Web Exclusives: From the P-Nut Gallery
a column by Nate Sellwyn nsellyn@princeton.edu

May 12, 2004:

Princeton senior eyes big money at the World Series of Poker

My April 7 column addressed the administration’s rising concerns about poker on campus. Well, paging Shirley Tilghman, you’ve got a problem. The sport’s future at Princeton received a massive steroid injection on April 28, when Matt Hawrilenko ’04 won a $150 buy-in “double shoot-out” tournament at Pokerstars.com, earning him a $10,000 seat at the upcoming World Series of Poker. Last year, Chris Moneymaker, a 27-year-old amateur from Tennessee, qualified in the same fashion and went on to win the $2.5 million grand prize. Nothing says ‘Stop doing that!’ like incredible, celebrity-like success.

Hawrilenko, a native of Hanover, Massachusetts, who wrestled for the Princeton varsity, picked up a week’s hotel stay, to cover the tournament’s duration, and a thousand dollars cash. Half of the cash went to the second place finisher, however, since he and Hawrilenko had made a deal to split the winnings once they became the only two players remaining. Hawrilenko will head to Binion’s Horseshoe Casino at the end of this month to compete in the World Series main event, the No-Limit Hold’em Tournament. I sat down with him to discuss his prospects.

P-Nut: First things first, Matt. Which is more fun, wrestling or poker?

Matt Hawrilenko: That’s not fair! I like to think of them as my children. I love them both equally.

P-Nut: Who gets in more trouble?

M.H.: I guess it depends on the day. When I was cutting weight, I would often long for a paddle to beat wrestling, or perhaps just to forget about it altogether and spend a day with poker. If I have a bad session, there’s no better remedy than going down to the wrestling room to blow off some steam and get a fresh perspective. That said, wrestling has been a very integral part of my Princeton experience thus far. Although I love poker, wrestling has shaped me as a person.

P-Nut: Fair enough. You have to see more yourself more as a poker lifer, though, especially given recent events.

M.H.: Yes, poker has come to play a pretty large role recently.

P-Nut: Chris Moneymaker won his winning spot last year in the exact same fashion, right?

M.H.: Yes, in fact, he won it at the exact same Web site. He had a heck of a run last year. Actually, I think he did a lot for poker. He brought a lot of new players – or as the pros call it, dead money – into the game of poker as a whole. I think in the past year, I’ve been able to capitalize on that online, just by becoming a student of the game.

P-Nut: You’re obviously hoping for some similar fortune.

M.H.: Yeah, a similar experience would be amazing. The field this year is going to be huge. Last year, they had 838 players in the main event. This year, they are expecting 1500-2000. I would be very happy to make the money by finishing in the Top 100.

P-Nut: But the bigger the field, the bigger the pot. What is the expected grand prize?

M.H.: They are estimating first prize to be somewhere from $3.5-4.5 million.

P-Nut: Plus the famed bracelet.

M.H.: Yeah, the white gold bracelet.

P-Nut: When you say “a student of the game,” you mean that literally, right? I’ve seen the poker books in your room. How much of your education comes from outside gaming situations?

M.H.: Well, last summer I bought and read just about every poker book I could get my hands on and still try to read as much as I can. It just makes sense – where mistakes can cost a lot of money in poker, a book is a cheap education.

P-Nut: How many poker books do you have? Any that you consider vital?

M.H.: Oh wow. Probably just short of a dozen. Definitely. The poker book to read is David Sklansky’s Theory of Poker; it teaches you how to think about the game. That being said . . . there is no substitute for experience. After learning all the theory, I was still just barely a break-even player. There are aspects to the game that books just can’t teach you.

Reading other players, for example, is a crucial component to the game. After every session, I try to think about what I consider the important plays I made, good and bad, and try to figure out if I played optimally. If I did, I want to know why my play was right, and if I played poorly, I want to know how I could have played my hand better.

But reading players is the same thing. I think the most important part of learning poker is being able to evaluate your own play, your own reads, and think critically about them. Experience is good, but only if you actually make the most use of it.

P-Nut: Do you use statistics to check that?

M.H.: I do keep statistics, and they help. I actually have a program that logs all the online hands I play and my win rate with them, in both cash games and tournaments. It works to help me identify possible holes, but it’s still up to me to figure out how to plug them.

P-Nut: That’s a fairly intense routine. How often do you play?

M.H.: It really depends on what else I’ve got going on. I love the game and learning about the game, but I am definitely careful not to let it dominate my life. In wrestling season and thesis season, I might have only played for an hour or two a few times a week. Since my workload has lightened up, I’ve definitely been playing more. Probably at least 4 times a week for 3 hours or so, sometimes more on a Saturday or Sunday when my expected value increases, just because there are a greater number of weaker players. And I imagine that will only increase as I try to prepare for the World Series of Poker.

P-Nut: How much have you pulled in online, independent of this victory?

M.H.: Well, I didn’t play very much online until late January. I bought in for $100 then, and have probably pulled in close to $15,000, the majority of that being in the last month and a half.

P-Nut: So, if we were to imagine the W.S.O.P. berth as $10,000 cash, you’ve made $25,000 since January?

M.H.: Yeah, you could say that. It’s been a pretty wild few months.

P-Nut: So why bother working next year? If you love playing poker, and you’re making around a hundred grand a year...

M.H.: (Laughs) Well, a few reasons. First, I love poker, but it’s still just a hobby. And I don’t think the online poker pro lifestyle is exactly the one for me. I kind of want to get out there and figure out what I want to do with myself. That, and I don’t think poker has quite the same upside as doing well in the “real” world.

Look for Matt on ESPN’s World Series of Poker coverage during Princeton’s dead week, May 22-28.

You can reach Nate at nsellyn@princeton.edu