Years ago, I wrote that in the future, the majority of successful poker players would be young, online-educated players who had accumulated significantly more hand experience than players from previous generations, who had spent their days at the slow-moving live tables.
For a while, established professionals scoffed at those who predicted a transition, and derided the online generation as impatient and unacquainted with the realities of major live tournaments. Now, few in the high-stakes culture would question that the online generation has taken the helm in the poker world, and even older players who have been profitable for years scramble to adjust to the new form of ultra-aggressive poker that the kids have brought to the live arena.
The World Poker Tour's L.A. Poker Classic was a good example of online players' current domination of the tournament poker world. Of the six players who made the televised final table, five were in their 20s and had been high-volume online players prior to "Black Friday," the day in April 2011 when the feds effectively shut down online poker for U.S. players. The lone exception was 53-year-old Sean Jazayeri, a semi-recreational player from Seattle.
Jazayeri learned much of what he knows about tournament poker by enrolling in the WPT Boot Camp, and prior to the L.A. event, he'd never won more than $50,000 in a tournament. Although he went into the final table with a slight chip lead, almost no one considered him a serious threat to win, and many assumed that the fast, relentless play of the young guns would lead to a steady decline of Jazayeri's stack until he was ultimately induced into doing something fatal.
Jazayeri was definitely the most conservative player at the table, but his tight play helped him stay out of trouble and avoid situations where his more experienced opponents could take advantage of him. He didn't back down from playing draws aggressively, and he had just enough of his big hands hold up to propel him into the final three. Once there, he found himself facing two premier players, Dan Kelly and David Sands, both of whom had held the No. 1 ranking in the online tournament world for a period in their careers.
Fortunately for Jazayeri, the two young guns ran into each other, and Sands beat Kelly in a coin-flip hand, creating a heads-up match with Jazayeri slightly behind in chips, holding $7 million vs. his opponent's $9 million.
Surely, Sands was looking to chip away at Jazayeri in small and medium pots, and to avoid the sort of large confrontations that would increase the variance in a match that Sands would be favored to win by taking a less volatile approach. Sands took half a million from Jazayeri this way until the two found themselves in an unavoidable pre-flop cooler: Sands was a slight favorite with Qd Qh against Jazayeri's Ah Kd, but an ace on the flop changed the shape of the match.
Things were over on the next hand: Jazayeri raised, Sands shoved in his last $2.5 million with Ks Qh, Jazayeri called with Ad 5d and wound up catching a third 5 on the river to win in dramatic fashion.
It was a thrilling reminder that in tournament poker, even when conditions are stacked against you, all it takes is solid play and the right run of cards to compete with the game's top talent. And it was charming to see someone as affable and as humble about his skills as Jazayeri score such a monumental victory.
Tony Dunst is a poker pro and host of "Raw Deal" on World Poker Tour telecasts. Catch him every Sunday night on FSN. Poker Pros will appear every week.