Extending the runway: The flightpath of a recreational poker champion
As far as you and most of the rest of the poker world are concerned, there is a Finnish grinder who goes by the name messigoat10 who does pretty well for himself. Everyone can be forgiven for imagining this dude sitting in some Finnish outpost and using his winnings as mere accessories to his dashing Nordic good looks. I mean, we're prone to do the same. Just a few weeks ago, we talked all about Finland's latest WCOOP winner, messigoat10. Wasn't our face red.
"My brother's gotten a kick out of calling me a Finnish grinder from Cincinnati," the guy revealed.
There is no direct flight from Cincinnati to Finland, but Tom Uebel found his way there regardless. The departure lounge will be familiar to most American players. The eventual destination? That one is a bit more remote, and that's just how Uebel likes it.
It's a far-flung tale of a man who had barely played poker in six years, a couple of badly-timed blackouts, and a poker championship that means something a lot different than your average win.
It begins, as many of these stories do, on a Friday in April 2011.
It was his last semester of college. He had just one class on Friday. It was the kind of red letter day that might allow a young man to walk with a sense of optimism into his college home. It was the kind of day the same man might find his neighbor and friend waiting for him. It was the kind of day the poker world would eventually come to know as Black Friday.
Uebel's buddy looked up and said, "Hey, did you hear all the poker sites got shut down?"
By that point, any American who played poker online had steeled themselves against this kind of news. Most of them remembered the American UIGEA law that came out of nowhere in 2006 and turned the industry on its ear. Most folks had come to believe that if online poker could survive that, it could survive anything. Uebel was no different.
"I didn't take it very seriously at first since the environment was clearly in flux for a few years to those of us paying attention," he said this week. "I figured this was another false alarm."
He had a reason to be hopeful. His post graduation plans were more ambitious than the average poker player. He intended to travel, make an income from poker, and then use his own money to start a business, a venture known as bootstrapping in the start-up world. He had big dreams, and poker was part of them.
By the time Uebel made it upstairs to his room, he'd seen the FBI notices on all the major websites. If the UIGEA was stiff breeze, Black Friday was a tornado. In the span of just a few hours, thousands of lives all over America began to look a lot different.
Everything went black. Tom Uebel's dream was going to have to wait.
STARTING OVER & STARTING UP
In the months following Black Friday, it became clear, reputable online poker was finished in America for the foreseeable future. Online poker grinders expatriated by the hundreds. Communities of online poker players popped up in Mexico, Vancouver, Toronto, and many other places that were easily accessible from America.
Uebel didn't go. Though Black Friday had dashed his plans to self-fund his own business, it didn't darken his dreams to be an entrepreneur. After graduation, he packed up and moved to San Francisco. He dove headfirst into the tech world working for both an education technology company and a venture capital firm. After a few years, he finally made good on his plans to travel. He left his job, set up a home base in, of all places, Helsinki, Finland, and then started traveling the world. It fed the same fascination he'd found when he played online poker for the first time.
"When I was first playing online, one of the things that stuck out to me was the diversity in terms of countries and professions of other players," he said. "I thought it was the coolest thing that after sitting around the poker table in my basement with friends in Cincinnati on Friday night, I then sat at my desk upstairs in my room on Sunday playing tournaments against people from all over - some from places I'd never heard of, with playing styles that seemed even more foreign."
And so he traveled as much as he could, seeing those cultures he only imagined from his Cincinnati home. Along the way, he started laying the groundwork for his own business. He went to the Olympics in Brazil, saw Michael Phelps' swan song, and reveled in his life--a proud American living abroad.
"In all my travels, few things have compared to hearing the Star Spangled Banner on foreign soil," he said.
His national pride notwithstanding, he still couldn't play poker when he was home. In fact, until spring of 2017, Uebel hadn't played a single hand of poker in six years. Once or twice a year, he popped into the poker forums to see what was up, but that was about it. He had his mind on other things.
But, as sometimes happens to people like Uebel, the memories of what might have been hung around. In the year leading up Black Friday, Uebel had been making the transition from cash games to tournaments. He hadn't hit it big yet, but he could feel himself getting close.
So, earlier this year, he played some SCOOP events. That led to playing WCOOP this year and booking his first Online Poker Championship title. It was a breakthrough, but not necessarily the kind we've come to associate with a player's first WCOOP title. This one involves a runway.
SEAT BELTS FASTENED, TRAY TABLES UP
In the start-up community, the ability to get up and running involves something entrepreneurs call "runway," otherwise known as how many months they can operate on the amount of money they have. More money means more months, and that means a longer runway. The longer the runway, the longer the companies have to figure out how they are going to stay up and running. Uebel has been thinking about his own personal runway for a long time.
"Since I first moved to San Francisco in 2012, I've made a point of living below my means so I could build my personal runway to give myself the ability to take a real crack at starting a company without a ton of added financial stress. The WCOOP win extends my runway in a meaningful way, so I'm extremely happy about that,"
That means Uebel can now go, as he puts it, "heads down" on his company, giving his idea and plan his full attention from a home he is setting up in Vancouver. Poker will remain a recreational pursuit for him. Despite having clear card playing ability, he's ready to put himself in the start-up game. To do that, he knows he needs complete focus. To do that, he's taken a lesson from one of poker's most successful players.
"You can go back a few years and see Bryn Kenney talking about how he doesn't like taking any time off because his only goal was to be the #1 tournament player in the world," Uebel said. "I think that level of focus and drive is why he's now there, and I only have that level of interest in certain parts of the tech world right now."
So, Uebel is betting on himself. It's worked out before. It worked with poker. Now, it's time to taxi down his personal runway and see how high he can climb.
"There have been a few times in my life where I've taken the road less traveled, where I've bet on myself, and thus far those have all turned out well," he said.
Nevertheless, even those moments weren't free of blackouts.
Uebel isn't the kind of guy who believes he has it all figured out. He's willing to put his money in, but he won't pretend to know exactly how everything will turn out. Just look at the way his WCOOP championship played out.
Despite having a home base in Helsinki, Uebel decided to play WCOOP from a rented place in Mexico. He had a beachfront pad with just about everything he wanted, including a good pizza joint next door. While sunny and beautiful, that situation involves its own special subset of problems. Chief among those issues: reliable internet. Uebel had done his research, but that could only take him so far.
Fast forward to his big WCOOP day. He was as ready as he could be. The internet though...
"My place has two wifi connections, which has come in handy because the connection, while fast, occasionally hiccups," Uebel explained. "These wifi hiccups happened three times at the final table, but the first two times--including a big ~20m pot--I luckily was able to swap over to the other network without it disrupting the hand thanks to disconnect protection."
The third time?
It was the very last hand of the tournament. His internet connection held just long enough to get all of his chips in the middle...and see his opponent call.
And then the internet blacked out.
So there he sat with no idea what was going to happen. He waited. And waited. And then his internet signal came back. He looked up and saw the message.
"This tournament is over."
There, the American in Mexico, the one who had come by way of Helsinki, Brazil, and all of the other places who hosted a man without a poker country, realized that blackout or not, he had won in more ways that one. He had, unlike a lot of American poker players, survived Black Friday. He had traveled the world and seen things most people could never imagine. He had learned all he could about start-ups and conceived his own. Now he had a much longer runway than he could've dreamed. When everything turned back on and ended the blackout, Uebel was a winner in more ways than one.
"I knew it had worked out," he said.
Brad Willis is the PokerStars Head of Blogging. Follow him on Twitter: @BradWillis.