managed an 18th and I thought ‘Well, that was incredible. It was almost Day 3.’ I was playing against [Phil] Ivey and [Daniel] Negreanu and I was obviously under it. But I’ve gotten a little better, you know? So who knows?”

Smith’s positive attitude and delightful demeanor may not be gracing the tables of the WSOP any longer, but if he is half as successful at teaching as he was at poker, England will better off for it. Either way, he has no regrets about his decision or his results.

"This was my last shot," said Smith. "And what a shot [it was]."