It’s a tall order to cash in the World Series of Poker Main Event, especially if you’re a rookie.
This year’s tournament, which concludes Wednesday night on ESPN with the final table at the Rio in Las Vegas, had more than 8,500 entries.
One of those was Seguin’s Ben Notgrass, who played his way in with a $300 buy-in at a charity tournament in Seguin, winning a $10,000 entry to the Main Event.
That’s despite the fact that he’s only played poker about 40 times in his life.
Notgrass finished 813th, good enough to make the money — and raked in $18,500.
Not a bad return on a $300 investment.
Notgrass was approached last year to buy a ticket for a fundraiser poker tourney in Seguin benefitting the Texas Agriculture Education Center, also known as the Big Red Barn, and as the general manager at ExploreUSA RV, was happy to do so.
“I get approached all the time for charity events, so I said, ‘sure I’ll buy a ticket, what is it?’” Notgrass said. “He told me the winner gets a $10,000 entry to the World Series of Poker.”
He threw the ticket on his desk, and when organizers called him the day of the event, as the tournament was starting, he realized he had forgotten about it.
“I had tried to give it to friends, to my employees — and nobody could play,” Notgrass said.
Rushing to the event last August, he played against 263 others.
“I got there late, and won the darn thing,” Notgrass said. “I didn’t even know what a big blind and a small blind was, the button, under the gun — I didn’t know any of that stuff.Before that tournament, I can only remember playing one or two times at little games.”
Notgrass didn’t prep much before going to Vegas, playing in a just a couple of small tournaments. But it was a tourney once he got there that may have helped his performance in the Main Event.
“I played in a satellite tournament, and I placed,” he said. “I got 33rd and there was a couple of hundred people in it.
“I got a little confidence from that the day before I was starting the big tournament.”
Starting with a stack of 60,000 chips, he had a simple goal in mind for each day of the tourney.
“At the end of the day I had about 124,000 in chips,” Notgrass said. “I tried to double my winnings, my goal was to double my chips every day.”
He was successful on day two also, finishing with more than 250,000 chips.
Day three saw him reach a high point in chips with more than 500,000, when he doubled his chip stack with a pair of Aces, after his opponent shoved all-in with a pair of Kings.
But a couple of misplayed hands late in the day took him down to around 300,000.
“I had a pair of kings and limped in with them, when I should have bet them heavy,” Notgrass said. “So I gave the guy his cards on the turn, he caught a set (three of a kind) on me, and I lost some chips.”
He went out on day four, after around 40 hours of poker in the tournament.
“I really enjoyed it,” Notgrass said. “Being a rookie, I beat myself, no one really beat me. I can’t say this guy outplayed me, I just made some bad moves.”
The marathon of playing in a tournament that large may have had some effect on his play on the final day, he said.
“I stayed in some hands I shouldn’t have stayed in, and I folded some hands I should have played,” Notgrass said. “I didn’t do that the first three days, I was real conservative. I didn’t chase down hands to the turn and river, but the last day I chased a little more and I don’t know if I was tired or what it was.”
The experience of playing in the event with poker pros and players from around the world made an impression on the novice card player.
“There’s poker players of all sorts,” Notgrass said. “Theres’s some really nice people — and some really weird ones. Half your table could be foreigners, a third of them don’t speak English.You have half the table with glasses on, a couple of guys wearing masks on their face or with scarves covering up their mouths — it’s kind of an oddball thing.”
He let players at most of the tables know that he was a novice, and garnered some support because of that.
“A couple of times I made some rookie mistakes, I missed my ante or my bet was wrong,” Notgrass said. “But I told them I was not a poker pro, and here’s how I got into the tournament.There was a lot of guys cheering me on, because they thought it was a great story, and they told me I was a better poker player than I thought I was.”
Telling the players he was a novice did not make him a target — as far as he knows.
“I don’t think I really had anyone that I felt like tried to trap me,” Notgrass said. “A few of them might have tried, but I played pretty decent cards.”
Because Notgrass is so new to the game, he was basically unaware of the famous poker pros around him.
“Both my brothers went with me and they would tell me that guy was so-and-so,” Notgrass said. “I was like I don’t know those guys, I don’t watch poker.”
Brothers Chris and Ronnie Fikes went to Vegas with him, but as neither made the Main Event, they rooted him on during the tournament.
“They were my cheering group,” Notgrass said. “They both play a lot more than I do.”
So is he a poker player for life now?
“I wouldn’t say I’m totally hooked,” Notgrass said. “I would never pay $10,000 to play in that tournament — but I will try to play in some tournaments to get a free ride again.”
Between winning the entry and placing in the tournament, Notgrass made close to $30,000 playing poker over the last year.
First place in this year’s Main Event will pay the winner $10 million.
Kevin Duke is the sports editor for the Seguin Gazette. He can be contacted by e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org