Your first time can be intimidating. It can be pressure-filled, stressful, challenging and sometimes over way too quickly, but for November Niner Sam Holden, his first time playing in the WSOP main event turned out to be life-altering. Playing in his first $10,000 buy-in tournament, the Brit produced an incredible performance that led him to this elite juncture in a poker player's career. Come November, Holden will be one of the final nine players playing for the top prize of $8.7 million.
Holden's poker journey started online during his tenure at University as he played the freerolls, then the microstakes, then finally tournaments, which he enjoyed most. Following a pattern of success many of the world's best online poker players had established before him, and enjoying the hobby, Holden finally decided to play professionally in 2010. His run to nearly $300,000 in online tournament earnings left him yearning for a shot at the big time, and while his bankroll allowed him to "enjoy life," it didn't allow him to take the shot on his own.
His prosperous run to start off 2011 led him to a crossroads that has sent more than a few poker players down the wrong path. Securing backers is a slippery slope, and if things don't work out right, a player dig himself a big hole relatively quickly. Understanding the potential consequences, he decided to take the leap and offer a package of events for stakers to look at. One event included in that package was the WSOP main event.
"I was in a position this year to take a shot at the WSOP," he said. "The main event was the first big buy-in event that I played. The first $10,000 that I played. I sold a lot of action, I've only got 39 percent of myself."
He didn't have the high profile of some other British poker players such as Sam Trickett and Jake Cody, and he didn't have the live experience besides a few thousand-dollar events, but the influx of cash led him to a moment he'd never forget and a situation in which he believes is meant to be.
"To be honest, I felt pretty comfortable," he said of his first moments sitting down at the felt on Day 1. "I felt pretty calm. I felt like I had an edge on the table. I really just tried to keep calm and think about the poker. I felt very comfortable in the surroundings."
As the field was reduced and the players hit the money, Holden maintained his composure, which has proved to be one of his greatest assets. Understanding that his first $10,000 buy-in was all of a sudden profitable, he approached the play one hand, hour, level and day at a time.
Learning from his online experience, remaining patient appeared easy as a result of playing thousands of tournaments online that feature blind structures that offered little to no deep-stack play. Online standard structures often result in chip leaders just hours into a tournament, offering stacks of only 60 big blinds. That wasn't the case in Las Vegas. At the WSOP, applying pressure based on stack sizes is a player's greatest weapon, and Holden, trying to keep everything in perspective, would enter Day 6 with an impressive 100 big blinds.
Unfortunately, he'd leave it with only 20.
"It still felt like a bit of a dream to make the November Nine at that point," he said. "I still felt like I had some chips. At that point I didn't have too much expectations and I knew it was unlikely for me to make it. [I told myself], 'Let's see what [I can do] with the chips that I have. Play as well as I can.' If I'm lucky, then I can make the November Nine and hopefully, have a shot at winning. If it's not to be, it's not to be. There's not much I can do. I guess it helped psychologically, not having as much expectations to make the final nine."
Holden's tempered mindset didn't get him to the top of the chip counts on Day 7, but his focus did allow him to build his stack of 2.2 million in chips to 4.7 million. You can watch his impressive grind, and a few relieving turn and river cards, during the next two weeks of WSOP coverage on ESPN (Tuesday nights, 9-11 ET).
Entering Day 8 in 16th place out of 22 players remaining, Holden's day began with his chips in the center of the table, all-in and called by the current WSOP Player of the Year leader and fellow November Niner Ben Lamb. His hand held (A-J versus A-9) and immediately he was back in November Nine contention. Holden exhaled after the hand; he knew he was one tiny step closer.
Day 8 was pretty crazy," he said. "I started short in chips. I knew I had to get some double-ups, but I didn't have too much pressure. I knew it was going to get all-in preflop at some point and I knew there would be a good chance that I was going to lose. It worked out pretty well and I was able to double-up twice and from there it was like treading water. It wasn't sort of my motive to tread water, but that's sort of how it happened."
The bubble appeared and hours went by with the 10 remaining players facing the biggest moment of their careers. With fame, international poker stardom and a bid to the final table in his grasp, the payouts were on Holden's mind.
"I knew it was very important to me financially to make the November Nine and I was trying to factor that information in my decision," he said. "I had to be risk averse when I was 10-handed, but that was just part of my decisions."
The combination of factors may have led to reduced action on his behalf, but it didn't hurt him in regard to the chip counts as he lost only a fraction more than one big blind during bubble play. Finally, with the elimination of John Hewitt, Holden had done what he believed was unthinkable just a few short weeks ago and made the final table. He'll enter as the short stack, but with 24 big blinds, he's once again in a comfortable position and understands his potential come November.
"With one double-up I'm in third, so it's not a situation that really worries me," he said. "I'm incredibly fortunate to be in the situation I'm in. I've got a great shot at winning it or coming in the top positions. There's also a likelihood that I'll come in seventh, eighth or ninth, whatever. All I can do is play my cards and the situations as best that I can."
During the final table hiatus, Holden has been playing around the world, but his profile has changed dramatically. The once-unknown face in a field of 6,865 is now the "Last Brit Standing" and doing hundreds of interviews.
"It's been crazy," he said. "As you can imagine it's pretty life-changing, especially for me who is coming from a low-profile poker background to being in the November Nine. I like to think that I'm taking it all in stride and doing the best I can."
Doing his best seems to be the trend for Holden, and although he understands that the odds are against him coming back from the shortest stack to win the biggest bracelet of them all, he's once again ready for any challenge that may step in his way.