Smith to return to World Series of Poker's Main Event
Henning resident wins a $10,000 seat for the international poker tournament.
HENNING — Joel Smith walked into the Golden Nugget Casino in Las Vegas, Nev. as one of more than 200 players at the Free Poker Network’s (FPN) Texas Hold ’em tournament. He left with a championship bracelet and a paid seat to the World Series of Poker’s Main Event (a $10,000 value).
The Henning resident flew to Las Vegas and entered the four FPN tournaments that were held before the showdown.
“I qualified in three out of the four and missed the fourth by one spot,” he said, noting each qualifying win provided chips to start for the championship tournament. “Myself, and one other player, started with 50,000 chips.”
In the game of poker, chips come and go. To maintain a steady increase in chips, Smith played with calculated aggression. When it came to hedging his bets, he relied heavily on reading other players.
For instance, after the players were dealt two cards, an opponent dropped in what Smith felt was a halfhearted raise. His gut told him if the other player had a strong hand he would’ve bet more, so he leaned on his opponent with a big re-raise.
“I had a two and a four of diamonds,” Smith said. “I went all in.”
His opponent folded like a towel on laundry day. Often, players who fold don’t show their cards. However, because the event was streamed live on YouTube , Smith was able to go back and watch the tournament.
“The other player had a pair of sevens,” he recalled. “That was a big hand because I could’ve been out.”
The 1989 Perham High School graduate continued to make the right calls and was one of three Minnesota players to take a seat at the final table. There were also three players from Illinois, one from North Dakota and one from Delaware.
“Of the nine, I knew four through league play and tournaments,” he said. “It felt like a reunion.”
Playing with familiar faces meant adjusting his playing style, while being mindful of table tendencies, hand percentages and chip leaders. Sticking to his game plan proved fruitful as he found himself in head-to-head action for the championship bracelet. Smith faced off against another player from Minnesota, Greg Larson, who is in a FPN league in Fridley, Minn.
The two arrived at the all-in moment when Smith had 2.2 million chips and his opponent had 1.6 million. Smith lifted his two cards to see a queen and three of clubs. Bets were made. When the first three communal cards flopped on the green felt, Smith’s high card was paired. He was greeted by his opponent tossing chips into the pot. Instead of eagerly meeting the bet, Smith wore a pensive look on his face. After a few moments, he raised. His opponent quickly called.
When the next community card turned up, there was a five, six, seven and queen on the board. Larson pushed all in. Without hesitation, Smith called. The player's flipped their cards. Smith showed his paired queen and a three as a low kicker. Larson showed a pair of sixes with a jack kicker.
There was one communal card to go and both players held their breath. When an eight arrived as the river card, Smith was declared the tournament winner.
“This time I got a bracelet,” he said. “Last time I won (the FPN championship) I was given a four-foot-tall trophy. Both are cool.”
Smith is now registered for the World Series of Poker (WSOP) Main Event tournament in July at the Horseshoe and Paris Las Vegas hotels and casinos. In 2022, the international Texas Hold ’em tournament saw 198,429 entrants, which created $346 million in prize money. Last year, first place left with $10 million, while second through eighth place walked away with more than $1 million each. Payouts continued through 128th place, which left with $15,000.
Smith’s first appearance at WSOP was in 2015. He was taken out by the eventual winner of the tournament, finishing in 776th place. He said the WSOP has included 12 hours of playing each day until the final table is created.
“Keeping my mind in the game was the biggest challenge,” he said. “My wife (Nikki) came with and helped get me centered.”
In addition to being a sounding board about hands that left residue in his mind, Smith said his wife also made sure he was fed and hydrated.
The journey to the most renowned international Texas Hold ’em tournament began when he found a flier in 2007. The sheet of paper invited people to join a free poker league at a bar. The idea sounded fun, so he gave it a go and has been “hooked ever since.”
Through the years, Smith has played at various bars and venues that host games and tournaments for the Free Poker Network.
The son of Mary Orvik of Perham divulged his favorite league venues include Playtime in Perham (Thursdays), Billy’s in Vergas (Mondays) and the Dugout in Dent (Tuesdays), all of which start at 7 p.m. Smith said he hopes the fun, free league continues to grow and a new one forms a “little closer to home” in Wadena.