High-stakes cash game player Chris Brewer has surely heard all the jokes as a former distance runner for the 31-time national champion University of Oregon Ducks track and field team. In fact, the 27-year-old from San Diego, California played his very first hand of poker while attending the 2012 Olympic Trials.
Just eight years after taking a seat in that $5 buy-in home game, Brewer now finds himself playing in the highest stakes cash games in the world with $1,000-$2,000 blinds and six-figure pots flying back and forth with just a few clicks of a button.
In the past year, Brewer has begun to play in more tournaments in addition to grinding cash games. He strung together a few deep runs in big events during this year’s World Series of Poker Online, making the quarterfinals of the $10,000 heads-up championship, cashing in the $25,000 buy-in high roller event, and navigating his way to the final day of the $25 million guaranteed $5,000 buy-in no-limit hold’em main event.
The massive field of 5,802 entries in the WSOP Online main event created the largest prize pool in online poker history with $27,559,500, a record that was officially certified by Guinness World Records in late October. Brewer ultimately finished in 32nd place in the historic event, cashing for $55,880.
While Brewer first wet his feet in the high-stakes tournament world online, he has managed to already find plenty of success in the few higher buy-in events held since live tournaments have begun to resume after the shutdown caused by the COVID-19 pandemic. Brewer secured three top-three finishes during the Wynn High Roller series held in December, cashing for $271,093 along the way, He secured his first live tournament title by taking down the ninth event of the series, defeating World Poker Tour main event winner and high-stakes fixture Alex Foxen heads-up for the win.
Erik Fast: Can you tell me about your background as a collegiate runner at the University of Oregon?
Christopher Brewer: I ran the mile in college. That was the main factor for me. Oregon was the number one track program in the nation, and I just wanted to be around all the best guys. I did graduate with a business major and math minor, though.
EF: What were your aspirations as a runner?
CB: They changed over time. When I was first in high school, I just wanted to do as well as I could. Then I wanted to try to win a state title and get a college scholarship. And then when I went into college, like most kids who end up going to Oregon for running, I had the Olympic dream. Probably about two or three years in, I realized I didn’t really want to run after college. From then on, I just wanted to do the best I could and get a few things checked off the list for my running career, but knew I was going to be done after college.
EF: How do you think being a high-level competitive runner might have impacted you later on as a poker pro?
CB: I think more than most sports, distance running is probably up there with swimming and weightlifting, where the training is extremely, extremely intense. It’s just the culture of it. I have never been around people that worked anywhere near as hard as when I was on the Oregon track team. And I’d say that the poker community is trying significantly less hard at poker than the track community is trying at running. So, when I transitioned into poker, I always felt like that was a benefit. I was just so used to being in this culture where, if you weren’t trying every day to actively do something to get better, you were essentially considered to be wasting your time. No one wanted you to be there. I feel like that definitely helped me with poker, because I just have that ingrained in me.
CB: I was 19. It was after my freshman year of college and we played a home game during the 2012 Olympic trial. We played a $5 buy-in poker tournament with 12 people, and [if I remember correctly, we] dealt all 12 people in at one table. I think I lost that one, but then started doing a few home games from there, and I thought it was fun. And then it was $1-$2 at a nice poker room that had no rake called Full House Poker. I just started playing and ran really hot before [losing it back.] After I lost decided I’d try to get good at the game.
EF: What started the transition from playing in home games and low-stakes cash games to playing professionally?
CB: It started off with me just wanting to get better. I thought, ‘I can figure out a way to win in this game.’ And I did. I started playing when I was like 20, because it was 18 and over at that card room, and I played in that $1-$2 game until I graduated when I was 23. I’d probably play like 25 hours a week or so, and I just beat that game to the point where I joked that I probably have the world’s largest sample of winning at $1-$2.
When I moved back to San Diego, I started playing $5-$5 and I took some shots at $10-$25, which was the big game at Ocean’s Eleven. I had some swings, going up and down a bunch in that game, but I ended up getting staked for games $5-$10 or higher. Then I moved to Los Angeles for a year, and won a bunch at $10-$20 and $20-$40. I had a really big session playing $100-$200 heads up, which helped. It all just kind of started accelerating. I was very aggressive in taking shots, and I ran good in a lot of spots where I was aggressive.
EF: Did you come out of college choosing poker, or did you ever look into another career?
CB: I had decided on poker. I knew from the moment I started playing for real. I thought the highest stakes were like $10-$20 at that point, but I would read something [on a forum] about someone beating those stakes and I told myself, ‘I’m going to do that. I’m going to play whatever the biggest game is, and I’m going to beat that.’ That’s always been what I’ve wanted to do since I’ve started playing poker. Get to the highest stakes, and beat them. From the moment I started playing, that was always the goal.
EF: So, you were essentially playing for a living as soon as you finished school. How did your family and friends react to that decision?
CB: I talked to my parents about a year before I graduated, and I told them my intentions. At that point, I’d been winning for three years at $1-$2, and while the money was nothing crazy, it was enough that I was paying my own rent and [other expenses] in college. My parents were pretty on board with it. I think their take was kind of like, ‘Well, if it doesn’t work, you have a college degree, and you can go get a job. So go ahead and do this, but come back to us when you go broke.’ I think that was kind of what they were expecting, and then I just managed not to go broke.
EF: Was your entire focus on live poker?
EF: Were you able to find games bigger than $10-$20 often enough to get established at the higher stakes?
CB: When you live in LA, you can definitely play a lot of $10-$20 and $20-$40. I played a ton of $20-$40 at Commerce, but the next step up from that was always [much bigger.] You could play $50-$100, but usually that game has a straddle so usually you were playing $100-$200. I feel like that’s what ends up happening live, is like once you go above $20-$40, whatever stake they’re playing, you’re going to play two times that stake. So $100-$200 really ends up being $100-$200-$400, for example. So that was where there was a big jump for sure. You just have to get lucky at that point in order to be able to move up. You’ve got to run good when you take your shots at the bigger games.
EF: Do you remember the first time that you took a big shot that enabled you to move up in stakes?
CB: There was a funny one, that was super degen of me at the time. I probably had around $70,000 in my bankroll at the time and I was playing what started as a $5-$10 game. It had grown into a $10-$25 game, because a player had run $5,000 into $105,000 in the game, probably one of the craziest things I’ve ever seen. I told the guy that every single time he was all in, for 20 times, I would give him $100, and he took it as a challenge. He went all in 44 times that day, and he won 41 of them. It was like the most absurd game ever.
I was in for about $40,000 total and had gotten stacked. I took all the money I had in my box at Ocean’s Eleven, which I think was like another $30,000 or so and I just put it all on the table. I probably had only another $5,000 or so left in my bank account, but I told myself, ‘If I’m going broke, it’s going to be against this guy. I don’t care.’
And then a big hand came up. I opened A-J and a bunch of people called. The flop came A-J-3 with two spades, and the dude just open shoved into roughly a $2,000 pot for around $40,000. I called with aces and jacks and I held up against 7-5 of spades for a seven-high flush draw. Had I lost there, that would have been brutal. I would have been back to $1-$2 I guess. I don’t know.
EF: How long did it take for you to get to the point where you are now playing in some of the very biggest cash games in the world?
CB: The bigger progression from $25-$50 up probably happened from the end of 2018 until now. I’ve basically been on a year-and-a-half long heater.
EF: What does being a pro consist of in terms of the types of games you’re playing in?
CB: I was out of the country for a while. So when I was there, a lot of times I was just waking up and finding whatever was going on online during the WSOP Online. I was playing just whatever they had, which would usually end up being like two to three $5,000 buy-in tournaments in a day, followed by a $10,000, and then I’d wait to see if one of the cash games would go. I played as high as $500-$1,000-$2,000 blinds, but that was an extreme, obviously.
EF: Is there any stress that comes with playing $1,000-$2,000?
CB: I would only play with the online poker client showing stacks and bets in big blinds. I would not look at the real dollar numbers, which is definitely a nice option the software had. Somehow $200-$400 felt small after playing those games, so it definitely altered my perception a little. In one of the first sessions I played, we didn’t even straddle, and it still just felt so big. I was pretty stressed then. I started off just losing straight away too. I had one where I ran a big bluff, and I got called, and that felt really bad. But once I got used to it, it wasn’t as stressful.
EF: What was one of the most exciting or intense pots you played this summer?
CB: I think the most notable hand has to be when Limitless (Polish high-stakes player Wiktor Malinowski), called me with 7 2 in a four-bet pot, and then I lost with A 10 after an A 10 3 flop. He floated the flop with 7-2, and it ran out 5 on the turn, 4 on the river for like a $500,000 pot. So, I think that had to be the most notable one. But it was so absurd I wasn’t even that mad. I just started laughing, because I was just like, ‘What just happened?’
EF: In a high-stakes live game there’s a big social aspect. Was it weird to make the jump up to playing these really huge games with players you might not have interacted with in person before?
CB: It’s super different. It feels extremely fake. It feels like you’re playing a video game. You just have a score card that you’re trying to run up. It’s so weird to conceptualize it as real money when you’re playing. After, you’ll be like, ‘Wow, that was a lot.’ But I will say that the highest stakes games, the $1,000-$2,000, felt a bit more like some mix of an online and a live game, because there was friendly stuff we did in those games. We would always flip to see who got the last button and everything, which is not common generally online.
Also, it was like we knew why the game was running whenever it went, and it seemed like everyone was kind of pretty open about it. When you’re playing $200-$400 or $100-$200, it feels much more like you’re just out there. It’s very predatory and no one knows each other at all. Somehow the biggest game felt less predatory, which is kind of interesting. It was a friendlier atmosphere, where it’d be much more ruthless in the games just below those stakes. Like if a spot left the game in a $200-$400 game, it was just over, the game would be instantly done and you’re going to get buttoned. But that never happened in the $1,000-$2,000.
EF: You mentioned that you played a decent number of tournaments this summer. Was it something you enjoyed and plan on doing more of?
CB: It was interesting. For a long time, I said I was never going to play tournaments. Then I just started playing them around last October or something. I watched Nick Petrangelo’s training course on Upswing, as well as some of bencb789’s training course and found it all kind of interesting. I was just playing tournaments to waste some time on Sundays at first. Then when quarantine happened, and all the live stuff got shut down. I started to play more, and as that went on, I found tournaments significantly more fun and interesting. I’m at the point that now I find tournament poker to be a more fun game to play than cash, and I would not have thought I’d ever say that a year ago.
EF: Considering that tournament play wasn’t a big focus of yours for most of your career, it must have been a pleasant surprise to find yourself still in on the final day of the $5,000 buy-in WSOP Online main event. What was the experience of playing that tournament like?
CB: That was awesome. I’m sure it’s not as cool as making a deep run in the live main event probably would be, but it was still just so exciting just being in. As you get closer and closer, you allow yourself to think, ‘I have a shot at this. It could happen.’ Because the entire time you’re playing something like that, you don’t actually think you’re going to win. ‘I’m just registering because I know it’s good value, but I don’t expect anything to come from it.’ All of a sudden it was day three and there’s 40 left and I was still in. ‘Oh, I can actually have hope now!’ It was really exciting.
CB: I want to play all the live tournaments when they come back, any of the super high roller stuff. I don’t know when those will be back, but I’m excited to try to do that. It seems really fun. I’ve thought about moving out of the country to go play more online. I haven’t decided whether or not I’m going to do that. It’s kind of tough in the United States, when there’s not as much live poker, and certainly not a ton of high-stakes options available. So, I’m going to be trying to figure that out, but I definitely want to play all the big live tournaments when those are back. ♠
Photo credits: WPTDeepStacks.