In August 2010, Russell Thomas had a choice. After graduating from Temple University, Thomas was considering following in his brother's footsteps and becoming a professional poker player. He already had been a successful online player, enjoying the competition and financial benefit of the higher-limit cash games. He also had just made a final table at the WSOP, finishing fifth in a $1,500 six-handed event. Thomas didn't doubt his ability, but he also didn't want to turn his back on the profession in which he had been training.
Instead of moving forward on the felt, Thomas entered the "real world" and became an actuary. He left poker to work for an insurance company in Hartford, Conn., where he would spend his days calculating and evaluating risks. Sounds like a perfect job for a poker player, right?
Even though he didn't follow the professional path, Thomas remained intent on keeping his skills sharp by playing poker on the side. Black Friday dramatically changed that option, and less of his time in 2011 went to poker. Thomas remained dedicated to his company, and his work always remained his primary focus except during WSOP time.
Heading to Vegas was a necessity and Thomas took his allotted vacation time to play in the juiciest cash games in the world. Playing in the actual WSOP events wasn't his priority, with only a few tournaments penciled into his schedule. Of course, the main event was one of them.
In 2011, Thomas entered the main event and finished 248th after a Day 5 cooler that he recalls with ease to this day. He cleared his calendar once again in 2012 and headed out for two weeks and three events. As his starting day for the main event approached, Thomas' plans of playing Day 1C nearly fell victim to a hangover. He pulled himself together, played a strong Day 1 and was back on track. He showed up an hour late for Day 2 because he had the wrong restart time, but once those mistakes were out of the way, he built on the memories of his deep main event run a year ago to stay focused. He cleared the Day 5 hurdle that stopped him in 2011 and played with calculated risk to make it to the final table, where he'll begin play Oct. 29 fourth in chips (ESPN2, 8 p.m. ET).
There's no doubt Thomas has the ability and talent to sit down against the best in the world, but even after making the final table, he still thought he had one big problem that would limit his chances of winning the main event bracelet. He's played for years, but his focus was always on cash games and, well, the final table is really nothing more than a sit-and-go tournament. He knew he wanted to be sharper, so taking full advantage of the "October Nine" hiatus, when players have nearly three months between making and playing the final table, he found not just a coach, but a team that's getting him into shape.
Since the beginning of August, Thomas has been in training in Stony Brook, N.Y., at the home of someone who has had significant WSOP final table experience: Jason Somerville.
"I chose Jason because I thought he had a lot of good ideas of how to prepare for the final table," Thomas said. "He's a good player and has had a lot of good results. After talking to him, I thought we'd get along. I knew I needed a coach because I didn't play much before the year prior. I'm not a tournament player, and final tables play out differently than a cash game and so I needed three months of coaching to prepare."
Somerville, who played with Thomas on Day 4 of the main event and finished 69th, has created a personalized boot camp to make his pupil as comfortable and sharp as possible before the biggest night of his professional life. Recruiting some of the brightest minds in the game, Somerville has crafted a clinic where each day the focus is on Thomas and how to improve his mindset and abilities so that he'll be able to react to anything that may come his way in Las Vegas.
"I committed 100 percent for the entirety of the three months," Somerville said. "I wanted to do it the right way and take it as seriously as $8.5 million deserves to be taken. That's what I wanted to do and Russ completely agreed with the plan to be super-committed. It's been a draining, exhausting experience, and really rewarding."
Thomas' first month was spent on general poker training, which was used to eliminate any rust that may have settled during his time away from the game. September's lessons were all about tournament poker and its intricacies, and on Oct. 1, they started final table training.
The group, which includes Somerville, Matt Berkey, Leo Wolpert, Alex Venovski, Jeff Forrest, Scott Stewart, Chris Choy and Jeff Lo, has taken on different roles in order to emulate Thomas' opponents. The team has done its research on Thomas' competition in order to find out the strategies that they should employ on a daily basis, and through three simulations, Thomas has finished second, fourth and sixth. The winners? The players representing Andras Koroknai, Greg Merson and Michael Esposito.
Thomas' team is not worried about the results, only that he can learn and take something away from each of the simulations.
"Balsiger has been owning me," Thomas said of the play of Anthony "The Pot Monster" Lombard, representing Jacob Balsiger during the simulations. "Just like he did in the real main event. He plays a perfect Balsiger."
Each day the group gets together, determines what scenario Thomas should be in that day (how many players left, does he have the chip lead, short stack, etc.) and plays out the event with a structure that best replicates what he'll be up against later this month. Tournament reporter BJ Nemeth also records each of Thomas' hands so the group can work through them afterward. No stone is left unturned.
Although his plans aren't truly finalized just yet, Thomas is looking forward to a career of traveling the tournament circuit. In order to maximize his potential both on and off the felt, Somerville had another idea and has been releasing a film series called "The Final Table", which showcases their efforts.
"The best way to launch your career and showcase yourself is to use the spotlight," Somerville said. "Do something interesting that will get you the viewers that you rightly deserve. This is a unique situation. The reality of the moment is that in [a matter of] days, Russ will be playing for $8.5 million and I feel that showcasing what we're doing is really interesting. This whole project has been a challenge that I've never had anything like this before. I've never worked this hard before on any project before in my life."
Thomas has been pleased with what he's learned.
"I'm definitely in better shape now than I was then," Thomas said. "And it is definitely cool to have a documentary if I win."
The training has cost Thomas "a good amount," but the reality is that the value of winning the world championship is immeasurable. The bracelet, endorsements, fame and of course, money, is only eight eliminations away and Thomas has put in more time to prepare than any other player he'll face Oct. 29.
Will all this work pay off? For Thomas, it's all just a risk worth taking.