As the tournament clock froze last night and players in the €50,000 Super High Roller event began the bagging process, Ryan Fee and Mike McDonald played their first hand of the day. They had had lunch together a couple of days beforehand, but hadn’t tangled in any meaningful sense since then.
McDonald had recently come to the table with his second bullet, lost a couple of blinds and antes, so was sitting with close to his 250,000 stack — 50 big blinds at the 2,500-5,000 level. Fee had had a great day, sitting with a stack of about 700,000 and thinking about pushing on tomorrow. It was now the very last hand of the day.
Fee found ace-queen off-suit and raised under the gun. McDonald, with pocket jacks, called from the button, and the two saw a queen high flop. By the time the turn (a four) and river (another queen) was exposed, Fee had got about 75,000 in the pot (25,000 on the flop; 50,000 on the turn). He then called when McDonald decided to turn his hand into a bluff and shove on the river.
All of a sudden McDonald was composing wry tweets about beginning day two with exactly starting stack while Fee was staring down photographers’ lenses. He was the tournament chip-leader with 919,000.
All of that is good enough in any circumstance, but when you add to it that this is Fee’s first ever trip to the European Poker Tour, it makes the achievement even more special.
Fee first came to widespread attention in November 2008, when, as a 20-year-old, he claimed a maiden title on the Latin America Poker Tour in Costa Rica. However the live game soon grew tedious — “‘Live’, ‘boring’, ‘tournament’ is like a triple strike for things Ryan likes in poker,” he said — which explains a long gap on his results list.
However in recent months, Fee has begun to discover the joys of high buy in events, and won a WPT High Roller back in San Jose in March, followed by a first trip to the deep stages of a World Series event, where he finished seventh in the $25,000 Mixed Max. He said today that he’ll likely start travelling a lot more for poker. If the buy-in is big, he’ll be there.
“I’ve started to enjoy them,” Fee said. “A 1K through 10K, in the US or wherever, is kind of like a bunch of guys in sunglasses, they’re all serious. It’s no fun, you know. But these [Super High Roller events] are maybe six to eight handed, you know most of the people, it’s a good time, you get a load of chips. It’s not so frustrating. These are cool.”
It’s one of the quirks of live poker that the higher the level, the more relaxed it all becomes. If you can afford €50,000 to play, you’re most likely doing pretty well for yourself, so the pressure tends to be off. The businessmen who enter the fray want to test their skills against the best in the world, and will pay for the privilege. The top pros, meanwhile, cover their exposure by swapping percentages and putting together staking arrangements, but also relish the thrill of competition at the game’s highest echelons.
Fee, who is originally from Pittsburgh but is now based in Las Vegas, says that he now has a big enough bankroll to play at the top table, but has certainly put in the hours to get there. Like all American players, he was hit hard by the events of Black Friday, and what had formerly seemed to be a secure income suddenly became much harder to come by.
Skill levels in the games he used to dominate have increased by extraordinary levels, and he now plays online only on trips to Vancouver for either a tournament series like WCOOP or a couple of weeks of heads up grinding.
“For me, for online, that’s all that’s left,” he said. “Six max, it’s good money but you have to be there all the time. Your hourly is good, but it’s not that great. You have to work really hard at it. It’s super competitive.
“Heads up, I feel super confident. Six max, I probably would in time, but there are too many people that are definitely better than me. It doesn’t take many. Let’s say, if the player pool has 50 people and there are ten that are better than me, that’s a lot. The player pool is bigger than that, but you get what I’m saying.”
There is a certain irony in the fact that Fee has all but turned his back on six max online poker. In 2008, right about the time he was winning on the LAPT, Fee wrote a book about that precise variant, which unlocked many of the strategies for his potential opponents.
He was a young idealist, happy to introduce new skills to players learning the game, but ended up jeopardising his own income, particularly at that time of legal uncertainty in the world of online poker.
“I have super mixed feelings about it [writing the book],” Fee said. “There’s a side of me that’s super altruistic. It makes me happy to help people, the process of learning and games. But I didn’t understand the implication of my actions, especially in the years around Black Friday, leading up to and immediately directly after. Life was really, really tough. There was no guarantee that I’d be successful. So with all that uncertainty for that period of my life, I was like, ‘Damn, why did I do this?’ I would have felt way better about it if it didn’t compromise my own job security.”
All’s well that ends well, though, even before this excellent display in the Super High Roller in Barcelona. Like a certain Doyle Brunson, who also once wrote a poker book and regretted it, Fee seems to be doing just fine regardless.
“There was a period, where I was, like, ‘Gah! What am I doing?’ But now it’s kind of funny because the information is super obsolete and I kind of made it anyway. So it’s not such a big deal.”
Day 2 of the €50,000 Super High Roller is under way. Head to the main Super High Roller page for full coverage from the tournament floor.