What started as a vacation turned into the biggest win of Tyler Smith’s life, who returned home to Biloxi with a dazzling souvenir bracelet from a World Series of Poker event and $244,344 in winnings.
He hadn’t played in a tournament in a couple of years, and while his family flew back to Mississippi at the end of their week in Las Vegas, he entered the $565 Pot-Limit Omaha Event at the Rio All Suite Hotel & Casino. The event in the WSOP tournament drew 3,186 entries to become the largest live pot-limit Omaha tournament in history.
Smith, 30, didn’t expect to win.
“There’s so much losing in tournaments, you rarely ever win one,” he said. Professional poker players get used to losing, he said, “You expect to lose a lot, so when you win one there’s certainly a massive rush of excitement.”
That excitement shows in the official photo of Smith with a huge smile as he displays the trophy bracelet he won in the event final on June 11.
“In the moment it was definitely a surreal experience,” he said.
The set up
Last year was the first time Smith and his family didn’t spend the entire summer in Las Vegas, because his son was about to be born. They decided to return for a week this year.
“It was just a family vacation,” he said. He and his wife, Nikki, met while he was playing poker and she worked at the Beau Rivage Resort & Casino in Biloxi. They have two sons, age 10 and 10 months, and are expecting a third child.
Poker is how he pays the bills, but he’s playing an even bigger hand as an emerging real estate investor and owner of Leo’s Wood Fired pizza restaurant on Government Street in Ocean Springs.
His game is pot-limit Omaha and he plays it exclusively. It’s not often he gets to enter an Omaha tournament, he said, and he decided to extend his Vegas vacation for a seat at the table.
The event was a re-entry tournament. Players buy in for $565 and those who get knocked out with a losing hand within a certain time frame can pay up and re-enter.
Smith bought in, sat down and got knocked out in the first hand. He re-bought and kept playing. At the end, it took just two hands to eliminate the second- and third-place finishers and win the tournament.
“The ugly truth is that it was really just my day,” he said.
With 3,200 entrants, it’s fairly unlikely that a true amateur or a really bad player will win this kind of a tournament, he said. Yet the odds also are against an accomplished player winning a bracelet.
“A lot of very good players in the world don’t have a bracelet and will never win a bracelet,” he said. “It’s mathematically impossible.”
He isn’t sure what he’ll do with his bracelet.
“I’m not too flashy so I won’t be wearing it,” he said. He will check “win a bracelet” off his bucket list and add it to the ring he won at a WSOP tournament in New Orleans in 2008. He also kept the buy-in receipt from the tournament and the card that showed his first place finish and monster payout.
One thing’s for sure — “I’ll hang on to it forever,” he said of the bracelet. “I feel overly blessed to be able to get one.”
How he got here
Smith fell into poker by chance. At the end of his senior year of high school in Smithdale, just outside of McComb, kids were sitting around playing cards to pass the time once classes ended.
“Let’s play poker. Let’s play hold-em,” one of his friends said. That led to weekend tournaments and small cash games, and the same friend told him about free online poker games. Smith said he spent a lot of time playing these online sites where first place won $10.
His basketball scholarship to Mississippi College soon took second place to poker, Smith said. He gave up basketball, finished two years at a junior college and at age 20, “I decided I wanted to take six months and just play full time, exclusively,” he said.
For the next five to seven years, he traveled the country, playing poker in tournaments and online. Smith said he won a “decent amount” of money in tournaments, especially in the South, but three years ago decided to focus on family and on playing cash games at casinos. He gave up tournament action.
“You won’t find a more fearless adversary in any variation of poker,” according to the website GulfCoastPoker.net.
“I love poker,” Smith said. “I love a lot of things that come with it. I enjoy the uncertainty of not knowing what is going to happen over the next six months.”
Business is like a poker hand
He also enjoys what he’s doing outside of poker.
“I guess I’m still relatively young, but in the poker world I’m pretty old,” Smith said. He’s begun to diversify, buying real estate, apartment complexes and houses, many of them in South Mississippi, and buying, renovating, flipping, holding.
“It’s like a poker hand but it’s not as quick,” he said of his investments.
When dealt a hand in poker, there’s a series of decisions over 40 seconds, he said. Investments and real estate gives him time to analyze and to work with people.
“When you’re playing poker you’re trying to extract from people,” he said. In real estate, he’s adding value to a dilapidated property.
“It’s a nice change of pace. It’s a good feeling. You’re adding something of value to the world,” he said.
The earning ceiling in poker is relatively small, he said. If a person has ambition to do something monumental, “You have to find you way out of poker.”
He’s been thinking about it a lot lately and figuring out what comes next, he said.
Once poker, always poker
“When you win a big tournament it takes three days to come down from that high, Smith said. “You can get blinded. It’s like you instantly forget about what is reality. The reality is they are extremely difficult to navigate through and win.”
He’s still motivated to play high stakes, but Smith said at this point he likes to think that he doesn’t have to rely on poker to take care of his family.
“I absolutely love the Gulf Coast,” he said, and is happy to raise his family in South Mississippi. While the game may take a back seat to soccer games and being home while his kids are young, “I think I’ll always want to play,” he said.
At some point in his life, when he has the opportunity to go back and play poker tournaments again, Smith said he’ll enjoy playing with people that truly are from all walks of life.
“I loved it and I still do,” he said.
Final Table Results for WSOP Event 18
1st: Tyler Smith, Biloxi —$224,344
2nd: Jason Stockfish — $138,655
3rd: Igor Sharaskin — $102,045
World Series of Poker
Tyler Smith’s top WSOP winnings
2017 $565 Pot-Limit Omaha, Las Vegas
2008 No-Limit Hold’em, New Orleans
2011 No-Limit Hold’em, Las Vegas
2011 No-Limit Hold’em, Las Vegas
2008/09 No-Limit Hold’em, New Orleans
World Series of Poker