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Tuesday, November 1, 2011
Becoming A Champion

By Andrew Feldman
ESPN.com

"It's a good time to be me right now." -- Ben Lamb, Oct. 27, 2011

Just like his reads have been throughout 2011, Ben Lamb simply gets it. The 26-year-old poker superstar has emerged from the masses as an icon of the game, and he's only eight players away from capturing the biggest bracelet in the world with a victory at the 2011 WSOP main event final table (ESPN2, Sunday, 3:30 p.m. ET).

Ben Lamb
Ben Lamb enters the WSOP main event final table fifth in chips.

After years of falling below the radar, Lamb's run in 2011 has given him the international exposure that he was so close to attaining a few short years ago. Despite earning hundreds of thousands on the tournament felt from 2006 to 2009, Lamb entered the world's poker consciousness after a deep run in the 2009 WSOP main event. As he made his way through the world's largest poker tournament, Lamb's airtime increased as the genuine, modest young poker pro kept his smile and focus through Day 8 and the final hours of play before the second annual November Nine was determined.

He began the final day of play in 2009 in 10th place among the final 27 players and truly was on the precipice of greatness. Lamb thrived and was among the chip leaders, and his seat at that final table was in his grasp. Then came Steven Begleiter's most memorable hand. The duo would be involved in one of the biggest pots of the tournament at that time, and Begleiter's J-9 cracked Lamb's A-A to vault Begs into the November Nine and force Lamb into a tough spot from which he never recovered. Lamb eventually finished 14th. He earned a career-high $633,022, but finishing just short of the November Nine haunted him.

"The thing about that cash is that it's so hard to go so deep in this tournament," said Lamb. "There are so many people, so many land mines, so many coolers. You have to get so lucky to get deep in this tournament. … My friends knew I was disappointed even though it was a lot of money back then. They were all like, 'You'll be back there soon. You'll be back there next year.' I was kind of like, that's the worst thing you can say to me. [I thought] I'm never going to be back. It's so hard to be back it seemed kind of ridiculous to say that. … [This year] when I had a couple million in chips, I really felt like I could do it again."

As he began Day 8 for the second time in three years, an accomplishment that not many others can boast during the modern era of poker tournaments, he wouldn't let history repeat itself. He made a few missteps early on, but rocketed to be among the leaders at the moment he'd been waiting for. No, not the November Nine, but as 14 players remained. It didn't take very long from there.

The announcement rang clear in the Amazon Room minutes after the elimination of Andrey Pateychuk: Scott Schwalich had been eliminated in 14th place. Lamb exhaled.

"It was a lot of excitement," said Lamb of that moment. "When I got to 13 left, it was kind of a weight off my shoulder."

He was indeed back.

"The tournament is different, night and day," he said. "I wasn't as good in 2009 and neither was the field. The field is much tougher than 2009. I think my edges in 2009 and this year might have been the same. I might have had a bigger edge in 2009, honestly, even though I'm a better player now than I was there."

Lamb's efforts in becoming one of the world's top-ranked players stemmed from a number of places. First, his ability to take risks both live and online brought him onto the radar of the game's best. He played higher stakes than his bankroll, and life-roll, should have allowed. He also made a decision unlike many other 20-somethings and stopped drinking during this WSOP to make sure that he was at his best when the games were at their best. His desire to play continued to increase and his dedication shined throughout this summer.

"I got motivated to make money and do well. I think I squandered some opportunities when I was maybe 22 or 23," he said. "The [pot-limit Omaha] games were really soft online [back then]. I made a lot of money, but I didn't work as hard as I should have. … When I saw the games were good live, and I was making money, I decided to work hard and make up for that past when I wasn't working as hard as I should've. When this summer came around and Black Friday had happened, I just saw it as one of the last opportunities to make a lot of money in a short period of time. … I played longer sessions, more sessions as the cash games were so good during this summer. I just wanted to be out there every hour that I could be."

His hard work paid off not only at the cash game felt, but clearly at the WSOP. The 2011 World Series of Poker Player of the Year will enter his fourth final table of the year, the biggest one of them all, fifth in chips.

The November Nine has been a moment he's been waiting years for, but it seemed that it was inevitable that he'd make it there in 2011. Since mid-June, Lamb has been the envy of the poker world. After beginning his 2011 WSOP efforts 0-for-5, Lamb's Series … and status in the industry … skyrocketed. He finished second to Sam Stein in the $3,000 pot-limit Omaha event, and although the two split the prize money, Lamb was hungry for something else.

"A day or two went by and [Stein] had a bracelet and he's going out and partying with his bracelet and everything," said Lamb. "And I didn't have one. It started to sink in that it would've been really nice to have won that, even just for the bracelet."

Less than a week later, Lamb captured his own, winning the $10,000 pot-limit Omaha world championship. He followed that up with a 12th-place finish in the $10,000 six-handed world championship and an eighth-place result in the $50,000 Player's Championship. Four tournaments, four cashes, three final tables, one win and $1.3 million in earnings. Not a bad few weeks.

His experience of prosperity didn't end there. He turned his sights to the main event and continued his chip accumulation. He ended Days 1B and 2B as the chip leader and maintained a solid stack the entire way. The confidence and new table image he possessed allowed him to capitalize, and now he has a chance to make history. Nobody wanted to get in Lamb's way and, really, nobody could.

"Honestly, it's incredible," said Lamb of the experience. "I'm pretty lucky and I'm happy to be here. I'm not going to take it for granted and I'm going to take advantage of this opportunity I have to really make some life-changing money."

Life-changing money is only part of what awaits Lamb in the future, regardless of his finish. He's earned the respect of his peers, the television time that accompanies a star and the prestige of being among poker's elite in just a few short months. Add to that the millions in prize money and the honor of being WSOP Player of the Year, and Lamb has everything going for him. As he's done all the right things throughout the summer to bring him to this point, he really made only one mistake: It's not a good time to be Ben Lamb right now, it's a great time.