Is There any Value to Finishing Second in Poker?

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When I interviewed poker icon Stu Ungar, just months before his motel-room death in 1998, he told me that he had no tolerance for second place. He likened anything but first place, in just about anything, to being synonymous with losing and finishing at the bottom.

“People tell me that I should be a good loser,” he explained, enjoying a brief moment of clarity before he sunk back into the narcotic haze that dogged him for much of his later life. “But if you’re a good loser, you’re still a loser. It’s not something that I can ever take.”

At the time, considering who he was (by wide acknowledgement, the greatest poker player in the game), it seemed like a good credo for highly competitive people to live by. These days, though, in light of how things shook out for Ungar and with some perspective on what it means to win and to finish second, I think the issue has way more shading and granularity.

Nobody Likes to Finish Second

Currently in the thick of the World Series of Poker, leading up to a tournament where the difference between first-place and second-place is not only millions of dollars but also a lifetime of recognition, the ups and downs of being an almost-winner – in and out of poker – are worth considering.

For starters, nobody likes to finish second. And that is especially true when it is the biggest event of your career or in your chosen occupation. But the situation, even when you get all but swept – as happened to the Cincinnati Cavaliers after they recently lost the NBA championship to the Golden State Warriors – can be handled graciously. LeBron James did as much when he gave an even-handed, post-game concession speech in front of the media. It’s what you would have expected.

But, soon after, while getting his head shaved, he said something way more telling and thoughtful.

“[Finishing second is] never a failure when you can put your teammates in a position they’ve never been in,” James said. Guys like Kyle, D-Will and Flight all got to experience going after an NBA championship for the first time. “Those are the kinds of things that make me happy. Now it’s time to revamp.”

That was a great and classy perspective, and, admittedly, it’s an easier attitude to have when you get hosed while competing in a team sport. Hence, getting so close, yet so far away, as an individual, might have more of a tendency to cause your highly competitive insides to churn.

It helps explain why sports psychologists believe that getting a bronze medal is healthier than getting a silver one. In a Psychology Today article entitled “Second Place is the First Place Loser,” Nathan A. Heflick writes, “Research continually shows that Olympic athletes are happier when they win a bronze medal.” The result, he points, stems from silver-medal finishers feeling like losers to gold-recipients while bronze winners think about out-classing all competitors who failed to medal.

Last year’s second-place finisher in the WSOP Main Event, the Los Angeles-based poker pro, Gordon Vayo, was plagued by the disappointment of runner-up status. “For like six months after the final table, I didn’t go a day without thinking about how it all played out,” he told PokerListings. “Coming to terms [with the critical hands that he lost] was the most difficult part for me. I kind of disappointed myself. I still feel that way a bit.”

If you happen to see Vayo at the Series, give him a hug. He might still need one.

He acknowledges that the size of the stage, the pressure of the play and recognition that the poker community would unleash criticism for every mistake he made did not cause his final-table experience to be any easier.

While he remains haunted by the mistakes, it’s also impossible for Vayo to not feel grateful for everything that his second-place proceeds of $4.6-million have brought him and the degree to which finishing second in the Main Event has changed his life. It made him into a better poker player (over the last year, he won more than $500,000 on top of his World Series proceeds). In short, while it kind of kills him to have not closed on the Main Event, he has come to recognise that the high-profile loss comes with enormous upside.

Phil Hellmuth – The King of Second Places

Then there is Phil Hellmuth, arguably the most famous poker player in the world and author of the forthcoming autobiography Poker Brat . He has more World Series of Poker bracelets than anyone else in the game, and, maybe not so surprisingly, he also has the highest number of second place finishes in the WSOP.

“Among my worst experiences was finishing second in the WSOP [$5,000 No Limit Hold’em] event in 2006,” Hellmuth has told me. He was playing against “this kid from L.A. [Actually, it was Jeff Cabanillas who never had a tournament finish that came close to his $818,546 win against Hellmuth]. “There was a hand in which I had two 4s; the flop came 8, 10, Jack. We got a lot of money in, and a flush card hit on the river. I folded to his Ace-King. It was a shame because I was playing above the rim that day.”

But that was just one tournament in which Hellmuth placed second – and, at the time that I interviewed him, he still stewed over blowing the critical hand. During the 2011 WSOP, he almost got there on four separate occasions. Did it bother Hellmuth? He can say what he wants, but a series of Tweets unleashed over the course of that summer’s Series tells what was truthfully going on in his heart – never mind that he won more than $1.5-million that year, but, alas, no bracelet.

After his first second-place finish of the summer, to John Juanda at a $10,000 buy-in deuce-to-seven tournament, Hellmuth put out that he felt “completely awful and inconsolable.” Ten days passed before he just barely failed at the final table of a seven card stud hi/lo event. The public learned that he “played his heart out, fell short and was not as depressed” as he was after his previous second-place finish.

But the wheels completely came off when he blew an eight-to-one chip advantage while heads-up against the great Brian Rast. How did the usually light-drinking Hellmuth handle that completion? He hit a couple of high-priced bottles: “Drinking Macallan 25 and Louis XIII at Aria high-limit bar,” he posted, sounding despondent.

His fourth second-place finish of that year’s Series was in a $200 buy-in charity event. He won $1,500 and did not complain.

The Most (In)Famous Runner-Up

Famous as Hellmuth is for losing badly, he might have been outdone by cigarette champing Sammy Farha. In 2003, Farha became the most famous World Series runner-up in history. He failed to make a deal to chop with Chris Moneymaker.

“He had more chips than me, but, believe me, Michael, he would have taken less than half the money,” Farha told me not long after the incident went down – and then allowed the neophyte poker player from Tennessee to bluff him off what could have been a deal-sealing hand.

Not long after the embarrassing and life-changing loss – since then, Farha’s tournament wins have averaged a little more than $100,000 per year – I spoke with Farha, and he expressed no small amount of bitterness plus loads of excuses.

“I flopped top pair, he had a draw and re-raised on Fourth Street,” Farha remembered. “I set him up to do exactly what I wanted. My problem was that I was tired. I drank 20 Bulls and 20 cups of coffee – you can imagine what that does to your brain. I was in, like, a coma and I backed up [i.e., folded]. Chris went all-in, and I started counting my chips and thinking about it. I should have called right away.”

While seeming bemused about Moneymaker “saying he didn’t know what to do with the money” and bitching about a bit of post-game trash-talking from the 2003 champ, Farha leaves the impression that the loss hit him mind-twistingly hard.

Jay Farber – No Hard Feelings

It was quite a different story for Jay Farber, quite possibly the world’s all-time greatest second-place finisher in terms of how handled himself and the situation before the Final Table, during the Final Table and after it.

Without a doubt, Farber was a dark-horse when he made the November Nine in 2013. He had (and still has) a day-job as a nightlife host in Vegas and had been on a poker cooler prior to the World Series. After he made the Final Table, he partied heavily during the ensuing months leading to his big-money showdown.

“I said I would stop partying before the Main Event, but it didn’t work out that way; my birthday was a month of celebrating,” says Farber. “And when I go out and party, it is not just having a few drinks. The night usually ends in a blur.”

He got some advice from a mind coach and from Dan Bilzerian, who had bought a piece of Farber. But the most important advice of all came from a pro who told him that playing the Main Event’s Final Table is likely to be a once-in-a-lifetime experience. It was suggested that he enjoy it and get as much as possible out of it. Farber did.

Watch the 2013 Final Table, and you see him smiling like a kid in a candy store, pretty much through all those last hours of play. Winning hands or losing them, he had a wonderful time.

Looking back on it all, with over $5-million in winnings (a chunk of it went to backer Bilzerian, who underwrote a stretch of fantastic partying and bought Farber a fancy wristwatch for his trouble), Farber says, “Finishing second is the best feeling in the world and the worst feeling. It’s all a heartbreaker if you don’t win, but getting that close can really break your heart. On the other hand, I came in as an unknown, people underestimated me, and I showed that I belonged.”

For advice on how to handle the next-to-best finish, Farber turned to his friend Ben Lamb, who, in 2011, also had to contend with almost being a World Series winner (he finished third, but still…) Though you would never know it from looking at Farber and his unbreakable smile, or his attitude soon after the Series (even when he got ambush-interviewed by TMZ in front of an LA nightclub, and the interviewer thought Farber had won the tournament), “I was pretty depressed for like a week. It sucks in a lot of ways. You get there, and you want to be able to say that you are world champion. I also wanted to win $8-million. When I asked Ben what he did to get over it, he just said to give it time and that it would pass. I played well, and that was all I could have hoped for.”

Considering that poker is a game in which losses can pile up and get to you, Farber says, “A lot of tournament players are miserable people. I would never want to be one of them.”

He means, in large part, that he would never want to be somebody who’s consistently devastated due to second-place finishes. And, maybe, the emotional descent is not worth fretting over. Perhaps, it’s just the cost of doing business as a top player.

Finishing Second Gives You a Better Chance at First

After all, almost-good-enough status puts one in high-level company that goes beyond Hellmuth. In the golf world, for example, Jack Nicklaus has the most second place finishes of anyone who played the game. Runner-up is Phil Mickelson. The reality is that logging a high number of second-place finishes probably indicates that you will also rack up plenty of wins as well.

Formula One race-car driver Lewis Hamilton knows the feeling. Speaking with the UK’s Independent, he summed up the swingy roller-coaster ride for second-place finishers. Showing mixed emotions for recently placing in a race, he said, “When you have a strong fight, [second place] is a good feeling.”

He added, though, that you get only so many chances for first and “it’s painful [to come in second]. There’s no other way of saying it. It eats you up a little inside, but you try to cope and move forward.”

Come July 22, when the WSOP Main Event’s Final Table plays down to a single winner, there is no doubt that an elite poker player will understand that sentiment and have something to add to this conversation.

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