For Ben Breban, playing poker started out as a fun hobby. But after winning College Poker Tour National Championship on November 25, it has flourished into a prosperous outlet for the Binghamton University student.
After what was approximately a two-month process of qualifying online poker games — 47 to be exact — Breban, a junior majoring in mathematics, was flown to Arizona with the promise of a free trip and no personal expectation of winning. He started out in fifth place and at 19, he was the youngest at the table. He then returned to Binghamton the following Sunday, $10,000 wealthier and tanner than usual for November.
The nine competitors were hosted in a mansion that Breban described as having “a ‘Hunger Games’ vibe.” While they all relaxed and had fun with each other the night before the tournament, the competitors knew the others would be out for blood the next day.
Players entered the game with the same amount of chips from previous qualifying games. Breban’s victory was a big accomplishment considering the stacks were not re-equalized. Breban’s starting point was fifth place. In Arizona, he was seated to the right of someone whose stack was three times the size of his own. This was a disadvantage because the person to the right had more chips and made his moves after him.
But nonetheless, Breban found that his ability to ignore stress and compartmentalize came in handy at the table.
“I’m a pretty mellow person,” Breban said. “I ignore the problem, told myself there is no $10,000.”
Emil Aceto, a competitor from Florida State, whose collegepokertour.com username is “Bananas,” and Breban, whose username is “GuessWoo,” were the final two in the last round. At this point the stacks were greatly uneven in Breban’s favor; he had a total of 479,000 chips, while Aceto had about 6,000 chips. They might have been the final two, but Aceto wasn’t a close second when Breban won on a pair of fives.
“I had spent months yelling at [Aceto’s] username,” said Breban. “I met him and told him I had hated him a few hours ago [before I knew he was a cool guy].”
Breban says that people often ask about how well he can read other players tells, or signals that they are happy with their hand of cards or vice versa. Breban doesn’t credit himself with the ability to read tells exceptionally well — it’s hard to get to know players that individually — but he is very good at observing patterns. In fact, Breban would argue that anyone who thinks tells are an important part of poker is an amateur.
“My opponents played pretty conservatively without taking risks and I was able to take advantage of that,” Breban said.
While individual instincts can be chalked up to luck and choices of other players, there is a lot of depth to the game.
“Any individual game is luck, but if you play one million games and win 500,000, there has to be some level of skill or awareness of the game,” Breban said.
Watching the game again on a broadcast provided Breban with a lot of insights. He saw he made more bluffs than he had realized and threatened to “go all in” often, and the pro-player commentary provided fresh analysis and perspective. Breban credits his awareness of being on TV and broadcasted in front of friends and family as fueling his desire to advance.
“My grandpa has a restaurant at home and they were watching it in the kitchen,” Breban said.
In addition, he thought of the BU poker club where the competition had been advertised. The tournament reached out to involve qualified representatives from poker-related clubs around the country.
The club’s members had varying levels of commitment, with those that play more casually and a few more hardcore competitors. Within their 120 members lies some pretty big talent, as another member, Jason Hoffmeier, also participated in the competition and took fifth place. Hoffmeier, a junior majoring in environmental chemistry, began the competition in seventh place and moved up.
“With this win, it not only solidified our existence as a student group, but proves once again how talented our students are and how great Binghamton University is,” said Benjamin Sachs, president of the club and a senior majoring in accounting.
Riding the win into his 20th birthday, his friends allotted him a week of bragging and celebration.
“They were happy when the week was over,” Breban said, “but they understood why I needed it.”