Gather round. This is the incredible story of how a casual player ended up on the final tables of the Stadium Series for free, going on to win more than they could ever have dreamed of.

John “99rocks” Vallis doesn’t play poker for real money very often. He usually enjoys token game and before this weekend his biggest real-money win was $72. As John says, “I don’t think I’ve ever spent more than $10 (on a game)”.

Now, John Vallis is $57k richer after finishing third in the $2,100 Heat 21-H.

John didn’t buy into the event. In fact, he didn’t pay a penny. Nothing at all. We caught up with John to hear all about his epic journey from a free $22 satellite ticket to a $57k prize.

I genuinely contemplated throwing the game”

Vallis’ journey started when he was unexpectedly awarded a free $22 ticket in a promotional chest. After logging on for a quick play-money game, John opened the chest to find his Stadium Series satellite ticket. Almost reluctantly, he entered.

“The whole experience was very unexpected… The chest popped up and inside was a $22 ticket. I almost ignored it. I then clicked into it and joined the satellite tourney.”

The top players from the satellite qualified for a $109 satellite, with the runner-up receiving a small cash prize, and at one point John considered playing for the cash.

“I genuinely contemplated throwing the game in 40th place to get a quick cash”, says John, “Thankfully I hung in there and made the final 39.”

Thankfully indeed… From there, Vallis “played through the $109 satellite without too much drama” and made it to the $2,100 Heat event. He had earned his seat in the biggest tourney of his life, and all without investing a penny.

“I was also playing an online pub quiz!”

John continued to represent the truly casual player even as he entered Day 1 of the Heat.

“I played the whole of Day 1 on my phone, around 2 hours of which I was also playing in an online pub quiz!”, says John. “It was 3am in the morning by the time we were down to the final 27 and Day 1 was complete, and I was chip leading.”

As the tourney entered Day 2, Vallis considered that he could soon be on path for an absolutely huge score.

“Heading into Day 2, I set myself the objective of making it to the final table – once I achieved that, and then established a chip lead – at that point I knew I had a chance to walk away with a substantial amount”, says John. “I genuinely didn’t even think about the money aspect until we were down to about the last 40, at which point I thought, ‘this is actually a possibility’”

Facing off against the pros

Those who play often at the higher stakes will recognize the names and faces of big winners. Being a high stake event, John was always going to have to face the pros; Conor Beresford, Franciso Benitez and Aliaksei Boika to name just a few who were on the final table of the Heat 21-H.

Thankfully for John, he didn’t really have to worry about this too much. “I had no idea who any of the other players were, so it didn’t really occur to me.”

John describes his journey on Day 2 of the tourney:

“The first hour or so of Day 2 was very quiet for me – very few playable hands and I was drifting down the leader board, so I was kind of resigned to my fate. But then I hit a few hands, mad a couple of big gains, and by the time we were on the final table I had a fairly healthy chip stack right up to the final 2 hands.”

This was a huge pot for Vallis:

“The two guys I ended up facing three-handed were clearly very good players… I think I was actually fairly unlucky on the last two hands… I ran into a low flush whilst holding a set of kings on the penultimate hand, and then my final hand saw my pocket nines run into pocket aces, both of which hit sets on the flop. Hats off to those final two players, but I don’t think I did too much wrong at that stage.”

Here’s the moment John’s incredible run came to an end:

Back on play-tokens on Monday”

John “99rocks99” Vallis finished the $2,100 Heat 21-H in third place, earning $57,229.

It’s a fantastic sum – I have 2 girls at university, so it will help them a lot, and there is undoubtedly a fantastic holiday on the cards when travel becomes more realistic”, says John.

As for the poker – I’ll be back on the play-tokens on Monday… I was phenomenally lucky to have this experience, but I am honest enough to know that I really did not belong in such esteemed company.”

Maybe a little humble for a guy who had the skills to turn a freebie into $57k, but we thoroughly commend you John. Have fun at the play-money table and we’ll see you next time you get airdropped a ticket!

Lesson to all other casual players: take your satellite opportunities and turn them into gold.

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