If I Could Be Like Ike

Isaac Haxton gets around … and around … and around

Isaac Haxton

Isaac Haxton has consistently taken on the best poker has to offer in both high stakes online cash games and the biggest buy-in tournaments in the world — and few can match the scope and breadth of his success.

“If you host it, I will play” appears to be Isaac Haxton’s approach across the board to High Roller tournaments. Since they started to appear more and more regularly on the tournament calendar more than five years ago, it would be hard to find an EPT Super High Roller, Aussie Millions, WPT Alpha8 or even a $1 million buy-in where Haxton hasn’t taken his shot.

The 28-year-old New York native and PokerStars Team Online Pro has spent the majority of the last three years abroad, forced to leave the United States any time he wants to play for the online stakes he prefers. Still, in light of the difficulties he’s faced since Black Friday — which included a long period of having his Full Tilt funds locked up and a significant amount of money he’s unlikely to ever see again on UB, Haxton’s found more than a silver lining in his circumstances.

“There have been bad things about it,” said Haxton. “[But] I’d say, on balance, I am grateful that the last two years have involved so much traveling — that it’s given me the impetus to spend so much time in so many novel places. I would always say things when I was living in Vegas and playing online poker full time, like ‘It’s really great to be a professional poker player, because I have so few scheduled commitments, and I can just travel and do whatever I want’ but I didn’t actually travel very much then. It’s been nice to finally get around to doing all that traveling, though not having a choice in the matter isn’t always that great.”

Haxton’s first stop when leaving the United States in 2011 to keep playing online was the tiny island nation of Malta, which lies just south of the Italian island of Sicily. He and his wife Zoe greatly enjoyed their stay, but the process of becoming naturalized was a little more complicated than Haxton initially realized.

“I never ended up getting permanent residence in Malta,” said Haxton, “So it’s my home base for almost half the year. I’m still spending time there just under the default visa waiver for American citizens that lets you spend 90 out every 180 days in the EU, so I have to leave fairly often. I think I spend four or five months a year in Malta.”

If it was only a matter of spending 90 days in Malta and then 90 days anywhere else in the world, Haxton could plan trips to various places throughout Europe built around EPT stops. The way the European Union is organized, however, Haxton has a lot less flexibility in terms of travel throughout the continent.

“The thing is that the restriction applies to time in the EU in total,” said Haxton, “So, yeah, I guess a typical trip to Europe for me would be go play an EPT, mostly hang out in Malta, spend like two to four weeks of the time that I’m there at live tournaments, and the other month or two at home in Malta. I try to schedule time in Malta around when there’s going to be a lot of online poker to play. I was there for SCOOP and I’ll be there again for WCOOP.”

Rather than spending extended periods in the U.S. where he wouldn’t have access to PokerStars or Full Tilt, Haxton has taken to finding several other temporary locations to hole up and grind. After the 2014 World Series of Poker wrapped up, Haxton headed north to a location numerous other online grinders now call home.

“Right now I’m in Vancouver,” said Haxton. “I’ve spent maybe almost six months out of the last three years here in Vancouver, maybe a little less than that. This is maybe my fourth or fifth separate stretch of spending a couple weeks or more in Vancouver in that time. I have a short-term apartment rental here. I’m mostly just hanging out at home playing online. It’s more or less like being at home and going about my job as I normally would, except that where home is keeps changing every couple months.”

The vagabond life that he and his wife have enjoyed over the last couple of years is one that many would be jealous of, but living out a constant cycle of suitcases, moving boxes and storage units could get old for even the most adventurous travelers. As they enter their late 20s, the appeal of more stability is undeniable.

“I think I would like to settle down a little bit more relative to how I’ve been doing things sometime in the future pretty soon. I think my wife would definitely prefer that a little bit,” said Haxton. “The travel’s starting to wear on her a little.”

For the moment, Haxton’s focus is on the high stakes cash games going off on PokerStars and Full Tilt. While No Limit Hold’em has been his bread and butter throughout his online career, taking him to the biggest games imaginable, Haxton has had a different game in mind of late.

Isaac Haxton“This year, the main thing I’ve been playing — most of my volume by a pretty wide margin ahead of everything else — is $25/$50 and $50/$100 Zoom PLO,” said Haxton. “Those games have actually been running quite consistently, more or less, all the time this year. They were slow during World Series and have picked back up since, but they were running most reliably and the games were softest during SCOOP so far this year — and I’m optimistic that WCOOP will be similar.”

The three weeks of WCOOP action kicks off in early September and runs throughout the month, with $40 million in guaranteed prizepools. Haxton might take his fair share of shots at WCOOP titles, with three $10,000 events and a $10 million guaranteed, $5,000 buy-in Main Event on the schedule, but the players the series attracts are of more consequence.

“People win tournaments, they have a bunch of money in their account, and they decide to play some cash games,” said Haxton of looking forward to WCOOP. “More often than not, the people who have just won a No Limit tournament are not really strong PLO players,” laughed Haxton.

Online poker tends to take up a substantial chunk of Haxton’s time, but when he’s not setting out to pulverize the highest stakes poker has to offer he’s able to enjoy the fruits of his labor during his downtime. During a recent trip to LA, Haxton appeared on the Joe Rogan Experience, a popular podcast hosted by the voice of the UFC that’s featured some of the most prolific comedians and brightest minds the world has to offer.

Though Haxton has a certain level of notoriety and status due to his success, the arrangement came together thanks in part to a fellow Team PokerStars pro and a random interloper.

“I was arguing with Daniel Negreanu on Twitter about TV poker and the direction it should take to continue being successful and renew its success,” said Haxton, “Between becoming more technical, more concerned with the actual play of the game and strategy in terms of the commentary and the editing versus going to more of a model of light entertainment, focused on the personalities around the game rather than the game itself.”

“I was saying TV poker can be entertaining and engaging and still about the poker more than about the personalities,” said Haxton, “And that I think that is the more natural direction to go in the future, if you want to establish a lasting audience of real poker fans.”

Haxton’s example of an ideal blend of these elements was Rogan, who combines his vast knowledge of MMA with a charisma honed as a comedian and actor.

“I said I think Joe Rogan’s UFC commentary is a perfect example of how that sort of thing should be done,” said Haxton, “Because he just does a spectacular job of really explaining the complicated technical stuff that’s going on with jiu-jitsu and stand-up and all the various elements of the game that are not necessarily all that clear to a casual observer. And at the same time, he’s really engaging and fun and funny and puts together an entertaining show.”

“I tagged him in a Tweet and somebody on Twitter who was watching this conversation asked, ‘Hey, Joe, when is Ike going to come on the podcast?’, and Joe responded, ‘Let’s do it.’ So, it just materialized out of nowhere based on an interaction on Twitter.”

This all happened in a flash in mid-February, but for nearly six months there was little word on actually making it happen. With a trip to LA on the horizon, Haxton reached out to see whether Rogan was still up for having him and Rogan essentially booked it on the spot.

“It came together kind of so effortlessly and easily that I couldn’t believe it as it was happening. It was a little surreal to just be getting directions from the studio and show up, and Joe Rogan walks in, and off we go.”

What followed was three hours of highly entertaining conversation, talking in-depth about various poker topics, including tournament chops, the state of the online game, risk management and even cognitive enhancers — supplements designed to improve focus, attention span and energy. The conversation diverged numerous times, though, and Haxton held his own on a wide range of other topics that touched on everything from divorce to drug legality.

“Yeah, that’s the thing I like about Joe — he gets people talking about everything,” said Haxton. “The podcast is so long and unfocused, and I don’t mean unfocused in a negative way at all. You really get to know the guests. I think he’s really good at facilitating that sort of relaxed conversation, and the three-hour format is really good for it as well. So, yeah. It was a lot of fun to just shoot the shit with him for three hours. He has an incredible energy — it takes a really special talent to keep something like that driving forward for three hours.”

Sitting in that studio, Haxton was a long way from where he’d been even five years prior. While he had already made his mark in the online realm, and broken through with a massive live score at the 2007 PCA with a second-place finish in the Main Event, one tournament in particular stands out in having made Haxton a more household name for poker fans.

Isaac Haxton

As Isaac’s father Brooks Haxton documents in detail in “Fading Hearts on the River,” released earlier this year, the $40,000 No Limit Hold’em event held at the 2009 WSOP was incredibly significant for Isaac. It also helped to build a growing wave of support for High Roller tournaments throughout the world.

“Yeah, that was an impressive turnout for a buy-in that size at [that] time,” said Haxton It got over 200 players if I remember right, or maybe just under. I think that had to be the highest buy-in tournament I had played to date at that time. I had played a £20K tournament in London in 2008, which given the exchange rate then was very near $40K USD. But yeah, I think that was the highest stakes tournament I had ever played at the time.”

Haxton would ultimately go on to finish second in that tournament for $1,168,566 — his first seven-figure tournament payday. His epic heads-up match plays out in vivid detail in his father’s book, and Haxton’s poker career hasn’t shown much sign of slowing down since.

“It’s hard to say if I would have been less enthusiastic about playing live tournaments if I hadn’t had as much early success as I did,” said Haxton. “I might have focused on online more exclusively — I clearly got lucky in the first couple years of my live tournament career [and] made a greater-than-expected number of big final tables and big scores for a good player playing two years of live tournaments.”

“I think I probably would have wound up playing a lot of the high stakes live tournaments one way or another regardless,” said Haxton. “I was playing high stakes cash games online at the time, as well. It wasn’t totally outside my normal stakes and normal game selection to be playing something that big.”

The buy-ins have only gotten bigger, and Haxton’s been there for nearly every step along the way. One of the only places Haxton hadn’t had success before 2014 was at the Aussie Millions, where the A$100,000 Challenge at the Aussie Millions stood as one of the forebears to the recent trend of High Rollers starting with a single-table event back in 2006.

That changed in January, when Haxton headed down to Melbourne to play the three High Rollers being offered at the Crown Casino. It started off ugly as Haxton fired six times and airballed the $100,000 Challenge, and the $250,000 started poorly too as Haxton was eliminated and re-entered, pushing his buy-ins for the week to over $1 million.

It all ended well enough, though, as Haxton took second against Phil Ivey and pocketed over $2.5 million in the process. The crazy number of re-entries by a number of players helped swell the prizepools for those two events to record highs, and Haxton is bullish on the current state of the ultra-high stakes tournament scene.

“I think the high roller tournament economy is quite healthy, said Haxton. “When the frequency of $100K’s started picking up a couple years ago, a lot of people expressed a concern that all the pros were going to go broke playing higher stakes than they could afford. That has certainly not come to pass — it seems to me that all of the pros have gotten rich playing in very high stakes tournaments where they have a big edge. As long as the tournaments keep attracting a handful of amateur players who are excited to compete against the best tournament players in the world and don’t mind taking a little bit the worst of it for the opportunity, that the tournaments will continue running and the pros will continue making lots of money. I think that the tournaments are great for the game.”

“There have been a lot of plans over the years to organize some sort of all-star poker tournaments, where you have to qualify or be invited in order to have a small field of recognizable faces that makes for good TV entertainment. I think the high roller tournaments do that in a less artificial way. You just slap a very high buy-in on an event and you naturally get, mostly, the very best players in the world — the same people over and over again. I think that they produce very good poker entertainment, and I don’t see any reason they ought to slow down or run into any difficulty.”

“Fading Hearts on the River” by Brooks Haxton is available now in Hardcover and on Kindle.

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September 2014