Twelve months ago, Vanessa Kade–known as “Niffler” on PokerStars–did what most of us dream of.
She not only took down the Sunday Million, but also the biggest version of the flagship event in history: the 15th Anniversary edition in 2021.
Outlasting almost 70,000 entries, Kade won an incredible $1.5 million. Now, 12 months later, the 16th Anniversary edition is just days away.
We caught up with Kade to find out what she remembers about that momentous day, how things have changed for her since the win, and what advice she would give to anyone playing the Anniversary this year.
PokerStars Blog: Hey Vanessa! What do you remember about that day? Is it clear in your memory?
Vanessa Kade: It’s definitely clear in my memory. I remember the night before, feeling in my bones that I was going to win. I remember pausing to take a moment to double-check that I would be satisfied with my fate–even if it meant my elimination from the game–every time I was about to choose an action.
I remember being relatively card-dead for a very long time, slow playing kings, making a massive shove with fives against the second-largest stack hoping to force an ICM pressure fold out of almost his entire range, and the shock that followed as I realized he immediately called and we were already to the turn with the fives holding strong against his AK.
I remember seeing another player disconnect, imagining the distress he must be in with life-changing money on the line, and trying to give him time to return. I remember sitting in the same chair I’m in now and winning the tournament with pocket eights. I remember the relatively muted set of feelings and indifference I try to maintain when playing cards being replaced by a massive wave of emotion that came upon reading the words etched in my mind, “Congratulations, you have won the tournament.”.
I remember looking at my account balance and seeing a very unostentatious “$1.5M”.
I remember I cried.
Do you ever go back to watch the footage and relive it? If so, what stands out to you?
I rewatched the cards-up play once. What stood out is that while I was playing there were a couple of spots that were justifiable shoves. I knew they should be shoves but I felt nauseous about it and took a pass. I almost shoved A6-suited, then watched the replay and saw a player behind me had AQ. When I had pocket sixes, the button had pocket jacks.
There were at least three spots where I would have likely been eliminated from the tournament but folded instead. It’s insane to feel strong resistance in the moment, then later watch it back to see I was unknowingly facing certain death.
How have things changed for you since the win?
Interestingly, things have both changed a lot and simultaneously haven’t changed much. I think people react to a win of this scale in one of two ways: either they go ham and blow a lot on things that give them momentary happiness, or they realize that money like this is about freedom. Freedom of time, freedom of choice, freedom to be uncompromising about the kind person you want to be, and freedom to not have to do another thing you don’t want to do. The latter is infinitely more valuable.
The catch is that–especially if you’ve been treading water for some time–your anxieties of struggling to get ahead are replaced with new anxieties. As someone who aspires to be great in this field, the prospect of being so close only to not make it any further than where I’m at now is heart-wrenching, as is the idea of making it this far and then somehow losing everything and being right back where I started.
It’s more important than ever to live in the moment and just enjoy things as much as you can, the success you’ve seen, and the opportunities that have opened up as a result. I try to make good choices and not sweat the future too much. Poker mirrors life in that way and many others.
The first month after winning I particularly enjoyed using the money to feel better about small injustices. I’d see an unreasonable customer scream at some unfortunate minimum wage worker, and as soon as they were out of sight I’d hand the employee $100 and tell them they deserve better. I excessively tipped overlooked positions that never express entitlement, particularly janitorial staff, and randomly paid for meals of people who seemed to act with care or kindness to people around them. These seem like altruistic actions, but really I did it because it made me feel good; like I had the ability to neutralize negative effects and reward the good intentions of others, and set the world around me ‘right’ in a very small way. I gave away a lot the first week and had to dial it back.
Other than that nothing much is different: same house, same car, same furniture, more massages, and marginally nicer clothes. I’ve always made a point of not compromising my values for money or letting it control me, so it’s my hope that I’m the best version to date of the same person I’ve always been at heart. Maybe just a bit more relaxed about some things, and more confident about others.
Even a year on I’m not sure it’s truly hit me, and it may take me a couple of years to prove to myself I’m not going to screw it up before I fully adjust. The feeling reminds me of an image I saw, where a horse is tied to a near-weightless plastic lawn chair and she patiently stands by as if constrained… sometimes it takes us a while to realize we’re free.
What was your poker life like leading up to the tournament?
For a couple of years leading up to the win, I was on a frustrating downswing. I made it to the end-game in so many big tournaments with huge stacks only to get repeatedly wrecked in straightforward spots. Over a dozen two-outers, runner-runners and other really long shots in tournaments with $60k-$250k for first, always against the only person at the table who had enough chips to knock me out.
I finished the year with no significant wins. It went on so long (nearly two years) that every time I got dealt aces or kings I would feel nauseous and immediately think to myself, “oh… here we go, this is where I lose all my chips,” and then I would.
Eventually, I realized my mindset had become a massive problem, so I set out to fix it. The first thing I did was admit to myself I was not putting in the work that I could be, and doing so would probably relieve some feelings of helplessness.
What did you do?
I hired a personal trainer and fixed my diet. I also changed the soundtrack in my head, intentionally replacing the dread I would get every time I was dealt a monster with the narrative that I was about to double up. I wrote on a notecard that I kept by my monitor a phrase Charlie Carrel once told me he uses: “I am lucky. I am skilful. I will win.”
I also read a bit about other mental exercises including visualization, and tried an activity where I wrote the words: “I am so happy and grateful now that I have won the Sunday Million and am a PokerStars Team Pro.” Not a bracelet. Not a ring. Not the WSOP Main Event. The Sunday Million.
I read that sheet once a day in the morning as instructed for about a week, before putting it away. It’s still in the house somewhere, though I haven’t come across it. My traditionally mathematical and logic-based mind has historically struggled with the concept manifestation, but there’s so much about the world we don’t understand that I tried to set aside my scepticism. Whether or not that has any merit, I think imagining yourself succeeding at the thing you want makes it significantly more likely you will take the path that will get you there.
Amusingly, around the same time, I put a dollar into one of those novelty Zoltar machines in Vegas for fun where an animatronic wizard says a bunch of stuff and tells you to make a wish and then spits out a little yellow card with your fortune and some lucky numbers. I wished to win the Sunday Million, and to my surprise, it spat out a blank card that said only, “Your wish is granted.” I flipped the card over and then back again before muttering to myself, “what the f**k?”. This sounds made up–I think it might even be a scene in the movie Big–but I swear it’s true and I still have the ticket.
The Sunday Million is an iconic tournament. How did it feel to take down the biggest one ever?
The Sunday Million is certainly iconic, so much so that I structured my dreams and goals around it over any other tournament. It was the main tournament I made sure I never missed on Sundays even though I never ran particularly well in it (I think the next best place I’ve gotten is around 90th), and hovered around even or slightly losing on the bullets I’d fired over the couple years I played it consistently.
The impact of going on to not only win the tournament but specifically a version with a field this size is mind-blowing. You see your stack at the end and it sinks in that every chip from every single one of nearly 70,000 entries is sitting right in front of you…all 1,400,000,000 of them. You realise all the nights you’ve lain awake in bed dreaming about winning the WSOP Main Event–a goal that’s always seemed impossibly far away–is in fact only a tiny fraction of the field you just beat.
Anything feels possible.
Are you going to be playing this year to defend your title?
I’m going to make sure I’m right here in this chair with my wonderful cat Cero by my side ready to battle it out.
What advice would you give to anyone playing the Anniversary this year?
Relax, enjoy it, and do your best. What happens in any single tournament is not in your control. Also if you only fire hard at certain tournaments, this is about the best value tournament all year so empty the clip.
What advice, if any, would you give to the eventual winner?
Many people are prone to immediately making a bunch of extravagant purchases. If this is you, wait. A month, two months, however long it takes until you come down from the high and feel like you’re making rational choices. Take ample time to decide how you can really use this amazing gift to get maximum happiness and security for you and the people around you.
No matter what, remember: “Whatever you do, don’t congratulate yourself too much, or berate yourself either. Your choices are half chance. So are everybody else’s.” — Baz Luhrmann